A middle school teacher and her former aide are suing the Clover Park School District in Steilacoom, Wash., for failing to protect them from a violent special-education student.

“It’s a kind of hellish condition to have to work in,” said attorney Hal Hodgins, who represents Woodbrook Middle School teacher Jeanette Vallandigham and teacher’s aide Melinda Clarke. “When someone becomes a teacher’s aide, they don’t necessarily see themselves as becoming a wrestler.”

School district spokeswoman Kim Prentice declined to discuss specifics of the case.

The lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court, contends the district required the two women to work with a boy administrators knew to be violent. It seeks unspecified damages.

Vallandigham is still at the school. Clarke hasn’t worked there since November.

Hodgins contends the district should have placed the boy in a more restrictive environment.

“My question is, where?” said Bill Coats, an attorney who represents the district. “If they’re not going to be in the classroom … where should they be?”

During the past 10 to 15 years, Coats said, the state has significantly reduced the number of “special needs” students placed at residential schools. Such students go to public school, and the state requires they be taught in the least restrictive environment possible.

According to court documents in the suit, the student–now 15, Hodgins said–hurt both women on several occasions.

On Oct. 26, 1999, the lawsuit alleges he knocked Vallandigham down. As she fell, she hit her head on a cabinet and lost consciousness. The next day, he bit Clarke on the breast and scratched her hand.

“Very frequently, this student would attack people, and it would take one or more adults to restrain the student,” Hodgins said. “And the teachers on countless occasions told the administration of the school that this was a problem and it was out of hand, and something needed to be done. And almost nothing was done about it.”

The state Office of Public Instruction doesn’t track violence against teachers, nor does the teachers’ union, the Washington Education Association.

WEA spokesman Rich Wood said he doesn’t think there’s been a significant increase in violence toward teachers or other school workers, “but we do think there’s an increased awareness.”

“Wherever you work, you deserve a safe environment,” Wood said. “You can go back not too far in history where that was not necessarily the expectation.”

Statewide, education was among the top 10 employment arenas for workers’ compensation claims from 1992 to 1997, according to the state Department of Labor and Industries’ “1999 Violence in Washington Workplaces.”

In 1992, elementary and secondary school employees accounted for about 2.9 percent of the state’s 2,631 workers’ compensation claims for violence by another person or an animal. The percentage rose slightly each year until it peaked at 4 percent of 1,983 claims statewide in 1996. It then dropped to 3.9 percent of 2,145 claims in 1997–the most recent year for which department figures are available.