Los Angeles, CA

Stark Realities Behind the LAUSD Strike From a Former Special Education Teacher

Joel Eisenberg

What was once a noble profession has long been transformed into a danger zone.

Empty ClassroomPhoto byIvan Aleksic, Unsplash

Author’s Note

What follows is based largely on personal experience and the parallel experiences of former peers who have remained in the field. Most of those peers, who for this story have asked to remain anonymous, either now work or have worked until recently in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

For perspective I have linked outside media sources also in this piece. Those linked sources include the following: CNN.com and ABC.com.


This week’s LAUSD strike was three days long and ended today, March 24th. For a comprehensive look back at the mechanics behind the strike, CNN.com’s March 21st report, “School Workers in the Nation’s Second-Largest District Go on Strike, Shutting Down Schools. Here’s What They Want,” documented general employee sentiment.

More than 30,000 Service Employees International Union Local 99 members went on strike and over 1000 schools were closed during the ensuing three day period.

As excerpted from the CNN.com report: The union wants “equitable wage increases, more full-time work, respectful treatment, and increased staffing levels for improved student services,” it said. Workers’ average salary is $25,000 a year, and most work part-time – which has led to staffing shortages, the union said.

Though the strike has ended, negotiations are ongoing. Among those who participated in the strike were bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria employees, campus security, teaching assistants and aides. Among other goals the strikers were fighting for were related to safety. As the latter two groups listed have largely been placed in special education classrooms, and the other groups service special needs students as well, I will pull back the curtain to elucidate related issues.

Part One

In disclosure, it has been nearly 20 years since my last teaching assignment, the last of five schools in which I've worked in both New York and California for a cumulative span of 10 years. In the subsequent two decades I interviewed several current and former teachers, assistants and aides on the condition of anonymity — for a future book — and it has become clear little has changed.

In fact, I am led to believe nothing has changed.

Special Education as a term is broad, and more inclusive than many may realize. Public schools containing special education and mainstream classrooms are not the be-all and end-all in the field.

Student populations under the special education banner include developmentally disabled children and adults, and those considered "at-risk."

The following is a list of true events — names of students have been changed unless otherwise not italicized — to place the pieces of this complex puzzle in perspective. Some of the experiences are mine; some are from teachers I have interviewed:

  • Non-verbal, low-functioning autistic students are frequently easily frustrated. Aurora was one such low-functioning student, from a New York school for autistic children and adults. She was unkempt and very overweight, at close to 300 pounds on a five-foot frame. Aurora was easily frustrated, and she was prone to falling onto the floor with little or no antecedent (warning) behavior. Once she was lifted to her feet, she was placed in zip cuffs and into a padded time-out room.
  • Teachers are called every name in the book by at-risk students, and such behavior is frequently allowable by administrators so as to allow the student to vent. This gets to a teacher, despite their best efforts. However, being called a every name one could think of, time and again, will break down the staunchest teacher. It has been told to me that teachers have snapped and taken it upon themselves to physically “take down” a student in an effort to have the student regain control. When I taught, I personally experienced this as well. All-too-often, though, the intervention benefits the teacher’s mental state in the short-term, and is done in front of other students.
  • Teacher assaults are common. I myself was punched in the jaw by a student.
  • There are few boundaries in place, either in centers for the developmentally disabled, or schools that include at-risk students. Teachers are told to listen to the students, even when threatened with physical harm. Again, teachers should never be put in situations such as this. There are frequently no security guards available, and the size of the student does not matter. You can harm them as they can you.
  • A late-night drug fest took place in a principal’s office, caught on camera. Group homes were yards away, and a bunch of students snuck out and broke in. The group home's overnight attendant had fallen asleep. The next morning, there was hell to pay. Word was the attendant on duty had regularly fallen asleep. This was a school specifically for at-risk youth who were too behavior-challenged to attend public schools. The attendant had gotten into trouble once before, when kids were found buying and selling meth among themselves — having been sold to them from other kids who did not live in group homes and were bussed in.

What often happens as a result of these indiscretions are interventions, often physical.

It should be noted at least two of the above incidents allegedly took place in LAUSD classrooms.

Part Two

See here for a disturbing ABC report from 2012, about thousands of autistic and disabled students being injured or dying following teacher restraints.

Such endangerment still occurs, but I posted this older piece for a reason. See the first sentence, above: Thousands of autistic and disabled schoolchildren have been injured and dozens have died …

Meaning, this happened for years and was largely ignored.

Again, at-risk students who are not developmentally disabled are often ignored by society and left out of the conversation regarding school reopenings, and yet they too are a large group faced with the physical restraint issue.

These issues have occurred with great frequency in special education units of public schools as well, including LAUSD.

Physical intervention techniques in severe special education classrooms are de rigueur for the profession. Teachers use them, at times indiscriminately, to gain a sense of control over troubled students. I use indiscriminately for reason, as it is not unusual for a teacher to lose their temper over one disrespectful student and take their anger out on another. At-risk students, especially, frequently manipulate the use of physical intervention techniques to either regain their own control, or simply to take a break from the classroom.

