Rutland Schools Administrators Retaliate
Rutland School Administrators Retaliated Against Educators Instead of Working to Stem Student-on-Staff Attacks
Union files unfair labor practice charge
RUTLAND – Instead of working to stem a years-long pattern of physical attacks by students on Rutland City Public Schools’ educators, the district’s leadership defied recommendations from state workplace safety experts and retaliated against the educators’ union, according to an unfair labor practice charge filed yesterday.
The charge comes after four years of escalating instances of student-on-staff violence, culminating with more than 71 attacks on 33 educators in a six-month period earlier this year. It also comes after workplace safety officials from the Vermont Department of Labor fined the district for its failure to address the growing – and continuing – problem. The charge was filed by the Rutland Education Association at the Vermont Labor Relations Board.
“Instead of working with us to solve a serious problem – one that affects students and staff alike – the district chose to blame the victims of violent attacks for engaging the Department of Labor,” said Ellen Green, a Rutland High School Spanish teacher who serves as the president of the Rutland Education Association.
Susan Ponto, an AP and Honors chemistry teacher at Rutland High School who serves as the union’s vice president and grievance chair, added, “It is of great concern that the administration and school board would rather blame educators than work collaboratively to protect students.”
According to the charge, which is lodged against the Rutland School Board, Superintendent Mary Moran and Assistant Superintendent Robert Bliss, administrators mislead safety investigators after reaching a settlement in which the labor department fined the district thousands of dollars for failing to “furnish each of its employees employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing significant physical harm to its employees” because “paraeducators and other staff were exposed to the hazard of workplace violence by” students.
The charge says that instead of working to address the underlying issues of student-on-staff violence, Bliss “attempted to blame staff for workplace violence by asserting that ‘the adults were antagonizing the students.’” Bliss also wrote to safety investigators that he “anticipated” that “the union will attempt to belittle the fact that their members did not conduct themselves professionally.”
Among the injuries to educators were some serious enough to warrant hospitalization. In its findings, the Department of Labor noted that educators encountered students “throwing, kicking, hitting or otherwise exhibiting inappropriate behavior.” The department also noted a “lack of management commitment” to give educators the ability to “effectively deal with workplace violence.”
Instead, according to the charge, Bliss authored guidelines that demanded that all educators wear closed-toe shoes to address what he said was the top cause of workplace injury: slips, trips and falls. When notified by the union of the apparent disconnect with student-on-staff violence, the Department of Labor slammed Bliss, saying, “It seems very odd to have this statement and resulting policy change…Is this related to the hazard (workplace violence) that we had originally spoken about? While this hazard could be a very valid concern, addressing it in this procedure seems odd and distracting from the original intent of protecting workers from hazards associated with violent interactions.”
The charge asks the Vermont Labor Relations Board to require the administration to cease retaliating against the union for reporting the unsafe working environment in Rutland schools; to work collaboratively with the union to address relevant safety remedies; and to rescind the closed-toe shoes policy and reimburse educators who had to purchase shoes to comply with the policy.
“What we in the REA have asked for since 2012 is that our administration and school board will work with us who are in the classrooms to keep our students and staff safe,” Green said. “It is disappointing that we have had to take the legal venue to achieve this. We would like to move forward to work with the administration to make our schools a model of safety for the state of Vermont.”
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