Special education teachers and aides work long hours, at low rates and in some of the most volatile educational environments. Not surprisingly, turnover is high.
Last year, more than a dozen special education aides in the Payson Unified School District left.
It is not easy being punched, slapped and cursed at daily, said Barbara Fitzgerald, director of special services with the district.
“We have turnover for people that are looking for an easy job and it is not an easy job,” she said. “It is easier to work for McDonalds than work for the school district.”
Case in point: On Monday, a 13-year-old student enrolled in the district’s Payson Alternative Resource Center (PARC), a classroom for students with emotional disabilities, hit a teacher several times, leaving the teacher with a bloody lip, according to police.
Officers arrested the teen for aggravated assault and later released him to his parents, said Police Chief Don Engler.
The teacher had reportedly been having trouble with the student for some time, putting him in time out earlier. Last week, officers had also dealt with the student for disruptive behavior.
This time, when the teacher tried to calm the student down, he struck the teacher twice in the stomach and once in the face, Engler said.
The student is one of 10 enrolled in PARC.
PARC students have various emotional issues, ranging from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder and other syndromes.
The state defines them as those with an inability to establish and maintain relationships that typical people might have, Fitzgerald said. Their reactions are extreme and their behavior can be over the top.
This is the second year for PARC The district established it after a number of students got kicked off campus for their behavior.
“We had to do something with them,” she said.
The state mandates the district have at least eight students that qualify for the program before it provides funding.
Last year, the program was held in the old Payson Center for Success building south of the high school off South McLane Road.
“The building was so isolated it was not a good place,” Fitzgerald said.
This year, PARC is at the Rim Country Middle School.
The center has its own classroom and dedicated staff, including a teacher, aide and counselor.
Most of the students in PARC could not attend school otherwise.
“They get into trouble,” she said. “They are the kind of kids that are not just disruptive, but potentially a significant threat in a large environment where they can’t be addressed.”
The students function better in a smaller setting where they can get individual attention. Teachers are trained to teach appropriate behaviors and coping strategies.
Still, the school is not a psychiatric facility, she said.
“Our purpose is education and until the state takes some responsibility for mental health issues, schools have to deal with it.”
In Payson, a disproportionately high number of special education students are classified as “low incidence,” having significant vision or hearing issues, developmental delay, autism, physical or multiple disabilities.
Ironically, they are known as low incidence because normally the rate of occurrence is small.
“For whatever reason, we have a significantly higher population of low incidence disabilities than you would expect for this size school district and this population.”
Recently, officials have seen a number of students enter the school district that survived methamphetamine in the womb.
“Those kids, the biochemical balance in their bodies, they look perfectly typical, like any six- or seven-year-old might look to you, but the biochemical imbalance is so extreme that if you were watching the levels in their brains throughout the day you would be seeing these kinds of spikes,” she said. “They don’t know how to handle that, how to respond,” she said.”
Because they can’t manage their emotions, they often lash out.
Teachers and aides are trained to diffuse these situations, but sometimes it doesn’t work, she said.
Fitzgerald said she remembers an incident when she was a first-grade teacher. A second-grader, with a significant neurological chemical imbalance, picked up a chair and pushed it.
“The teacher said something close enough to him that he picked up the desk and threw it at her.”
Sometimes, the best thing for a teacher to do is back away.
“We try to teach our teachers to not move forward, don’t approach them, the idea is to get the rest of the class out of an environment that is incendiary like that.”
Because students progress at their own rate, those in PARC have varying levels of involvement with the rest of the student body.
As students demonstrate good behavior, they are rewarded with the opportunity to interact more.
“Our goal for our students is to help them understand themselves so they can recognize as young adults their own triggers and learn a socially acceptable way to address them.”