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Paraeducators File Safety Complaint Over Hazardous Working Conditions

Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) paraeducators, the people who work with the county’s most physically and developmentally disabled students, have filed a complaint with Cal/OSHA over what they say is dangerous understaffing that puts workers and students at risk for injuries, abuse and violence.

On Nov. 15, SEIU Local 521, representing these workers, rallied in San Jose to draw attention to the paraeducators’ plight. The rally drew over 100 workers and parents, as well as local leaders San Jose City Council Member Omar Torres and SCCOE board members Reena Lari and Tara Sreekrishnan.

The paraeducators allege that the county “failed to establish, implement and maintain” an effective workplace violence prevention program…in the workplace.” [cal osha letter 11-22]They say staffing has fallen to dangerous levels and the consequences are horrific for staff and students alike.

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Parent Andrea Hightower described what has happened to her daughter as a result of classroom under-staffing.

“She has smeared feces all over herself, she has been found licking Rusty screws and drinking liquid paper,” said Hightower. “Our children deserve better.”

Paraeducator trainer Delia Klein has had to put training sessions on the back burner to substitute in classrooms.

“We were short-staffed one to three people, on average 11 days out of each month,” said Klein.

She described what happened while she was working with a student in a separate room and was called to help a coworker in changing another student’s disposable briefs.

“My student was angry because he wanted to stay in the sensory room longer, and he bit my arm and another student’s arm,” said Klein. “The other student’s arm was black with teeth marks, and part of the skin was bitten off.

Klein says she documented this and other episodes to get additional help for the student.

“But we never received it,” she said. “The data we recorded for the whole year was accidentally thrown away.”

Cal/OSHA is investigating the complaint, and the county is required to respond to OSHA within two weeks. In the meantime, the county is required to post it in county schools until the complaints are resolved.

Before filing the complaint, the union filed a grievance with the SCCOE; which dismissed it.

“Based on the information shared by you during the informal grievance process, we have found that there is no violation,” wrote County Director of Special Education Jennifer Ann. “Staff are not asked to perform tasks that endanger their health or safety.”

Paraeducators do some of the most difficult work in education, yet are among the lowest paid, making on average $23 an hour.

A paraeducator’s day begins by helping students get off the bus or out of the car, explains occupational therapist and SEIU Local 521 Chapter President Sarah Gianocaro.

During the day they will take the students to the toilet — including changing disposable undergarments — feed children, work with them on individual academic assignments and manage behavioral problems.

“If you have 10 kids in your class, and 3 of them are escalating at the same time, you’re going to miss the signs of escalation in the other 7 kids,” explained Gianocaro. “And that’s how we miss things. It’s not because staff are not paying attention. It’s because they are just not capable of identifying the needs of 10 students at the same time.”

Paraeducators also faced higher risk from COVID.

“Many of our children cannot wear masks, so most of us got COVID,” said Paraeducator Henry Munoz.

Workers’ sense of grievance was heightened this year when the SCCOE board boosted Superintendent Mary Dewan’s salary to nearly $400,000. Dewan’s $30,000 raise is almost what a paraeducator makes in a year. Many paraeducators often need two jobs to make ends meet, according to SEIU Local 521 Communications Specialist Ian Newman.

The County Office of Education declined to comment for this article, saying only that they were in labor negotiations.

“We highly value all of our employees and will continue to bargain in good faith,” said SCCOE Public Information Officer Kelly Wylie.

Two Paraeducators Keep it in the Family

Brother and sister Henry and Christina Munoz both work in the county as paraeducators, Henry at Santa Clara’s Buchser Middle School and Christina at San Jose’s Hester Elementary School.

The two bring truly first-hand experience to their work, having both been in special education in San José. So they know the shortcomings of the special ed system firsthand. At the same time, they’re both evidence of its success.

Christina, a graduate of Santa Clara University, is completing a master’s in education at San Jose State and plans to go on for a Ph.D. Henry, an avid reader who read the Odyssey at age 11, is also a playwright and his play Dear Kitty… Querida Ana… was performed at Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA) in San José last September.

“We bring a different perspective to this work,” said Christina. “We have been in special ed; we work with these students every day. It’s a labor of love.”

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