Santa Clara County special educators are continuing to push for safer classrooms amid serious injuries.

Dozens of special education teachers gathered in front of the Santa Clara County Office of Education Wednesday afternoon to protest before a board meeting. They chanted, “What do we want? Safe schools!” and held signs that said, “Stand up for safety.”

Special education teacher Christina Muñoz said she still experiences shoulder and neck pain after a 2018 incident, where an upset student hit her after being told not to pick up a dirty sock from the ground. She said injuries and severe understaffing have been normalized for too long.

“After being hurt on the job and witnessing several incidents, I have learned that no, it is not part of my job,” Muñoz said. “(The education office) has a role in keeping students and staff safe, and they can start by being held accountable.”

The action follows recent labor contract negotiations between the county and SEIU Local 521 as well as the Association of County Educators (ACE), which represent a total of more than 1,300 workers in the county’s education office. While negotiations led to a pay increase earlier this year, safety concerns have not been fully addressed.

“In the January contract negotiations, the county agreed on everything except the safety measures,” SEIU spokesperson Valarie Prigent said. “And so the team decided to go ahead and sign the contract as is because they needed (the wage increase). But the safety issues have not been resolved.”

As an example, Prigent said the county isn’t following a 2015 mandate to have more than one educator accompanying a student to the restroom.

Those who work in special ed, at juvenile hall and in other specialized programs are asking the county to increase classroom staffing and provide more deescalation training to better manage hazardous situations, but said their concerns are falling on deaf ears.

“We have had too many staff, too many paraeducators and too many students that are getting hurt, because we don’t have (enough) people in the classroom,” ACE President Tara Guerrero told San José Spotlight. “We have people that are breaking limbs. We’ve had teachers break their back or have compressed discs. We’ve had iPads thrown, which have led to stitches in the middle of their face.”

Guerrero, who taught special education in the county for 16 years, said a head butt from a student knocked out her two front teeth. She said she has been hit and shoved so many times, she had to switch over to the Opportunity Youth Academy program which provides high school education to those as old as 24.

She said the county should bring on at least 100 more special education workers to meet the needs of students and teachers. Most classrooms have one teacher and two paraeducators, she said, but that’s rarely enough. Because of staffing shortages, different educators have been pulled from their specialties to take on other students.

“(The county) is calling us now specialized academic instructors so they can put a hodgepodge of different disabilities in one classroom,” Guerrero said. “It doesn’t make sense when you have a medically fragile student with a student with maladaptive behaviors. I mean, how are either of them going to be safe for each other?”

County office of education officials did not respond to questions from this news organization, but spokesperson Kelly Wylie said the office is committed to student and staff safety.

“The office values the privileged opportunity to serve the students under our care and highly value the personnel who provide educational services to the students,” Wylie told San José Spotlight. “We remain committed to our ongoing collaborations with our staff and union leadership.”

The county is failing to follow another mandate ensuring educators receive their Pro-ACT training every three years, according to Guerrero. The training teaches deescalation techniques like how to escort a student, or how to take them down safely. Guerrero said despite many attempts at asking for it, she hasn’t received training since 2010.

“We just want to prevent injuries and make sure our teachers and students are safe,” Guerrero said. “Especially students. That is our No. 1 priority.”

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