Training vital for those working with vulnerable children

Lesley Toth
Lesley Toth

In early April, a Princeton North Elementary School paraprofessional was charged with malicious punishment of a child for allegedly dragging a noncompliant special education student into a classroom. Just this past Sunday, the Star Tribune published a scathing article about horrifying incidents in state schools concerning emotionally or developmentally impaired students (“Disabled students face dangerous discipline in Minnesota,” Sunday, April 28).

If true, the incident in Princeton is alarming, especially to those of us with loved ones with “differ-abilities.” And I’m sure the documents acquired by the Tribune that indicated that 2,500 special education students were placed in physical holds or otherwise restrained 22,000 times last year are accurate. But it doesn’t tell the entire story.

First, the article was rife with implications that placing a special education student in a physical hold or isolating them from other students and staff is a form of punishment. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

From my experience in working at a foster care home for children and as a paraprofessional, and through my many contacts with paras and special education teachers both personally and professionally, I know that children are rarely, if ever, restrained in these institutions as a consequence for poor behavior.

Rather, sometimes children with cognitive or emotional problems need to be restrained to protect themselves, their adult caretakers and/or other children. Placing them in a physical hold or removing them from the proximity of others is a last resort (after de-escalation methods have been tried and failed) to prevent the child from injuring themselves or others.

The problem arises when paraprofessionals or other caretakers haven’t been properly trained — and in some cases, the training is nonexistent.

Often times, these employees are hired to be with the children starting on day 1, but they may not receive training on how to properly react to a child’s physical outbursts for several months. In my former position, it was a long, hard, frustrating six months of having my hair pulled so hard it separated from my scalp, getting scratched, punched, kicked, bitten or stabbed and chased into corners to hide behind other children because, legally, I could not protect myself and restrain a child from attacking me.

Fortunately for me, I did not act upon my survival instincts, which at best would have cost me my job and at worst I could have faced legal charges. I know some may think, “But, they’re just kids! How much damage could they really inflict?” It doesn’t matter how big and tough you think you are — a burly 9-year-old with severe attachment disorder can take you down. The saddest part of it all? She may do so because she likes you so much and she can’t control how angry she becomes when your shift ends.

There is no justification for an adult to lose their cool and mistreat a child — no matter the circumstances. So what do we do about it?

For starters, the vital training for paraprofessionals and caretakers, such as foster home employees, should be completed before they are expected to work with children — not in a piecemeal fashion stretched out over the course of an entire year. Some school districts require paraprofessionals to have two-year degrees, but does that associate’s degree in web design really translate into skills needed to work with our most vulnerable student populations? Requiring more specific educational credentials would go a long way toward ensuring both students and those who care for them are in safe, learning-centered environments.

Second, the wages paid for these positions are pitiful. If we agree that those serving in these important roles need proper training and skills to avoid incidents such as the one that allegedly took place in Princeton, we need to be prepared to compensate them. Expecting mostly unprepared, overwhelmed and overworked staff to earn $9 or $10 an hour and face the risk of being physically attacked on a weekly basis is absurd. With that job description, it’s no surprise why qualified folks aren’t lining up for blocks to submit their resumes.

With proper training and adequate wages, parents of children with severe cognitive or emotional disabilities would no longer have to fear sending their kids to public schools — and the saints who care for these children would no longer have to fear showing up for work.