For weeks this fall, Eric Poulin raised safety concerns about staffing in his classroom for students with autism.

He would regularly bring up vacancies, absences and a lack of substitute coverage at meetings with administrators of the Beach program in Portland Public Schools, which is for students with high needs who often need one-on-one attention.

The teacher’s concerns were dismissed or never followed up on.

Then on Oct. 14, the news broke that an education technician in Poulin’s classroom had been charged with sexually exploiting a student – an incident Poulin blames at least partly on staffing.

Police said Benjamin Conroy had shared photos on a dating site of a child’s hand appearing to engage in a sexual act. After they identified him as an employee of Portland Public Schools, they were able to match the floor tiling and chair in the Ocean Avenue Elementary School classroom with the background of the photos. Conroy was fired Oct. 27.

The sexual exploitation of  a child is an extreme example of what can happen with too few staff, but other serious problems often arise, Poulin said. And while the case has already prompted some changes in the Beach program, Poulin and fellow staff in his K-1 classroom believe that more should be done. They feel however, that their concerns and suggestions aren’t being taken seriously.


“I’m not going to claim I saw this type of crime occurring, but it’s all sort of wrapped up in that same issue of we need to be there for these students and provide for their safety as well as their educational needs,” he said.

On Oct. 25, Poulin emailed his principal at Ocean Avenue and the district’s leaders of student support services. He spelled out his concerns and said he felt the district was being dishonest when it told reporters that week that it had “no indication” that Ben Conroy, the ed tech who had been charged, had been left alone with the student due to staffing shortages.

“The district reported to the press the number of positions the program has but neglected to mention that we haven’t had a single day this year when all of those positions were filled, nor did they mention the problem of absences without coverage within the program,” Poulin wrote. “These are issues that have repeatedly been raised by ed techs, specialists, and teachers alike, all of whom represent a combined decades of experience working with this population.”

Poulin said he was hoping for a chance to discuss his concerns, but instead got what “felt very much like a disciplinary meeting” with the district’s director of student support services, Jesse Applegate, who told him he needed to cooperate more with the administration. He said he has since been left out of a work group that was convened to evaluate the Beach program and recommend possible changes.

“My perception was that the administration … was very irritated with me and did not want me on that work group,” Poulin said.

The Press Herald obtained a copy of Poulin’s email through a public records request. He and other staff in the K-1 Beach classroom at Ocean Avenue agreed to talk about their concerns about the program and what kinds of changes they thought could be made to improve it.


Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana asked if he could respond to questions about the program in writing, rather than in an interview, because he said he would need to consult staff and records and it would allow him to be more accurate.

The Press Herald also requested, through a district spokesperson, to speak to Applegate and Assistant Director of Student Support Services Julie Kirby but was told all questions should be directed to Botana.

Botana said in his written response that the district is aware that some staff in the Beach program have been concerned about staffing levels and that officials are monitoring staffing levels closely. But he also said again that the district has found no indication that Conroy was left alone with any student due to a shortage of staff.

“From the beginning of the school year until Mr. Conroy was fired, there were never less than 15 adults in the program on a given day, and there were usually more than that,” Botana wrote. “It would always have been possible to ensure that there were multiple adults in any room with students.”

Botana did cite one problem he thought was a factor.

“We believe that the issue was a lack of explicitly documented expectations around staff being alone with a student,” he wrote.


He went on to say that a new procedure is now in place in elementary school classrooms in the Beach program.

“In the immediate term, we have established an explicit procedure that staff are not to be alone in a room with a student,” the superintendent wrote. “If they escort a student from the classroom to another location (such as a mainstream class) without another adult present, they call to check in with the classroom once they arrive at their destination.”


Beach is a special education program for students with a diagnosis of autism who also have high needs and require access to special supports and a smaller class setting for most or all of the day. The name, which dates back to its launch in 2011, is a rough acronym for Supporting Behavior, Emotional, Academics, Communication, Hygiene needs for students with Autism. Today the program is simply known as Beach.

Beach enrolls 32 students districtwide. In addition to Ocean Avenue’s two classrooms for K-1 students and students in grades 2-5, it has one classroom each at Lincoln Middle School and Portland High School.

Ocean Avenue’s Beach staff, which serves 17 students, is composed of two teachers, 17 ed techs, a full-time speech pathologist, a part-time behavior analyst and a part-time occupational therapist.


The high level of staffing is necessary because of the students’ needs. Many of the students have limited communication skills, show frequent physical aggression, are prone to self-injury, have poor self-care skills and have difficulty initiating social interaction or responding to social overtures from others. They typically are in mainstream classrooms for 40 percent of their time in school or less.

Under Maine’s special education regulations, Beach classrooms are defined as self-contained, which means they require higher than normal staff-child ratios. For ages 5 to 9, they must have no more than six students per staff member. But additional adult support may be called for in students’ Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, which are legal documents spelling out special education plans for students with disabilities.

Students in the K-1 classroom have IEPs that call for either one-to-one ed tech support or one-to-one adult support, which Poulin said means they should have their own ed techs.

“If teachers are working one to one with a student, they’re not fulfilling the duties and obligations of being a teacher – and so it’s not practical to include teachers in that ratio,” Poulin said. “If I’m on ratio, it’s very difficult for me to be available if there’s a behavioral incident or if someone needs help dealing with a student for any reason.”

Botana said the current staffing plan, which includes one ed tech per student plus the teachers, speech pathologist, behavior analyst and other providers, is reasonable and provides a cushion that allows the program to run safely when some absences or vacancies are not filled by substitutes.

