Sunday November 19, 2017

'I've been punched, kicked and bitten by my students': educational assistant

(Shutterstock/Syda Productions)

Listen 6:39

Over her 20 years as an educational assistant, Bonnie Dineen has been punched, kicked and bitten by her students. To this day, she jumps when someone comes up unexpectedly behind her.

"I am just so geared to think that something is going to happen.… That takes a real toll on you over the years. I remember my own kids saying: 'Mommy, don't go to work today because I don't want you to come home hurt.'"

During our discussion this week on violence against educators, Dineen called to share her experiences with violence in the classroom. She says part of the solution to the growing problem is ensuring educators receive adequate background information on their students.

"When I come into a classroom on the first day in September, I have no idea what I may be coming into. There's nothing in advance; I have no paperwork to look at.… I don't know that Johnny is going to bite me and Mary is sensitive to noise and Abdul is going to run out of the classroom and into the street."

Listen to Dineen's full interview with Checkup host Duncan McCue above or read a shortened transcript below.


Duncan McCue: What do you think of this issue?

Bonnie Dineen: I'm calling to talk about what happens with educational assistants in classrooms — who support teachers and work with kids with special needs diagnoses. I'm no longer in the classroom, but over my 20 years of work, I found that there's very little pre-work done for kids with special needs. For example, if you have a student who has sensitivity to a loud noise, they can often be placed with kids who have very loud vocalizations all day long. This often causes our kids to react aggressively to the sounds they are hearing because they cannot escape them.

Over the years, I have been punched and kicked and bitten. I had a co-worker who had her jaw broken. I had a co-worker who was thrown across a corridor. The kids we work with can be stronger and larger than us.

DM: Can you tell us about how one of these violent incidents played out?

BD: Certainly. I was once working with a class of six high-needs children, with autism and developmental delays and possibly some undiagnosed mental health concerns. And we had one little guy who was super sensitive to everything; he did not like to be touched or loud noises. So whenever there were loud noises, he would pinch me or bite me. Some of the kids would pick up objects in the class and hit us with them.

'You spend the whole day anticipating the next assault.'

This is not the fault of the kids. It's the fault of the system that doesn't provide them with what they need to do well at school. Many of these kids are not going to graduate high school, they're not, but they do deserve an education. They deserve to learn as much as they can possibly learn in the time they're with us.

Teacher still haunted by student's attack2:03

DM: You say it's a problem with the system — we have very much moved to integrated classes that allow children with behaviour or mental challenges to learn in mainstream classrooms. Are we failing in the way that we're tackling this approach to inclusive learning?

BD: I think we're failing some of those kids. Some of those kids will not be able to interact with their peers and their peers don't understand them, so their peers don't want to interact with them either. They end up being isolated in the classroom and don't end up participating in the same way as other students.

There are lots of kids who, if they are integrated with the right supports, will do very well in that environment. Sadly, what I've discovered is that there's very little information sharing. So when I come into a classroom on the first day of September, I have no idea what I may be coming into. There's nothing in advance, I have no paperwork to look at. I have nothing.

'I don't know that Johnny is going to bite me and Mary is sensitive to noise and Abdul is going to run out of the classroom and into the street. I know none of those things.'

DM: What kind of access should there be to student information? And why aren't you getting that kind of information?

BD: There should be, at least in the board that I work in, a safety plan that details all the concerns that might cause a child to act in an aggressive or dangerous manner. Sometimes those are in place, sometimes they're not, but we don't get access to them before we actually get there and starting working with the child. I could walk in and say in a very loud voice: 'Good morning and how are you!' and cause a child to have a meltdown because my voice was too loud or I was too close when I said it.

Durham protective gear

A teacher with Durham District School Board wearing protective gear with Kevlar inserts that helps prevent injuries if a violent incident occurs at the school. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

DM: You're talking about always having to be on attention waiting for this kind of behaviour to erupt — what kind of impact did it have on you as an educational assistant?

BD: What I found and this still happens to me, when someone comes up unexpectedly or quietly behind me and makes a sound, I actually jump about three feet and sometimes I actually shout. I am just so geared to think that something is going to happen. That takes a real toll on you over the years. I remember my own kids saying: 'Mommy, don't go to work today because I don't want you to come home hurt.' That affected my whole family.

DM: Did you ever miss work?

BD: Very seldom. — and I'll tell you the reason for that is that we were so short-staffed and we had so few people who could replace us that both me and the teacher in the class would drag ourselves in sick and injured because we felt it was better than having nobody there. I truly felt that there was a possibility that I would come back to find that somebody had been so seriously hurt that they were unable to work.

All comments have been edited and condensed. To listen to the full interview, click on the audio link above. This online segment was prepared by Ilina Ghosh.