A B.C. education assistant has won her job back after being accused of "pushing" an autistic nine-year-old who had previously clawed at her face and kicked her in the nose.
The woman was fired last May for actions that took place while she was trying to prevent the troubled girl from leaving a "calm room" for fear she might injure other students.
The student — who has a history of lying — claimed the education assistant pushed her to the ground and hurt her.
But in a decision that underscores the challenges of dealing with special needs children, a labour arbitrator said the woman may not have realized she shoved the girl in the heat of their confrontation.
'The most difficult student'
Canadian Union of Public Employees K-12 president's council head Warren Williams wouldn't comment on the specifics of the decision, but said the case highlights the extreme challenges facing education assistants.
"Throughout the province, education assistants are constantly being put in precarious situations with students, where students are acting out violently and being physically abusive" he told the CBC.
"That's a big issue and it's escalated over the last several years."
The names of the education assistant and the school district have been removed from the decision to protect the identities of all involved.
In his decision, arbitrator Gabriel Somjen says the nine-year-old presented "difficult behaviours."
"She would scream, throw tantrums, throw or destroy school equipment, throw chairs, overturn desks and engage in other dangerous and destructive actions," Somjen writes.
"She would lunge at staff and sometimes claw at them."
The student was also known to accuse the education assistant and principal of hurting her.
"These claims were false and known to staff to be false." the decision says.
"The student could be a danger to herself, workers and other students. She was the most difficult student in the school of approximately 100 students."
The education assistant, on the other hand, had a spotless record and "excellent" performance reviews.
She came up with the idea for a "calm room" where the student could "decompress."
"It had soft coverings, soothing lighting and a few playthings that the student enjoyed relaxing with," Somjen writes.
The education assistant would sit outside while the student calmed down.
A month before the incident, the education assistant told the school district she didn't want to work with the student anymore.
The child had clawed her face and kicked her in the nose, causing her to miss work.
But come April 4, nothing had changed.
The incident began during lunch break when the nine-year-old hit another student with a basketball. She ran into a classroom and hit a different education assistant.
The principal and the education assistant who was the subject of the complaint decided the calm room was needed.
"The student tried to get out of the room," Somjen writes.
"The [education assistant] told the student to go back into the calm room. The student refused, lunged at [her] and tried to claw her face."
The student told the principal six days later that the education assistant had "pushed her, hurt her and she fell to the ground."
But the education assistant testified that the student lunged at her while she was holding the door partly open with one hand. She claimed she blocked the student's advance with the other hand and shut the door.
She reported the incident almost immediately after it happened.
'A matter of a few seconds'
Somjen heard from another education assistant and a teacher who claimed they saw their colleague push the girl and saw the child fall.
The school's protocol required that in the case of attack, staff "were to stand back and only restrain the student when it was a matter of safety."
"All of this occurred in a matter of a few seconds," Somjen wrote as he compared the conflicting versions of events.
"I find that because this incident happened quickly and the [education assistant] and the student were in an anxious state, the [assistant] blocked the student's advance with the left hand and the student fell to the ground either because of the block or because she often did that when she was frustrated."
The arbitrator says that while the education assistant may have "honestly believed" she didn't push the girl, she should have been disciplined for moving toward the student instead of backing away.
But he found her termination excessive, saying she should get further training on responding to aggressive students instead.
He notes that the student, who had complained of being hurt, "went home at the end of the day in good spirits."