Schools across Minnesota with soaring numbers of students who have serious behavioral or emotional problems are facing a growing predicament: They cannot find or keep enough teachers qualified and willing to educate them.

The number of special education students in the state has increased by 10 percent in the last five years, and many of them have acute conditions that were once addressed outside of classroom settings. But as schools scramble to meet their needs, the number of licensed special education teachers in Minnesota is in sharp decline, dropping by almost 10 percent over the same time frame.

Teachers say working with special education students is becoming more difficult and dangerous. Many of those students are bringing more severe problems to already crowded classrooms that lack support staff. Others are prone to violent outbursts that are injuring or frightening teachers.

“Some of our teachers are leaving after a couple of months,” said Mary Roffers, who teaches disabled children at Hiawatha Elementary School in Minneapolis and has been bitten, punched and pushed by students. “They just can’t do it.”

More than 800 of the state’s 8,900 licensed special education teachers quit during the most recent school year the state tracked. Meanwhile, it granted just 417 new licenses for special ed teachers, the fewest in at least five years.

The shortage is a national problem, but it is an especially urgent issue in Minnesota, which has one of the fastest-growing special education populations in the country.

That’s creating a quandary for schools around the state, which are required by law to educate students no matter what their special needs are.

Some schools are relying more on teachers who are not properly trained to work with such students. Others are taking extraordinary steps to connect special ed students with teachers who are specialists.

In some parts of Minnesota, special education teachers are driving hundreds of miles a week to serve students at schools with no one on staff who can help them. One psychologist logged 22,000 miles between schools this academic year. Other schools have no better option than to have specialists work with students over the Internet, rarely meeting them in person.

New state requirements for teachers who work with students who have autism, a population that has jumped fivefold in Minnesota over the last decade, are expected to make the shortage even worse.

“These are some of the hardest jobs in teaching, ” said St. Paul attorney Amy Goetz, who has built a law practice fighting on behalf of special ed students. “They should be some of the most well-supported people, but they’re not. … Instead, we starve them of resources and they burn out.”

A tipping point

On a recent Friday evening, about 50 special education workers in Minneapolis gathered for a session titled “What’s Working and What’s Not” in special education.

As they crowded a conference room holding paper plates of pizza, union leader Lynn Nordgren pleaded for civility. “We are not here to disparage special education,” she said, as some laughed at the suggestion. “We have to make this a profession you love again.”

Nordgren quickly got to the heart of their concerns. “How many of you have a low caseload?” she asked.

No one raised a hand. One teacher said she has 27 kids in her classroom, when “we are supposed to have 18 to 23.” Another complained of spending 40 hours a week on paperwork.

“I only teach four hours a day,” said a special education teacher from Southwest High School. “I spend more time on a student’s paperwork than I ever do sitting down and helping them with their math.”

State and federal law requires teams of teachers to evaluate special ed students, develop a plan to educate them, then fill out progress, incident and compliance reports.

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.

“When we are short-staffed, the kids are not going to be safe,” Roffers, the Hiawatha teacher, said to applause. “We are expected to take being beaten on and hit and spit on and have poop thrown at us. … And you know, when we bring this up, it’s like, ‘Well that’s part of the job.’ When do we say, ‘It really isn’t part of our job?’ ”

That fear and frustration appear to be scaring aspiring teachers away from the field of special education. At the Minnesota colleges that train teachers, the number getting licensed in special ed has fallen 14 percent in the past five years.

“A lot of them hear the stories about teachers getting injured, about the burnout factor, and they become hesitant to pursue a career as a special education teacher,” said Rachel Endo, chair of Hamline University’s teacher education department.

Meanwhile, special ed teachers are quitting faster than their peers in regular classrooms. Across the country 269,800 teachers left the profession in 2008, according to the most recent federal data; 18 percent of them taught special education, the highest percentage of departures from any subject area.

Making do

With a click of a button, Ethan Larson comes into view on Deb Moorse’s computer screen. Today, the blonde boy with a subtle lisp is working on his S’s with Moorse, a speech and language pathologist.

“The pencil was with the whistle in the dresser that the dinosaur ate!” he giggles into a headset.

