Shortage of special ed teachers leaves school staff vulnerable to violence

A Beyond the Books investigation looks into worker's compensation claims filed by special education workers in Utah's school districts and the lack of training that could be to blame. (Photo: KUTV)

Jamie Moffitt had a substitute teacher job lined up at Rose Springs Elementary in Tooele County. She was excited — she was about to do what she’d always wanted to do: Work with kids.

The morning, however, started with some concerning warnings from people who greeted her at the school’s front desk. Seasoned school staffers told Moffitt she should change her clothes to something more durable, and she certainly needed to take out her earrings because, by the end of the day, one of the special education students she would be working with would surely rip them out.

Concerned but undeterred, Moffitt entered a classroom as a low-paid para-professional or special needs assistant. She made $600 a month.

Moffitt says the first day went well — so well, in fact, that by lunch time, the principal had offered her a job.

“I felt really, really good,” Moffitt said.

Those initial feelings of elation soon changed, however, when Moffitt, paired with a student school officials admit was the most challenging in Tooele County, began to be assaulted on a regular basis.

By her sixth month, Moffitt says she had been bitten more than 100 times, had her hair pulled more than 100 times, had suffered three concussions, and had gone to the hospital three times as well. During all of this, Moffitt says she never got any training, with the exception of sexual harassment guidelines.

After her last concussion, she sat sobbing in her principal’s office. She says he told her, frankly, “we threw you in the lion’s den with no training on the lions,” Moffitt said.

The Tooele School District’s special education director, Mat Jackson, says he was aware of Moffitt’s repeated injuries, and says she did get training on multiple occasions, however the district was unable to provide proof this had indeed occurred.

Jackson said Moffitt, although well-meaning, may not have been up for the job.

“Sometimes you fit, and people fit into it and they love what they do and, other times, it’s not a good fit,” Jackson said.

Fit or not, Moffitt was returned time after time to the classroom with the student who was injuring her. Moffitt said she was regularly praised for the job she did.

"We had — to my knowledge, there was no issue with her, she was a great employee for us," Jackson said.

Asked why he would still say Moffitt wasn't a fit for the job, Jackson said, "Well, certain situations may not be best, ideal."

Moffitt believes the district kept her in the classroom because they simply had no one else to do the job. Jackson says he has a concerning shortage of special education teachers. He says he has 75 but could use 100.

Tooele is not the only district with this problem. There is a critical shortage of special education teachers and assistants nationwide. That shortage puts under-trained assistants like Moffitt at risk.

Beyond the Books requested Worker’s Compensation information from every district in Utah. Based on that data, staffers working with special education students are far and away in the most dangerous jobs in Utah schools. Over the past three years in the state's largest districts — Alpine, Granite and Canyons —nearly 400 cases, or 70 percent of worker's compensation claims from those districts, were filed by school staff who were assaulted by students in special education classrooms.

It is a problem that has gotten the attention of lawmakers. State Rep. Val Potter has firsthand knowledge of how dangerous special education jobs can be; his daughter was a special ed teacher for years. He says she suffered minor injuries regularly.

Potter says getting more special ed teachers in the classroom is critical for the state, not only for the special ed students who deserve an education, but for teachers and assistants who could be injured because of inadequate training. He helped pass a law that would give new special ed teachers a $4,000 stipend to come to work in Utah schools.

“We need smaller classes and the way you get smaller classes is to get more teachers into the profession,” Potter said.

Moffitt did eventually get some training, but said during the first class she was in such pain from a recent concussion that she left and went to a hospital. She says she quit her job soon after that.

Moffitt said she is heartbroken that she is no longer able to work with students, and says if she would have been properly trained, perhaps she would still be in the classroom.

“Yeah, I did have the passion for it, but I didn’t have the know-how,” Moffitt said.

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