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The Para-professional–Student Relationship

A dynamic ripe for bullying.

Bullying can exist anywhere.

Wherever there is an imbalance of power, there is potential for abuse.
One of the places we least expect this potential to be actualized is between paraprofessionals and the people with disabilities that they are employed to support —especially students in the classroom.

For those of you, like myself, who are vague as to what these para’s do, their responsibilities include modifying classroom material and providing instructional support, implementing behavioral management plans, and providing personal care / assistance. Numbering upwards of 250,000 nationwide, para’s—who usually have a HS degree and a 35+ hour training certificate—shoulder a caseload of between 16 to 21 students per week. Approximately 75 percent of them are special needs students. In New York City, para’s make just over $18.50 per hour (though in some states, they can be paid as little as $12.26/hr.).

Most para’s I’ve met have had the patience of saints. But after reading My Paraprofessional Was Supposed to Help me; instead, she Bullied me I went looking for some first-hand feedback. I was fortunate enough to spend time with Danielle, a smart, determined graduate student who has undergone countless surgeries, and has faced tremendous adversity on a daily basis. She went through the NYC public schools system with several para's, and had this to say:

ME: The article describes an incident in which a para humiliated her charge in front of the entire class, while the teacher shuffled his feet and looked away. Further, when called to account for this behavior by both the school and the child’s parents, the para proceeded to give her charge “the silent treatment” the following week. Did You ever experience anything like this?

DANIELLE: Yes, and I am sure that so many fellow disabled students have. The one anecdote that comes to mind happened during the beginning of my freshman year of high school. I was in an adaptive physical education class where a lot of contact sports (i.e. football, hockey) were played. My para constantly complained about accompanying me to physical education. One day my class was playing touch football and one of my classmates slipped and his head ended up colliding with my knee. Aside from some swelling and a little pain, I was fine. I went home, iced my knee and was a bit more cautious for the rest of the week. While I did not see the situation as a “big deal,” my para did. The next day, she went behind my back and tried to convince my physical education teachers that I was “injured” because they were not “watching me close enough.” Thankfully they sought my input, and I managed to convince my teachers that I never said or believed that what happened was their fault. My para was extremely angry with me afterwards and barely spoke to me days after the meeting between the four of us.

ME: Was this an isolated incident?

DANIELLE: No. For a variety of reasons, I decided to switch para’s before the start of my junior year. In some ways, my second para was worse. When I insisted on meeting her at my classes instead of walking to them with her, she would time me. If I was even a second late, regardless of the reason, I was interrogated and yelled at. There was one time that I was a few minutes late to my English class because there was a fight in the hallway closest to my classroom, so I had to take a detour. Despite the fact that I explained all of this to my para and she could see the shattered glass in the hallway from the trophy case that had been broken as a result of the fight, her concern was that I was late rather than that I was not hurt.

There were also little things that happened—things I knew weren’t worth reporting, because nothing would be done—even though they were evidence of a power struggle: . For example

1. Whether or not I could take the stairs instead of the elevator. The elevators were old and more often than not would never show up, the doors would open and only the shaft was visible or the elevator would open in between floors.

2. Journals. Each para had a black and white marble notebook with their student’s photo taped to the outside. Inside the journals were “entries” written by the para. My journal had plenty of entries ranging from “Danielle was late to class…” to “Danielle refused to take the elevator and went up the stairs instead.” Students were never allowed to see the notebook or read anything inside. I only read a few entries after convincing a substitute para that I was allowed to read what was written inside.

3. Nasty remarks. One of my paras had no difficulty telling me and even other students how I did not have any friends or how I was “wasting mine and my coach’s time” by trying out for /being on the volleyball team.

ME: How did school administrators relate to your para (who had power and authority? Were there public show-downs like the one described?)

DANIELLE: The assistant principal of the “instructional support department” (otherwise known as the special education department) was the person who was supposed to supervise the paras. It was her responsibility to decide which para was paired with which student. She clearly had favorites. The favorite paras definitely had power. Occasionally, power struggles would play out between my teachers and my para. Those usually occurred because the teacher saw I was visibly uncomfortable with what was happening. For the most part, though, the power struggles mostly happened between me and my para.

ME: I know you have a Master's in Disability Studies--do you know others with similar stories?

DANIELLE: Many of my friends in my disability studies program had similar stories. We would exchange what we called “para stories.” Most of the time they were one story worse than the next.

ME: Did you ever make claims against one of your para's? If so, how was it handled? If not, do you know someone who did make a claim? How was it handled.

DANIELLE: My mother and I tried to make claims against my first high school para. Our concerns were not taken seriously and administration often placed the “blame” back on me.

ME: Do you have any advice to offer others?

DANIELLE: After reflecting on my experiences, I have a few pieces of advice for other disabled students:

1. Speak up. I know it might sound easier than it is but let your para, and, if you need to, your administrators, know how you feel. Although your para is assigned to help you, you are living your disability experience. You know what will help you and what will hinder you.

2. Find some safe havens in school. Although I could not make my paras disappear in high school, I had some places and people in school that allowed me some sort of “break” from the para drama. My physical therapist, volleyball coaches, chorus teacher and journalism/creative writing teacher all provided some time away from the tension.

For any paraprofessionals reading this, please listen to your students and be aware of your words and actions. Many of my most memorable moments in elementary and middle school involved my paras and for them, I will always be grateful.

ME: Thank you for your willingness to share your experiences and insights.

After speaking with Danielle, as well as with school and support-facility administrators, it seems clear that most para's understand their tremendous power, and how their wielding of it effects their charges. And while any imbalance of power is ripe for abuse, this particular relationship is also ripe for great kindnesses (the treats they give their charges, bought from their own salary, or the nurturing that keeps peer humiliation at bay).

It may be that we, as a society, do not look closely at either the kindnesses or the potential for bullying because we might then need to consider our own abuse: paying para’s little over minimal wage for their important, emotionally exhausting work.