TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Incidental contact and outbursts from exceptional education students are the cause of many of the 300-plus assaults on teachers in southern Arizona’s largest school district, according to administrators.
Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said the district doesn’t have “assaults in the movie sense of the word."
Records show hundreds of reports were filed over a two-year stretch. The most occurred at Doolen Middle, Henry Elementary and Vail Middle with 23, 26 and 43 assaults respectively.
Trujillo said Doolen and Vail have some of the largest special education populations in the district. He thinks opening more self-contained classrooms at other schools could help the matter.
In the meantime, TUSD operates a program for students of all grade levels, who are unable to succeed in traditional classrooms and self-contained ones as well.
In other districts, those students could end up in programs outside of their school district, but TUSD keeps them within their system at Mary Meredith K-12.
"A lot of our students have had a long road to get here," said Principal Dr. Sabrina Salmon. "They've had some very negative experiences in the educational environment and so my goal is make them feel supported and welcome and safe here."
Salmon joins the support staff at Meredith every morning to greet roughly 50 current students. The warm welcome is an opportunity for staff to assess everyone's mood at the beginning of each school day.
"Behavior is a form of communication," said Salmon. "So whatever form of behavior students are exhibiting, that's a way of them telling us that there's something different that they need or maybe there's a different approach we could try tomorrow."
The overall approach at Meredith is different than most schools.
Students can take breaks during a lesson. They can calm down in a sensory room or request some one-on-one time with a preferred staff member.
The ultimate goal is to return these students to traditional classrooms or prepare them for employment after graduation.
Meredith is proof that TUSD doesn’t give up on its students, according to Director of Exceptional Education Maura Clark-Ingle.
"Students who have an emotional disability really struggle 10 times more than another student, and so really it's the process of learning how to handle internal impulses and what to do with them and not externalize everything," she said.
An external outburst can lead to a physical altercation, whether it’s students hurting themselves, each other or a staff member.
Educators are rarely assaulted at Meredith, according to district statistics. It’s happened just three times in two years.
Every classroom has two intervention specialists, which makes for a staff-student ratio of 1:4 in the classroom. The statewide average is closer to 1:20, prompting some parents to contact Salmon in search of enrollment paperwork for their own children.
"Our students have to fail in order to get qualified for special education," she said.
Students arrive at Mary Meredith K-12 after every other attempt to keep them in traditional classrooms has failed and been documented.
Parents and guardians are involved in the transition process to make sure everyone is aware of expectations and the resources available to the students, Salmon said.
She said stigma can be an issue for students when they leave Meredith. Some in the community might have the wrong idea of what happens at the school and how much care is given to the students enrolled there.
Salmon said staff go through teasing scenarios with students to make sure they remain calm in the face of ignorance and prejudice.
“We always want our students to remember ‘your yesterday doesn’t have to be your tomorrow and today is an opportunity to make a difference and change your past so that you have a more positive future,'" she said.