Classified employees often see themselves as guardians of students and are vigilant at all times inside and outside of schools. Providing students a safe learning environment isn’t just a matter of keeping intruders out of schools, correcting behavioral issues or being mindful of possible threats. It’s also about building relationships and being positive authority figures.
“We all look out for our students because we sincerely care about them,” Association President Michael Bilbrey said. “We are often in a unique position to give them the support or help they need whether they face an outside threat or whether they’re dealing with personal issues. This is what makes classified employees extraordinary in the work we do.”
When Antioch paraeducator Sandra Ferguson saw an 11-year-old student get into a stranger’s car, she knew right away that she had to act to keep the student safe.
“I drove by and saw the student on the sidewalk kind of looking around. I kept looking at her and saw that she got into a truck with a man,” Ferguson said. “I went over and asked the girl if that was her dad and she said it wasn’t. I told her twice to get out of the car and then I pulled her out.”
Besides pulling the girl away from any possible harm, Ferguson blocked the suspected kidnapper’s truck so that he couldn’t get away until police were able to apprehend him. The sense of responsibility for the well being of the 11-year-old girl also drives her to provide exceptional care for the students at Sutter Elementary School every day.
“To me, they’re all my little ones until I hand them over to their parents, grandparents or baby sitters,” she said.
Ferguson, a member of Antioch Chapter 85, works as a paraeducator in a transitional kindergarten classroom at Sutter. She said that since she works with the youngest of students, she is extra vigilant about identifying threats to their safety.
“You become like a second mom in a way,” she said. “You know when they are sick or when they are not feeling well, and the parents are very appreciative of that.”
Classified employees like Ferguson understand the massive responsibility they have with students. They know who belongs on campus and are always on the look-out for hazards. They can identify when a student is acting oddly or may be having problems at home. Classified employees often receive training on keeping students safe from attackers and are required to report suspected abuse.
For some classified employees, maintaining safety and order on school grounds is their primary responsibility. Some CSEA members work as sworn police officers maintaining public safety at community college campuses. Others work at elementary and high schools keeping students safe as campus supervisors, security and noon duty supervisors. Adam Weinberger, a campus supervisor for the Perris Union High School District and member of Perris Valley Chapter 469, said that building relationships and earning their trust is key to keeping students safe.
“We are like counselors to students,” he said. “We build relationships and have a good rapport with them. Sometimes they just want to vent because they feel their teachers don’t understand them. We talk to these students in ways they can relate.”
Campus security personnel maintain safe learning environments and correct students when their behavior is wrong. Sean Katz, a campus security officer for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, said he takes pride in seeing how his work contributes to the well-being of students.
“We are advocates for the students and we are here to aid them—not necessarily to punish them,” said Katz, a member of Newport-Mesa Chapter 18.
“I have always liked working with students. I like talking to them and seeing how they grow. I like seeing how what we do on a daily basis affects the students and how we help them turn negatives into positives.”
Katz added that looking out for the safety of the students is sometimes about showing them that people care about them. Other members agree that it’s important to make a personal connection with the students they serve. They show students they care by communicating in a positive manner and by being good role models.
Rhonda Valdez, a noon duty aide at Laneview Elementary School in San Jose and member of Berryessa Chapter 364, said that besides looking out for the safety of the students, she tries to show them that she is there to be helpful in any way she can.
“We help them get their lunches, we get condiments for them if they need them and we supervise them during their playtime,” she said. “We add a personal touch by getting to know these kids first-hand.”
Like Valdez, CSEA members working at schools across California take the time to get to know and talk to students. Sometimes, classified positions that the public doesn’t connect to school safety have a lot to do with protecting students. Linda Silva, a member of Rialto Chapter 203, said that as the secretary at an adult education center who works at the entrance to campus, her job is to make sure that the students are in class and that people who don’t belong there stay out.
“We get to know the students so we know who belongs on campus and who doesn’t,” she said.
