“What’s happening here is terrible, and the kids are the ones who are suffering,” said a source we’ll call Julie Smith, one of several educators who spoke to The Press and asked that for fear of retaliation, their real names not be used. “At this point, I wouldn’t place my dog here. That’s how bad it is.”
The target of the complaints is Turner Special-Education Principal Dr. Barbara Berman, who has served in the County Office of Education since 2001. A public school in the Antioch Unified School District, Turner devotes five of its classrooms to the county’s special-education programs.
Concerns expressed by Smith and several Turner special-education teachers include two recent incidents involving the closing of the special-ed playground and the locking up of classroom tricycles.
The first event occurred Oct. 4, when Berman ordered the playground closed after a student tore a 6 to 8 inch oblong hole in the rubberized surface underneath the tire swing.
“It has come to my attention that a student from Turner Room 1 picked apart a pretty large size hole in the area under the tire swing,” wrote Berman in an e-mail to staff Oct. 4. “No one from Turner Room 1 notified the office that this had happened … as a result, none of the Turner classrooms will be able to use the playground until it is repaired. Also a cost will be involved to repair the playground … Brenda, please use money from the classroom budget for Turner Room 1 to pay for the cost of the repair to the playground.”
Smith said staff did contact the custodian about the hole in the rubberized surface, which the custodian did confirm to The Press. According to Katie Gaines, Berman’s boss and the director of educational services with the county, Berman was off-campus the day of the incident. Gaines said once Berman was made aware that the incident had been properly reported, Berman issued an e-mail on Oct. 9 rescinding the order to take the repairs out of classroom funds and apologized to the teachers, but the playground remained closed.
According to Smith, when one little girl saw that the playground swing had been closed off, she dropped to her knees and began banging her head against the fence.
“It was terrible, absolutely awful,” she said. “She was devastated and we couldn’t make her understand why she couldn’t go in and play.”
The playground remained closed for 20 days and underwent repairs this week.
“The rubberized mat under the tire swing was repaired by our facilities department today,” wrote Gaines in an e-mail to the Press this week. “The repair needs to dry overnight. The tire swing will be open to students tomorrow, Wednesday, Oct. 24.”
Swings are essential tools for students with sensory problems, said Smith. Among other things, they help develop balance, spatial awareness and overall behavior. The swinging motion also has a significant calming affect on students and is critical to their emotional as well as physical wellbeing.
During the period the playground was closed, students did have access to a play structure and the school blacktop, but for many of the students, play and particularly the swing are as essential to their educations as traditional learning.
“Teachers were trying to compensate (for the loss of the swing) themselves by physically swinging the children in the classroom,” said one teacher. “Imagine what that was like.”
Smith remained incredulous. “You tell me why it was necessary to close the playground for a small hole,” said Smith. “The kids can’t understand why it’s closed, and for many of them, that swing is a sensory thing; it’s part of their IEP (Individual Education Plan). Why would you punish the students like that?”
The second incident occurred a few days later. When staff members did not return the student’s tricycles to the storage shed before the 3 p.m. deadline, Berman had the tricycles locked up – in plain sight of the students – for several days. The students, many of whom are nonverbal, were unable to understand why they could see their tricycles but were not allowed to ride them.
“This was the punishment for the staff not putting the bikes away by 3 p.m. – locking them up and not letting the kids use them for a few days,” wrote one teacher to The Press in an e-mail accompanied by a picture of the tricycles. “The custodian put them in a hallway where the kids come to use the restroom.”
Gaines, speaking on behalf of Berman, who did not return calls seeking comment, believes the two incidents were simple cases of miscommunication. “First let me just say that our priority is always the safety and emotional wellbeing of the students,” said Gaines. “Dr. Berman is an experienced special-education educator and administrator … It seems there was some miscommunication; there was nothing punitive about it … I’m satisfied that it’s been taken care of.”
But teachers at Turner feel differently. The relationship between staff and Berman has deteriorated, many say, to the extent that fear of reprisals have teachers fearing for their jobs and the wellbeing of students who have borne the brunt of what they believe is Berman’s lack of communication and inflexibility.
“She just kind of railroads over you; that’s how she is,” said a teacher we’ll call Jane Jones. “She just doesn’t seem to know what we do on a daily basis … she has no idea what goes on here and she just throws out these rules and standards. And when we try to voice our concerns she ignores us or takes it out on us … sure, you can believe we are afraid for our jobs, but we’re more afraid for our students.”
Although Smith has not yet filed charges regarding these incidents, she said she has filed charges with the Department of Labor and the California Labor Board regarding Berman’s handling of staffing, support and overtime pay issues, but according to Peggy Marshburn, chief communications officer with the county, there has been no such notification of charges filed. In the case of the playground and tricycle incidents, if the tire swing or tricycles are included in any of the students IEPs, it’s possible the county could be looking at compliance issues.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they are out of compliance,” said Jones. “I’d be surprised if they weren’t.”
For the teachers, the endgame could go one of two ways. “I guess we would be happy with either having her gone or seeing some drastic changes in how things are handled,” said Jones. “I mean, we all want things to work out, but at this point it seems impossible.”
In the end, added Smith, it’s all about keeping the focus where it belongs – on the students.
“I guess my core problem with her (Berman) is that she’s all about the rules and not the kids and I’m all about the kids and not the rules,” she said. “The bottom line is that we all love the children and we want what’s best for them. If we can’t give them what they need, then we’ve got a problem. And I think we have a problem.”