Union files grievance over alleged chaos, injuries at Bridge Street School

  • Bridge Street Elementary School. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Published: 1/10/2018 9:30:22 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Rollout of a new special education model at Bridge Street Elementary school has been so chaotic that students and educators have suffered injuries, including concussions, that have resulted in emergency-room visits, the city’s school employee union has alleged.

Those claims are part of a grievance that the Northampton Association of School Employees, or NASE, filed with the School Committee on Monday. The Gazette obtained a copy of the grievance, a version of which was first filed in the fall. The grievance will now advance to “level three,” which means it will be discussed behind closed doors at Thursday’s School Committee meeting.

“The grievance is about protecting the health and safety of the school staff,” said Andrea Egitto, the NASE chapter coordinator for the bargaining unit that includes teachers. “We’ve been working collaboratively with the administration to correct the challenges that have stemmed from the restructuring of the special education delivery model.”

Changes in the way the school integrates special education students into the classroom were first implemented this year, when those students were moved into mainstream classrooms. The transition to the “inclusion model” resulted in the elimination of 19 educational support positions, and the addition of 5.5 special education teachers and one general education teacher.

In its grievance, NASE details understaffed classrooms, chaotic hallways, injuries and constant stress for teachers and students this year. The union said the problems exist at every grade level in the school; the complaint attributes the unsafe workplace conditions to a lack of adequate staffing, and calls for immediate new hires.

Superintendent John Provost said the grievance process is meant to allow for confidential discussions among the union, the School Committee and superintendent. Those conversations, he said, are not meant for a public forum like a newspaper.

“It’s important for me not to get into the substance of their grievance, because these are matters that, if they do go to level three, do need to be discussed in executive session,” he said, referring to the private discussion expected to take place at Thursday’s School Committee meeting.

When he spoke to the Gazette in late October, Provost said he had visited Bridge Street classrooms 17 times since the beginning of the school year. On Monday, he said he continues to visit the school.

Despite that firsthand experience in the school’s classrooms, however, Provost declined to answer specific questions about the union’s allegations of student and faculty “injuries (including concussions) due to aggressive/assaultive behavior,” according to the grievance.

Provost also wouldn’t confirm whether the issues the union raised were found across the whole school.

The grievance details specific incidents alleged by staff throughout the school, including:

—students returning to understaffed classrooms “when they have not fully de-escalated”;

—teachers being told no assistance is available during a crisis, and being left alone to “de-escalate students who are physically aggressive”;

—restricted access to bathrooms and hallways, and classrooms being held in place because of students in distress throughout the day;

—lack of follow-up by administrators on incident reports completed by teachers.

Mayor David Narkewicz, who chairs the School Committee, declined to comment on the matter Wednesday.

First-grade problems

In the fall, the Gazette reported on concerns of parents of Bridge Street School first-graders, who said students with and without special education needs were negatively affected by the way the inclusion model had been implemented.

“In a room of 26 children, with the chaos and noise that goes with that, he’s really working hard just to make it through the day,” parent Gillian Stephens said at an Oct. 13 School Committee meeting of her son, who is in the school’s autism program. “And he’s not the only one struggling in this way.”

Egitto, of the NASE union leadership, said problems are not limited to the first grade. She declined to identify who suffered specific injuries and in which grades, citing student and staff privacy concerns. She also stressed that students are not at fault for the current situation at Bridge Street School.

“Providing students with the support they need to be successful is our responsibility as a school district,” she said. “Your delivery of services is what’s going to allow students to be successful, and likewise to allow teachers to be successful.”

Provost said he and members of the union’s Bridge Street School delegation met Wednesday morning and had productive talks about the situation at the school, though he declined to go into the specifics of the meeting.

He said the union could withdraw the grievance before Thursday’s School Committee meeting, but Egitto said that safety issues have not been fully resolved and that the union is going forward with the grievance.

Provost also declined to discuss possible staffing solutions to the concerns raised by school employees, saying he wanted to respect the confidential nature of those discussions. He said only that conversations about the grievance thus far have been focused “around trying to identify additional areas where resources could be helpful.”

‘Proper resources’

Egitto said the union was in favor of the full-inclusion model, but that teachers’ requests for a slow rollout of the program and for increased staffing went unheard during last year’s decision-making process.

“A lot of this could have been avoided,” she said of the reported problems at the school. “The School Committee and the city, if this is the model they believe in, they have to support it and they have to allow the proper resources in order for every student to be successful … If they don’t know what that is, they have to ask teachers.”

Making that teacher input more difficult, she said, is the School Committee’s decision to not allow NASE President Julie Spencer-Robinson full-time release from her job as a teacher to serve union members’ needs.

Spencer-Robinson had served as full-time union president for the last two years, which was made possible by a three-year grant from the Massachusetts Teachers Association to pay the salary of her replacement.

The School Committee, however, chose not to continue that arrangement this year, and Spencer-Robinson is currently teaching eighth-grade history at JFK Middle School in addition to her duties as president.

Asked about the union’s assertion that staff wasn’t included enough in the lead-up to the model’s implementation, Provost said the district went through three versions of a budget for fiscal year 2018, changing them as they went based on feedback from teachers and the school community.

“We were as responsive as we could have been with the changes that we made in our budget proposal,” he said.

Discussion of the grievance will not be open to the public at the School Committee meeting, though Bridge Street School parents are expected to speak about the problems during the public comment period.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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