Van Roekel: Education Support Professionals Keep Students Safe Every Day

By John Rosales

Speaking to a group of educators attending the Safe School Summit in Northampton, Massachusetts, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel noted the courage and quick-thinking of school support staff professionals like Charles Poland Jr., the Alabama school bus driver who stood off a gunman refusing his demands to turn over two young children. Poland’s courage allowed 21 students enough time to evacuate the bus before he was shot and killed.

“Every single day, ESPs (education support professionals) are saving lives,” Van Roekel said Wednesday on National ESP Day, which is part of American Education Week. “They do it for the children. That’s their grounding force.”

Van Roekel also noted that when an armed gunman entered McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia, in August, the school’s bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff, was able to talk him into putting down his weapon and giving himself up to the police. And last month when a man with a knife hijacked a school bus in Arkansas and took 11 elementary school students on a 10-mile detour, their driver, Sheila Hart, contained a potentially deadly situation until police intervened.

“These were incredible acts of heroism,” Van Roekel said. “Their (ESP’s) instinctive behavior is always student-centered.”

National ESP Day honors the contributions school support workers make to education. Of NEA’s approximately 3 million members, almost 500,000 are ESPs.

“Today, more than any other day during the year, ESPs will be acknowledged not only for their job expertise, work ethic, and sense of public service, but also for the contributions they make toward student safety, student health, and student achievement,” said Donna Schulze, NEA’s 2013 ESP of the Year, who also spoke at the event, co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, and NEA.

“If there is one thing (ESPs) have in common it is that we want our students to succeed,” Schulze said. “We want them to reach their full potential in the classroom, in the band room, in the art studio, in the science lab, on the playing field.”

A member of the Maryland State Education Association, Schulze said ESPs as much as anyone want students to graduate and enroll in some type of higher education.

“We want them well-rounded and ready for the rigors of college, or to enter the military, or a trade school, or wherever else their heart might take them,” she said.

There are approximately 3 million school support staff workers in the United States. NEA has developed a system of nine job groups to help people understand the diverse roles ESPs play at school.

“What is an ESP?” asked Laura Montgomery, president of the National Council of ESPs, during her presentation. “We work throughout our schools to help the children learn and prosper and feel good about themselves.”

Van Roekel noted that being in Massachusetts just a few days before the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, reminded him of how President Kennedy had inspired a nation.

“He (Kennedy) said, “Some people see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream of things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?” Van Roekel said. “That (quote) transcends the time. And the “why not” describes our work (as educators).”

The school summit was emceed by Jean Fay, who also helped to organize the event. Held at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center, the event included attendees from five counties in the western part of the state. Fay is an ESP with the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). Paul Toner, MTA president, introduced Van Roekel.