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Continued: Teacher shortage shortchanges disabled students

Some teachers say paperwork, which goes beyond federal requirements and has increased as teachers get more students with more difficulties, forces them to work 70-hour weeks.

Advocates for disabled students say paperwork may be monotonous, but it is necessary.

“No paperwork means no accountability,” said Virginia Richardson, parent liaison for PACER, a national advocate for disabled students based in the Twin Cities.

Susan Montgomery whose 8-year-old son, Taye, has autism and was enrolled in special ed programs in Minneapolis until he was suspended in April, said his teachers often had too many kids in class so were unable to provide students the attention they needed.

“They are not always given the tools and skills and support to do the job they need to do,” she said.

Dangerous classrooms

The frayed and yellowing photo shows a group of elementary school students, most of whom have Down syndrome. Their first-year teacher is young, pretty and smiling.

Decades later, the teacher in the photo is still recognizable, her blonde hair now streaked with gray. She laughs as she tells of a former student who still calls her on the phone ­— a skill she taught him as child.

“These were my kids,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “My kids. And I loved each and every one of them like they were my own.”

But over time, the makeup of her students changed. She once taught mostly students with cognitive or physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy and mental disabilities.

Then, more recently, many students arriving in her classroom either had mental health problems or extreme emotional and behavioral problems that could lead to sudden, violent outbursts.

She started to dread going to school each day.

During the last four years of her career, she documented 4,200 injuries to her and five other staff members by two boys. One frequently grabbed the breasts of female staffers, she said, and was fixated with trying to poke their eyes.

She pulls photos of the injuries — bite marks and bruises — from a folder that contains incident reports, medical records and workers’ compensation claims.

“Friends would ask, ‘Why don’t you leave?’ ” said the former teacher, who requested anonymity for fear of indirectly identifying the students. “But for me, it just wasn’t an option. That school was my home. Looking back, I realize I sounded a lot like a battered woman. I was a battered woman.”

The Minnesota Education Department doesn’t track injuries to teachers or other special education workers. But administrators across the state say staff members are going home with more scratches, bites and broken bones than they did in the past, and they blame the spike on the increasing aggressiveness of disabled students.

In the Twin Cities, a total of 635 injuries were reported in 2012 by workers at three intermediate school districts that provide services to disabled children with the most intense needs, up 17 percent from 2011, based on records provided to the Star Tribune by the districts. In the past five years, injuries at one district tripled.

At the union meeting, safety was a top concern.

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