Silva added school secretaries are generally the people who file work orders. If there is a light out or if there is any safety hazard, the secretaries make sure the problem is corrected.
“We’re the main contact people on campus,” she said. “We make sure everything stays lit. We contact security if there is something going on. We make work orders if we notice anything is unsafe.”
Maintenance workers such as landscapers, custodians and trades workers also play important roles in safety. They work to ensure safe learning environments for students by identifying and removing hazards. They provide another set of watchful eyes and helping hands on campus. Many times, these workers have deep ties in the community. They connect with students in a meaningful way and are able to foresee problems or work with students to resolve behavioral issues.
Custodian Ralph Barnette, a member of Vallejo Chapter 199, said he keeps the facilities clean and sanitized; does daily inspections of the campus to ensure it is safe and free of hazards; and he is knowledgeable of lockdown procedures and is instrumental in keeping people who don’t belong on campus off the school grounds. He frequently is called to assist with irate parents and potential safety issues.
As someone who’s on campus every day, Barnette said he has earned the students’ trust so they confide in him.
“Sometimes they come to me first before they talk to the teachers so I can help them work out their differences,” he said.
Since Barnette is a longtime resident of his community and has built relationships with the students, his district sent him to a restorative justice summit attended by representatives from schools throughout the country to learn how to help students deal with discipline issues. He is often assigned to mentor troubled students.
“We keep kids from getting suspended and expelled by working with the parents and counselors,” he said.
Barnette added he feels it’s the job of all school employees to look after the students.
“In the grand scheme of things, we are all there for the well-being of the students,” he said. “Sometimes we have that first contact with them before the teachers so each one of us is very important.”
Classified employees embody their role as guardians of students and are on the constant lookout for their safety. Because of this, Golden Plains Unified School District bus driver Ruben Mendoza was able to save the life of a child.
On an afternoon when he was taking students home from school on his bus, Mendoza, a member of Golden Plains Chapter 650, noticed that two large dogs had a hold of a child on the sidewalk.
“I was doing a drop off at three in the afternoon when I saw the dogs about 500 yards in front,” he said. “When I got close, I saw one of the dogs had the kid by the thigh and one had him by the head. They had him on the ground like a ragdoll. I was going to pull over and try to scare them with my air horn but I saw that I had to get out and get these dogs off the kid or they would kill him. I grabbed a tire pumper to try to scare the dogs and got off the bus. There was also another gentleman with a rake that helped get the dogs off the kid.”
Mendoza said the dogs kept coming back trying to attack the child but he and the other man managed to keep them off the child, who was scared, mauled and covered in blood. The child was hurt but was able to recover from the attack. Mendoza’s actions are another example of the bravery and sense of duty classified employees possess.
Mendoza’s job is to ensure student safety every day when he takes them to school in the morning and back home in the afternoon.
“Keeping kids safe is what I do,” he said. “I make the students on the bus wear their seatbelts. I tell them to remain seated. I make sure they follow the rules on the bus.”
According to classified employees that specialize in student safety, there is a lot that all those who work in schools can do to protect students. Some say that just the fact that classified employees take time out of their day to greet students and talk to them increases safety because that’s a good way to find out if trouble is brewing and to diffuse volatile situations.
“Sometimes, when we give them that acknowledgement it brightens their day,” said Jonathan Bengco, a Newport-Mesa Unified School District security officer and member of Newport-Mesa Chapter 18. “That feeling that someone is watching out for them changes their whole view of that day.”
Besides engaging students, classified employees foster a safe learning environment by being models of respectful relationships. They are examples of people who can communicate effectively instead of resorting to verbal assaults or physical violence. They show students positive ways to vent their frustrations or resolve their differences.
He said that many times, classroom aides have been the ones to stop fights. Food service workers often cooperate with security because they can keep an eye out and help prevent problems.
“The classified employees are on the front lines at the schools,” Katz said. “Classified employees and safety go hand in hand. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”