Let’s discuss PART training for a moment, which is taught to teachers in many schools around the country that include a special education component:

PART TrainingPhoto byLearning Central

PART is designed to assist staff with a means of identification and appropriate response to potentially assaultive/aggressive situations. PART focuses on prevention by teaching the concept that all behavior is communication. If staff can identify and respond to a behavior, they may be able to prevent escalation to a potentially dangerous situation. Hands-on techniques are also trained to keep everyone safe when preventative measures are not successful and dangerous behaviors do occur.

The above definition is widely accepted, and provided by Learning Central.

To a variant of my question: Does not the very fact teachers are required to learn this practice as either part of their teacher certification or employment imply a larger problem?

Add to that the fact such techniques are often improperly applied?

Part Three

Working in such volatile classrooms invariably leads to a loss of teaching time. As such, the students suffer.

It is not unusual to hold multiple students in a padded time-out room at once — sometimes supervised by a behavior coordinator, sometimes not — while the students remaining in their classrooms act out in protest.

The practice of multiple-holds in a single location is publicly discouraged. Heads turn away when it happens; the reason most utilized is such an action is a matter of "convenience." And those in hold misbehave all the more.

The time to reassess the reality of such classrooms is now.

Part Four

It is important to acknowledge, for those of us whose lives have been more traditional and less troubled, none of us have walked in the shoes of an at-risk student.

Personally, I never had a parent murdered by another. I have never been physically abused by a family member. I never did the drugs.

But they have. And that’s meaningful, because educators need to understand what works in the traditional world may not work for at-risk children and adults.

Several of my own group have passed on in the 15 years since I last stepped foot in a classroom. Heather died in the hospital of an illness when she appeared to be doing better physically — and emotionally — than ever before. Ajaye ended up on and off in a 24–7 lockdown facility and did not make it upon release. Daniel died in a shoot-out with two cops after going back on meth (and asking me to adopt him).

When I googled "Special Education" to find a lead-off photo for this article, I found an abundance of rainbows and colorful classrooms. This was not nor ever was our reality. I am unsure as to whose reality this is, exactly.

My students had never shied away from theirs. They were gang members, substance abusers, social throwaways who acted upon their reputations ... all under the at-risk label at the time and all-too-frequently blanketed as simple "troublemakers" as their teachers did not take the time to get to know them.

An at-risk child or adult does not learn within the same modality, and most students I've worked with resented anyone who wasn’t plain-spoken with them or attempted to understand them.

My former students are adults now and there are some true success stories in the bunch: Yaniv is doing great as a school psychologist in his new school and has been honored several times over. Sarah moved to New York and won a role in an Off-Broadway play that will hopefully be presented once the pandemic passes, and Na’quan finally completed his first novel. Evan has published some poetry, Lisa is teaching dance in Seattle, and several students are still pursuing music careers. As for those who gave the arts a pass, James works in the legal field, Janessa works in a coffee shop, and Tony is a karate instructor.

I sometimes reflect on the days when I was able to help my students feel safe. Safe from the outside world and adults and peers who did not understand them, safe from taking another drug if they were striving to quit, safe from the hard-knock existence that beckoned in the real world. What sort of examples did many of their teachers set?

When I taught, far too many of the teachers in such difficult classrooms got drunk or stoned on Fridays to de-stress. I hear much of the same happens now. I cannot possibly judge that, as for ten years I was in the midst of it all. Though I did not indulge, other demons threatened to overtake me as, for one, I had no real release. Those who loved me asked me to "let it go" on weekends, as they felt they were being confronted with stories from the gutter.

They were.

When I quit, it was my time to go. It was time for me to pursue my own dreams of being a writer, though I never forgot my students and for some, we mutually follow each other on social media.


To be clear, special education in any form can save lives, and give promise to children and adults whose hope otherwise may have been dormant. In the case of at-risk students, including those from gangs, those who exhibit substance abuse issues, and those labeled as “severely emotionally disturbed,” a good teacher and positive environment can make all the difference.

Those who remain in the profession with true dedication, as opposed to working to simply earn a paycheck, are heroes. I’ve seen dedicated teachers turn the worst examples of horrific behavior into something quite opposite ... which is most often what the students want and cannot always articulate: That sense of hope as opposed to despair.

Our education system in general has a long way to go to meet those needs more consistently.

Both the students and the teachers deserve better. Administrators have to step up and publicly acknowledge the harsh realities behind the walls, as opposed to the fantasy. Funding matters and improvements will follow in due course. I have seen more family members disgusted upon reading incident reports and reasons for suspension, but disgusted with the teachers who they accuse of not doing their jobs.

The system is broken. The system can be fixed.

The system requires a good deal more than lip-service to become manageable.

Considering the plethora of issues in schools nationwide, such as the scourge of shootings and other violent acts, all employees — of LAUSD and otherwise — are effectively putting their lives on the line every time they step into a classroom, most especially those special education aides and assistants who frequently are called upon to handle the toughest student situations so the teachers can focus on the class.

I compare them all to the character Quint in the classic film “Jaws” who, when faced with a life-threatening job choice, said to police chief Brody: “I value my neck a lot more than three thousand bucks, chief.”

Unfortunately, such is the state of many of today’s school jobs behind-the-scenes.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA

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