Becky Chappell has worked with emotionally disturbed children in Lawrence public schools for 15 years.
But she was caught off guard in April while walking down a hallway with an elementary student.
"He did a leg sweep on me and basically knocked my legs out from under me. I landed on my knee cap and ended up tearing cartilage in my knee," Chappell said.
She had surgery to repair her left knee in June.
"It's fine now, well, as good as it's going to get," she said. "The doctor said that probably I shouldn't have any problems, unless I reinjure it."
It's no exaggeration to say public school teachers, and paraprofessionals such as Chappell, are on the front lines of the nation's effort to include students with physical and mental disabilities in neighborhood school classrooms.
In the Lawrence district, Chappell was among dozens of special-education teachers or staff injured on the job during the 1999-2000 school year. Forty-six filed worker's compensation claims for injuries resulting from 72 violent incidents.
"That is unacceptable. You can't have the personal safety of staff and kids at risk," said Scott Morgan, a Lawrence school board member.
There is no tally of student-on-student violence, but reported injuries to staff may just scratch the surface. Special education teachers in Lawrence are convinced the district's statistics underreport the frequency of injury. More times than not, employees bruised or battered by a student don't bother to fill out paperwork to report the incident.
"In a day's time, somebody will get bit, hit or kicked," said Nancy Averill, a speech pathologist at Quail Run School.
Some of the district's 1,500 students with a disability never raise a ruckus, but the behavior of others does verge on the bizarre. Aggressive children don't discriminate, their behavior can be witnessed in every school in the district.
There are children who smear feces on themselves and walls or simply eat it. There have been children in the district who, because of their disability, attempt to bite staff so frequently that teachers were issued sleeve guards for protection. Outbursts by some children, even in the primary grades, include tossing of chairs.
"If the public really knew what happens in our schools, I think they would be shocked," Supt. Randy Weseman said.
Before adoption of a 1975 federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA, it was exceedingly rare, almost unheard of, for students with disabilities to be educated in regular public schools. Initially, school administrators responded to IDEA's mandate for a free, appropriate education for disabled children by clustering special education students in isolated classrooms.
Then came "mainstreaming," which placed students with disabilities in the same classrooms as their nondisabled peers. Later, mainstreaming evolved into "inclusion," a philosophy em-braced by the Lawrence school district. Inclusion holds that students should be placed in regular classrooms whenever possible and should be engaged there in the same curriculum as classmates.
Over time, the diagnoses that merit special education consideration have expanded beyond obvious physical and mental impairments to more subtle and challenging handicaps.
A classroom teacher who had mastered working with hearing impaired, blind or wheelchair-bound students is now faced with students with multiple disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Aggression as communication
Jenna Viscomi, an autism specialist at Quail Run School, said all students, regardless of disability, deserve the opportunity to attend their neighborhood public school. The fact some students pose a danger to themselves or others shouldn't automatically disqualify them, she said.
"A lot of our kids are nonverbal and, for them, aggression is a form of communication," she said. "That's why we are needed, to teach more appropriate forms of communication."
To prepare for these classroom challenges, district staff were sent several years ago, and again last year, to a program in Texas to learn finer points of restraining aggressive students. Those employees have trained staff at the schools in the art of constraint.
When a third-grader starts tossing chairs, for example, a teacher's primary objective is evacuation of other students from the class. Teachers also call in the school's crisis intervention team, which has been trained to bring erratic students under control.
"People don't realize that a pencil can be a weapon," said Lois Orth-Lopes, who works with autistic children at Cordley. "Hair can be pulled so violently you almost pass out."
Orth-Lopes said the students' aggression was most frequently directed at staff, not other students. Nor is every injury intentional, she said.
It was an accident, rather than an act of malice, that sent Orth-Lopes to an occupational health clinic.
"I was squatting to help a child on the floor," she said. "He stood up and flopped. It bent my foot toward my leg, severely. It really messed up my ankle. It was an accident."
Signs of danger are reflected in supplies distributed to special-education staff.
Lawrence teachers have been issued "body maps" to log where they were bitten, scratched and bruised.
