Eight educational assistants are suing Portland Public Schools and several administrators for $3.6 million alleging the special needs students they were supposed to assist frequently assaulted them by biting, scratching, throwing furniture, even urinating on them.
The lawsuit accuses the district of negligence, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, discrimination, retaliation and failure to re-employ. The lawsuit claims the district and administrators did not sufficiently protect the educational assistants or students.
It's similar to lawsuit filed Dec. 9 in Washington County Circuit Court by Beaverton School District aide John Q. Percich, who claimed a student in the district's Structured Routine Center violently assaulted him. The same student was responsible for several incidents involving female teachers and aides in the center.
"The student also was abusive to other students and staff including multiple attempts to stab the teacher, staff and other students with a pencil, biting staff members so hard that a tooth came loose in the student's mouth and stating they wanted to 'kill and roast' other people like 'an ear of corn on a BBQ.' "
Percich is seeking more than $500,000 in damages. The school district does not comment on pending litigation.
Being battered is a widespread concern for workers in special education classrooms. In early January, an educational aide sued the Gresham-Barlow School District and a principal, alleging she had also been harmed by special needs students. The Oregon School Employees Association, the union for educational aides and other classified employees, recently featured a series of articles on the topic on its web site.
The 61-page PPS lawsuit, filed Jan. 28 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, charges that students bit, kicked, scratched, spit and urinated on the aides and some of the assaults were sexual. The suit was originally filed by two educational assistants in November, but amended, adding the six other aides and increasing the amount of damages. The $3.6 million is for economic damages some of the women suffered and $450,000 each for non-economic damages.
Harry Esteve, PPS's director of strategic communications and outreach, said the district does not comment on pending litigation. No court date has been set for the case.
Rebecca Cambreleng, attorney for the educational aides, said the classroom helpers were worried about the students' behavior, noting that the violence is not the students' fault. "Nobody blames these children. They aren't getting the support they need," Cambreleng said.
In addition to the district, the administrators named are Mary Pearson, senior director of special education, Michael La Framboise, principal of the Pioneer Program for disabled students, Theresa Stubbs, vice principal at Pioneer, and Andrea Porter-Lopez, principal Woodlawn Elementary.
The eight plaintiffs include Joyce Moore and Virginia Ferrer-Burgett, education assistants at Woodlawn Elementary School. Aides Cassie Gamez and Arline Weaver work at Buckman Elementary School in a classroom that was designed to mainstream students into general education classrooms from the Pioneer Program for special needs students. Sarah Conley, Debra Meskimen, Angela Gonci and Julie Manzella work at Sunnyside Environmental School.
The suit details a litany of assaults on each of the eight. The lasuit alleges that at Woodlawn Moore and Ferrer-Burgett "endured students biting, kicking, slapping, punching, pinching, scratching, spitting, head-butting and being urinated on and choked." They also had furniture thrown at them and endured sexual assaults.
The suit says students sometimes ran from the room and the aides had to chase them and the classroom often had to be cleared because a student "was having a dangerous behavioral episode."
Despite complaints, the lawsuit said "no measures were put in place to protect the staff from frequent abuse."
At Buckman, the suit describes disturbing behavior by one particular student toward Gamez, staff and other students.
"The student also was abusive to other students and staff including multiple attempts to stab the teacher, staff and other students with a pencil, biting staff members so hard that a tooth came loose in the student's mouth and stating they wanted to 'kill and roast' other people like 'an ear of corn on a BBQ,' touching other student's genitals, threatening to disrobe to show to display their genitals, and stating that they wanted to kill the teacher and chop their head off and proceeding to draw a picture of someone with their head chopped off."
The lawsuit says Gamez and Weaver were told their jobs would be in jeopardy if they answered any questions posed by parents of the violent students or victimized students about the welfare of their children.
At Sunnyside, Conley suffered a black eye and split lip after one student threw something at her. In another instance, that student pinned another student to the ground and was pulling the student's hair. It took two adults to pull the violent student of the other child.
That student "also started to act out in a more sexualized way, including undressing, rubbing their genitals on staff and inanimate objects and exposing their anus." The suit says other students suffered not only from threats and assaults, but from losing class time as the classrooms sometimes had to be cleared because of a violent student.
The next step is for Portland Public Schools to answer the lawsuit, which is supposed to happen in 30 days, but extensions are routinely granted. The district had not replied to the original lawsuit filed in November.
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