Stretched too thin in Special Education
Willie Murray has a gift for calming children down—and he puts it to good use every day as a Special Education Assistant at 99th Street Elementary School in Watts. Willie has worked for the District for 26 years.
“I first took the job because the hours allowed me to take care of my kids as a single dad,” says Willie. “But I ended up loving the work. I especially like working with the kids who are really hurting inside. Maybe they’re trying to act tough. Maybe they don’t want to let on that they’re smart. Maybe they’re angry all the time. I take the time to ask ‘What’s going on with you today?’ and that makes the difference.”
Willie figures he got his ability to connect with children because of his own life experiences.
“I had a lot of tragedy in my life. I lost my little brother in ’81—killed in the streets,” he says. “That just about killed my mom. She was a single mom, raising us in the projects. I ended up putting all my energy into my own kids and the kids I help at school. I want to make a difference.”
Sometimes, though, he notices that he’s simply stretched too thin to make the kind of impact he’d like to. The staffing shortage in Special Ed classrooms makes it tough.
“A lot of the children I work with would be doing better with more attention,” says Willie. “And staffing issues caused by the BII program (Behavior Intervention Implementation) don’t help.”
It’s not that Special Education Assistants like Willie are stretched thin as they cover children’s toileting or academic needs that the BIIs don’t fulfill—although that happens. It’s not that they must take over with the BIIs’ children when it’s time to ride the bus home—although that happens. It’s not that District employees are moved from classroom to classroom because the BII program disrupts the staff-to-student ratios—although that happens. It’s not that District employees are sometimes prevented from taking breaks as they cover for BIIs—although that often happens, too.
“Here’s the real problem: because we step in to fulfill needs that the BII job description doesn’t cover, we have to develop and maintain relationships with all the children. It’s too much. Every single child needs to know and trust us just as much as the students under our direct care. Because really, they’re all our students. We can never disengage with the children in the BII program. We have to always be ready to step in and help with that student. If BIIs’ students are part of a group working on a classroom project, then I’m working closely with all of those children. On the playground, I have to help all the students get along with all the other kids. Like I said, we’re just stretched too thin,” says Willie.
BII staffing creates other issues, as well. The other day, for example, Willie was asked to assist with a little girl who was acting out in class, running and not following instructions. These requests create confusion and conflict for Willie. Technically, he’s not supposed to be providing this kind of direction for this little girl.
“For one thing, the parents don’t want us to. They’ve specifically asked for a BII. I don’t know the parents’ instructions. I don’t know what kind of behavior strategies her BII is working on. I don’t know that child’s IEP,” says Willie, referencing the girl’s Individualized Education Program. “I was able to quickly calm the child down. She responds to me. But I feel uncomfortable that I’m being asked to do something that’s not really part of the program.”
Ideally, Willie would like to see the district invest more in the care and education of children with special needs.
“I think a lot of parents are requesting the BIIs because there aren’t enough District employees to provide the kind of careful attention that each child needs,” he says.