Teachers in the district have had to wear elastic back braces for support when lifting children, and soccer shin guards for sudden attacks. Others have been outfitted with protective sleeves and baseball batting gloves to ward off assaults by students unable to resist the temptation to bite.
The prevalence of biting prompts special-education staff to be tested for the virus that causes AIDS every six months.
The absence of two elementary school students known for their biting, both transferred to other districts, likely will lead to a reduction in worker's compensation claims by special-education staff during the 2000-2001 school year.
Timeout rooms stark, closet-like spaces are in use at nine Lawrence elementary schools. These rooms are intended as cooling-off places for students perceived to be an immediate threat to themselves or others.
"They are necessary. There are children in a position of hurting themselves or others," said Myron Melton, principal of Langston Hughes School.
Langston Hughes, the district's newest elementary school, opened in August with a timeout room located between the nursing office and a special-education classroom. The interior of the timeout room has no furnishings. Staff can peer inside the room through a narrow window in the door and hold the door closed with an exterior bar.
Concern in Lawrence about acceptable use of timeout rooms surfaced in the wake of Weseman's suspension in November of East Heights School Principal Laura Blevins.
Weseman launched an investigation at the school after the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services instigated a probe into treatment of a kindergartner with disabilities.
In part, SRS and district reviews were based on a complaint by Sarah Sandoval, the kindergartner's mother. Her son has oppositional defiant disorder, which is characterized by a pattern of hostile or irritating behavior, and pervasive developmental disorder, which encompasses autistic traits.
Sandoval alleges a person or persons at East Heights improperly restrained her 6-year-old son in a timeout room, without her permission, for 45 minutes.
"I know my son was falsely imprisoned," Sandoval said.
During the October incident, she said, the school's paraprofessionals stood by while her son ate his feces in the time-out room.
"There were three paraprofessionals in there with gloves and they weren't doing anything," Sandoval said.
Joe Nyre, the district's assistant executive director of special services, said timeout rooms were an outgrowth of the closure of state hospitals for disabled persons in Kansas, which meant more students with more aggressive traits were in public schools.
"We didn't need these rooms a few years ago. But when mental hospitals started to close, we needed a situation that would accommodate some of these huge outbursts that kids would get. A lot of times they'll settle down and come out and be just fine," he said.
Weseman said disciplining students with disabilities was complicated because federal law prohibited district staff from applying the same standards to disabled and nondisabled students.
"If two kids hit a principal, and one is classified as disabled and the other is not, the nondisabled student is going to be expelled but the disabled student might not," Weseman said. "It depends on whether the act was related to the student's disability."
Under IDEA, a disabled student could be suspended from school up to 10 days if the violent act was related to his or her disability. If it didn't have anything to do with the disability, a suspension could be extended to 45 days.
"But that may not be best for the student or the school district," Weseman said, "because the district is still obligated to provide educational services. The best place to accomplish that objective may be a school setting."
Alexa Pochowski, director of special education for the Kansas Department of Education, said Lawrence wasn't alone in its struggle with hard-to-handle students. Those children with disabilities that include violent behavior require careful placement and supervision, she said.
"It's not appropriate to put personnel in jeopardy," Pochowski said. "We need to be looking at safety of all kids when deciding placements."
She said a cause of some classroom problems resulted from inadequate staff training. Too many teachers and paraprofessionals don't know how to correct a disabled student's behavior before it escalates into aggression, she said.
"Often, when incidents occur, there was something not done the right way that triggered the aggression," she said.
She recommended schools hire sufficient staff so someone was "absolutely tuned to this particular child and looks for the triggers."
Lawrence school board member Jack Davidson said violence against teachers, regardless of the source or reason, was intolerable.
"We seem to think it's OK to beat up on a teacher and send that person to the hospital," he said. "It damn well doesn't go the other way around."
"I don't care how old the child is kindergarten or 12th grade you don't touch a teacher, don't spit on a teacher, don't yell at a teacher and vice versa. If the student is bad, that person should be removed. I don't care what school he or she is in."