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ESPs Keep Students Safe

Driven by the tragic 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., special education paraeducator Jean Fay works today to improve student access to physical and mental health resources, and to push for common sense gun laws.

In Safe Hands, Sometimes-Harsh Realities

This issue of NEA Today highlights “safe,”one of five tenets used by NEA to illustrate how the work of education support professionals (ESPs) helps to meet the needs of the whole student. The five principles are listed at the top of this page.

We live in difficult, unsafe times. Students are exposed to environmental pollution, crime, violence, and abuse. Some of them walk to school through gang-infested neighborhoods. Students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) are often bullied and ostracized. Every student, no matter their neighborhood, parents’ income level, or ZIP code deserves to feel safe at a school.

Below you will meet with ESPs who provide students with a much-needed safe haven.

Victor Marquez, a school security officer in Redlands, Calif., spends quality time talking to students while protecting the campus. For more proof that ESPs help keep students safe, we’ll show you how Karen Barnes of Austin, Texas, stresses safety above all else when training bus drivers and monitors. She teaches them the rules of the road as well as how to prepare for student health emergencies and other safety needs. You’ll also learn about Jean Fay, a paraeducator from Amherst, Mass., who works tirelessly at all levels of the government helping to promote whole-child policies and programs that ensure student safety.

The Role of Educational Support Professionals in School Safety

By David Esquith, Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students

Editor’s Note: Every day, in every public school, ESPs keep students safe. School bus drivers know the proper evacuation routes and safety procedures on the bus. School security staff keep the school campus free of drugs, crime, and illegal substances. Trades staff keep campuses safe and clean. Student services professionals advocate for greater mental health resources. Secretaries intervene in bullying situations, and work to help the victim and the bully. Custodians serve on school safety committees. Nurses look for signals that a student may be shouldering an eating disorder, drug addiction, or other challenge. The list goes on, but what it comes down to is that ESPs contribute to student safety in ways that are significant and innumerable.

Their work must be supported by legislators, policymakers, and education leaders at all levels of the government. National policymakers like David Esquith from the U.S. Department of Education give us optimism that the work of ESPs does not go unnoticed in Washington, D.C. His essay (reprinted below) first appeared in the new ESP book online at

Helping schools to keep students safe is a challenge that I face as the director of the Office of Safe and Healthy Students at the U.S. Department of Education. And keeping my own two children—third-grade girls—safe is a worry I have in common with parents all over our country. In my professional life, I have a vantage point that enables me to be comforted by the data, which show that schools are safer now than they have ever been. As a parent, I am comforted knowing that the entire staff of dedicated professionals who work in my girls’ school are doing everything they can to ensure the safety of my children and all the children there.

The good news that our schools are increasingly safer is tempered by the progressively complex threats to safety that students and staff face on a daily basis. While technological advances have enhanced our ability to improve teaching and learning, they have also increased our children’s vulnerabilities and hastened their entry into adulthood. Schools, as self-organized learning environments, have responded to new and old threats by wisely engaging every adult in the school as equal partners in their efforts to keep students safe.

We know that certain locations in and around a school (e.g., bathrooms, cafeterias, and locker rooms) may be more unsafe than others, and that students may be more at risk in terms of their safety just before and after school.

Considering what we know about the places and times when students are at higher risk, it is common sense that school support staff play a key role in school safety.

Whether it is the computer technical staff person who recognizes that a school’s computer network is being used for cyberbullying, the bus driver who resolves a conflict before it escalates into a fight, or a custodian who makes sure that doors to the school building are kept securely locked from the outside—support staff play vital and unique roles in preventing violence and keeping schools safe. That they carry out this role so well is a tribute to their professionalism and dedication.

Profiles in SAFE


Citrus Valley High School, Redlands, California

School security staff are on the frontlines of school safety. From playground scuffles, students who smoke on school grounds, and mechanical accidents, to disasters—whether natural or manmade—and other situations, these highly trained professionals provide schools with leadership and expertise when it’s time to prepare for or react to a crisis.

In a recent NEA video, Victor Marquez, a security officer at Citrus Valley High School in Redlands, Calif., talks about the role he and his colleagues play in schools across the nation. To learn more about these versatile and committed professionals, visit



Austin Independent School District, Austin, Texas

Karen Barnes’ district educates approximately 85,000 students and embraces 129 diverse school communities. Austin Independence School District (AISD) also transports thousands of students along more than 370 school bus routes daily.

Safety is Barnes’ primary concern. Her certifications from the National Association of Pupil Transportation and the Texas Association of Pupil Transportation are proof. “I’ve been working for over 20 years in school transportation, but there are still things that I can learn, and the kids deserve to have people who want to do the very best possible job for them,” says Barnes.

While she doesn’t drive regularly, Barnes is responsible for the professional development of the 150 school bus drivers and approximately 75 bus monitors assigned to the Nelson Bus Terminal in Northeast Austin. Their training includes everything from teaching appropriate CPR and first aid procedures to wheelchair and car seat securement.

“One of my greatest passions is making sure children with special needs are able to safely ride in our buses,” says Barnes, who is known to visit students’ homes for wheelchair maintenance, and has a reputation for advocating fiercely with wheelchair companies on behalf of students.

Barnes recently designed and built a special needs wheelchair securement training station, which allows her to train more employees at one time. The station has become so popular that Barnes built a duplicate station at another terminal.