“I like the way you put your tongue behind your teeth, Ethan,” Moorse says as she enlarges his face on her screen.

Teacher and student are separated by almost 90 miles — Larson is in Walnut Grove while Moorse works from an office in Benson Junior High.

The Southwest/West Central Service Co-op, which employs Moorse, serves 18 counties over 12,500 square miles in the southwest corner of the state.

Without virtual teaching “kids would go without services because there just aren’t enough people in our area to provide them,” said Mary Palmer, the co-op’s special ed director. About 100 students work with speech therapists online.

Kayla DeJong is one of dozens of traveling specialists who work for the co-op. The school psychologist logs about 1,200 miles a month on her Honda Civic, switching to an SUV in winter.

“There are some days in the winter when the roads can be pretty dicey,” DeJong said of her commutes, which include a 104-mile round-trip drive twice a week to work with students in Slayton.

Rural schools, if they’re lucky, might receive one or two candidates for the state’s toughest positions to fill: speech pathologists, psychologists and teachers for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students.

“That’s not a very deep talent pool,” said Benson Superintendent Lee Westrum.

Schools often turn to the Minnesota Department of Education for so-called variances that allow teachers who aren’t licensed to work with certain disabilities to teach those students. Almost one in 10 special ed teachers has a variance and special ed accounted for 40 percent of the variances granted last year.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius defended the variances, noting they generally go to licensed teachers who simply don’t have the right license for the students they are teaching that year.

“It’s not like you have an unlicensed person in the classroom typically,” she said.

Kim Hymes, a director at the Council for Exceptional Children, which is based in Washington, D.C., and advocates for kids with special needs, said many states are responding to shortages by allowing teachers to work with students they are not trained to instruct. “It’s a huge concern for us,’’ she said.

Goetz, the attorney who has represented hundreds of families with disabled children, said schools should not allow teachers to work in special ed without proper training. “It is a substandard practice.”

Parents often don’t know if their child’s teacher has the proper license for their disability. They wind up filing complaints with the state when they can’t get services they need.

Some of the investigations into incidents of untrained teachers working with disabled students found:

• In 2010, state regulators cited St. Paul Public Schools for failing to provide proper instruction to an 11-year-old boy with an emotional behavior disorder (EBD) that left him extremely anxious. His school had no teachers licensed to work with EBD students.

• An 18-year-old disabled boy was injured in 2012 when he was left alone in a lab with four other disabled students and a teacher’s assistant at his Spring Lake Park school.

• In Prior Lake, state regulators faulted district officials for removing a 12-year-old boy with autism from his school and putting him in a program with no other students and no licensed teachers. He was taught by a social worker.

Problem to get worse

Charlene Briner, the education department’s chief of staff, said most of the department’s initiatives to reduce paperwork have eased administrative burdens but haven’t helped classroom teachers.

“That’s the big kahuna,” Briner said of reducing teacher caseloads. “When teachers are able to spend more time with their students, that’s when we’ll see substantial improvement.”

She and department officials are hopeful that legislation calling for a statewide task force to examine limits on paperwork and workloads could offer relief.

Meanwhile new state licensing requirements for teachers who work with autistic students are fueling more staffing concerns.

The requirements — up to 34 college credits for new teachers — are a much-needed recognition that students with autism have unique learning needs, advocates say. “For parents, there’s this constant pressure to find teachers who understand autism,” said Nora Slawik, director of education for the Autism Society of Minnesota. It is “a very good step in educating kids with autism.”

Under the new rules, set to go in effect in 2015, all students with autism — 15,378 last year — will need at least one autism teacher to help craft their individual learning plan.

Many schools aren’t sure how they’re going to meet the requirements. Mary Clarkson, special education director for Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest school district, said she expects some schools may seek waivers because of how difficult it will be to find teachers with the new licenses, given the current shortage.

“It’s going to pose some significant challenges for us.” • 612-673-4469 • 612-673-4132

Series questions:

1. What do you think of the quality of special education services in Minnesota? Please post your comment here.

2. Given the significant needs of many disabled students, should the state allow teachers without proper licenses to teach them? Please post your comment here.