Some of the drivers trained by Barnes also transport students who are also moms bringing their infants to onsite daycare centers. This way, the young mothers can continue their education while their children receive quality care.

The infants ride in car seats installed by Barnes. To ensure safety measures are met, the AISD only utilizes car seats owned by the district. “I would love to be able to transport these mothers and infants together on coach buses so they would always have
air-conditioning in this Texas heat and could make connections with other young mothers determined to get their education,” Barnes says.



Crocker Farm Elementary School, Amherst, Massachusetts

When Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. became the site of a mass shooting in 2012, Jean Fay strengthened her commitment to keep schools safe and ensure students have access to physical and mental health services. Today, Fay is a staunch advocate for common-sense gun laws—locally and nationally.

“Turning our public schools into fortresses is not the answer,” Fay says. “Instead of arming our school staff with guns, we should be arming them with the resources needed to continue to provide the best possible education for our students.”

Knowledge, passion, activism, and transformation are four words that define Fay’s work.

“We need to be having conversations about ensuring that educators have increased access to mental health services for their students,” she says. “We need conversations about taking meaningful action on gun violence prevention.”

The children of our nation, she adds, are the most valuable resource we possess. Says Fay: “We need to provide a school environment where children feel safe and nurtured. Arm our teachers, our guidance counselors, our support staff with the resources they need to reach and teach every student, every day.”
Recently, the Northwest District Attorney for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), NEA, and other partners sponsored the third annual Safe School Summit in Holyoke, Mass.

As a member of the District Attorney’s Citizens Advisory Board, Jean Fay was instrumental in the planning and implementation of the recent third annual Safe School Summit, held in Holyoke, Mass. A joint effort of the Northwest District Attorney for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, MTA, NEA, and other partners, the event brought together educators, elected leaders, law enforcement personnel, judicial staff, social and health service providers, parents, and community members.

At the state level, Fay is a member of the Task Force on School Safety and Security and the Elementary and Secondary Education Safe and Secure Schools Commission.

Unfortunately we continue to put politics before the safety of children,” Fay says. “I’m hopeful that soon this will change, and that we’ll have common sense gun regulation.”

To learn more about Jean Fay, visit:

ESP Grantees: Innovative, Dedicated

NEA Foundation grants support educators’ ideas and practices to strengthen teaching and learning, and we are proud to acknowledge the foundation’s newest ESP grantees. Many of their projects were created in partnership with a teacher—proof that students benefit when educators work as a team.

Grantees were selected based on the quality of the grant proposal, and potential for enhancing student outcomes. Grants are awarded three times a year and fund $2,000 and $5,000 projects for classroom instruction or professional development.

Deadlines for the next round of applications are June 1 and October 15, 2016, and February 1, 2017. To apply, visit


Pang Moua, ESP, and Sherry Kempf, teacher, St. Paul Public Schools, St. Paul, Minnesota

“Through Dakota Eyes” is a program that encourages students to experience the history and culture of the Dakota people through lesson plans and by participating in field trips to historical sites related to this American Indian tribe. Accompanied by educators, students study these native people of Minneapolis and Saint Paul through their perspective.


Deborah McEaddy, ESP, and Karen Ciotta, teacher, Epes Elementary School, Newport News, Va.

Through “Classroom on Wheels,” science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) merge with museums and theater visits to boost experiential learning. Through hands-on activities, with an emphasis on English language learners, the program aims to close achievement gaps.


ESPs Julie Wickersham and Dave Walk, Lincoln Middle School, Clarkston, Washington

As they produce videos featuring positive behavior intervention and support scenarios, students learn about health and wellness. They write scripts, analyze and produce lessons, and share films with classmates during daily lunch sessions. The hands-on lessons also promote computer skills.


Brenda Mullin, ESP, and Lisa Savage, literacy coach, Rural School District #70, North Anson, Maine

To improve writing instruction for students, Savage and other colleagues receive social studies training in using mentor texts and digital platforms. They also work with teachers to plan and implement student writing lessons.


Sharry Sparks, ESP, Rye Junior High School, and Dr. Irving Richardson, School Administration Unit 50, Rye, New Hampshire

Titled “Envisioning Stronger Para-Professionals,” Sparks and Richardson’s leadership training sessions include current and aspiring paraeducators from school districts that do not offer professional development opportunities.


Sue Zimmerman, ESP, and Emily Dietrich, teacher, Howard Elementary School, Green Bay, Wisconsin

Dietrich, Zimmerman, and others will receive training and work with a cohort to learn strategies to ensure students can self-regulate their emotions and communicate their needs. The team of educators will teach students targeted social skills, analyze the effectiveness of the lessons, and share the results with colleagues.


ESPs by the Numbers

  • 92 percent say their job responsibilities involve promoting school safety.
  • 57 percent feel they have effective strategies for handling bullying at school.
  • 59 percent have witnessed bullying behavior, and
  • 89 percent of these have intervened or tried to stop it.
  • 45 percent have witnessed school violence.
  • 85 percent of these have intervened or tried to stop school violence.
  • 82 percent strongly believe they are safe at school, despite news reports about school violence.
  • 97 percent say their district has a policy on bullying prevention.
  • 57 percent have received training on how to implement this policy.
National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.