“Our goal is to have one staff member of any type in the room for each student in attendance, even on days with many absences,” Botana wrote. “We accomplished that on all but six days (this school year), and on those six days, we were at 0.9 staff per student (meaning we only had one or two less staff than needed for 1:1). This is still enough to run the program.”


Staff in the K-1 classroom at Ocean Avenue, however, described daily absences and high turnover as a constant challenge and said that without a one-to-one ed tech present for each student, the program can be chaotic. They blame turnover and absences in large part on the stress of working with high-needs students.

“The theme is we’ll hire somebody and it takes them a couple of weeks (to get oriented),” said Carey Knowles, an ed tech who is in her third year working in the program. “They come for a couple weeks and they leave. That’s the theme of what’s been happening with the new staff.”

While fewer than 8 percent of teachers and ed techs are absent on a daily basis across the district, the daily absence rate in the elementary Beach program is 13.5 percent.

“There is a very high attrition rate and very high stress level that negatively affects people’s health and well-being,” Poulin said. “It’s a problem that is compounded by lack of a sufficient plan to provide subs when there are vacancies and absences. Then people are even more stressed. The room is more chaotic and it gets harder for the people who are there and they have to call out. So it just keeps cycling.”

COVID-19 also has contributed to daily staff shortages. One ed tech, Lindsey Duca, estimated she’s been out 18 days this year due to COVID exposures, mostly at her son’s day care. “Almost every week we have at least one staff out or two, and they don’t send replacements or subs for those people,” Duca said.

Not having enough staff presents safety concerns, Duca said. Recently, she said, a student who was without a one-on-one ed tech for the day slammed a door on another child’s toe, and the injured child had to be sent home. That same day, the child missing an ed tech hit Duca on the head with a whiteboard and she wound up with a mild concussion, she said.


“It’s just one example of one day where we weren’t able to have one-on-ones and that’s what happened,” Duca said.

Too few staff also makes it harder to ensure students are learning and getting access to “specials,” classes like art, music and gym that take place in other parts of the school, Duca said. On one recent day, she was assigned two students in a music class and tried to keep them from running around and banging on all the instruments.

“I’m trying to redirect one kiddo and the other may or may not be following along,” Duca said. “They may be trying to (run off) or also banging on instruments. It’s the way they work. Without the one-on-one, there’s no work being done really. It’s just survival.”

Allysia Eldred, an ed tech who started in the K-1 classroom in September, agreed staffing is “a challenge.”

“I feel like we’ve had staff come in from other agencies to support us as needed, but I haven’t seen it be consistent,” she said.

Molly Philbrick, another ed tech, said she has brought staffing concerns to both Kirby, the assistant director of student support services, and the union that represents ed techs. Once last fall, she said, when Kirby visited the classroom, she told her the students were not getting the education they should because of short staffing.


“I told her it feels unsafe and she said, ‘All that matters is that they’re here,'” Philbrick said.

“The administration has never been supportive towards us,” said her fellow ed tech Knowles. “They just think we’re lazy. These concerns, these major safety and staffing concerns we’ve been trying to bring up, they are just saying it’s not a problem and it hasn’t been a problem when clearly it is. … They’re just not hearing what we have to say and doing anything about it.”

Poulin, who started as the K-1 classroom teacher in the fall of 2020, said staffing concerns became more of an issue when the program returned to full in-person learning last spring, and said he has been raising concerns with Kirby and Applegate at least since the start of the school year. He said he believes the staffing situation contributed to Conroy being alone with a student. “Yes, I strongly believe that was a factor,” Poulin said.


Aside from making it clear after Conroy’s arrest that no staff member in a Beach elementary classroom should be in a room alone with a student, the district hired an outside consultant, Dirigo Consulting, to evaluate the program to help inform recommendations in such areas as instructional practices, classroom climate and classroom management. The idea was to use the consultant’s findings in the work group formed to come up with recommendations for improvements.

The consultant issued a report in December based on immediate observations of, and recommendations for, the K-1 classroom. Most of the observations focused on physical and environmental concerns, describing the classroom as loud and distracting and noting a disorganized environment with items on the floor, personal belongings such as clothes left in common areas and open food containers and beverages.


The report has been shared with staff and some of the recommendations have already been acted on, Botana wrote. New storage units were brought in to reduce clutter and desks have been reorganized to create better workspaces for students. “We anticipate that additional recommendations will be considered and acted on in the future as well,” he wrote.

The district also convened the work group that Poulin was upset to be left out of, made up of staff from across the district assigned to the Beach program and other stakeholders. Poulin is the only teacher not to be included, which has upset his colleagues in the K-1 classroom.

In mid-October, shortly before the student Conroy photographed was scheduled to return to the classroom, Poulin wrote an email to the student’s mother about new safety protocols and procedures. Applegate asked for a copy of the email and told Poulin that, for the time being, all communication with the family would need to go through the administration.

That’s what prompted Poulin’s Oct. 25 email, in which he stated the concerns he and members of his staff shared that the district had been “less than truthful and occasionally misleading” with parents and the press. Specifically, he pointed to the district’s Oct. 14 statement to the Press Herald that it had “no indication” Conroy was left alone with students as a result of staff vacancies.

“I understand there is a wide-spread staffing problem throughout the district, but perhaps there could be a contingency plan developed in the meantime that would allow us to avoid sacrificing the safety of our most vulnerable students until we can get the staff we need,” Poulin wrote.

He said he hoped that the meeting that followed with Applegate would be an opportunity for him to get a better understanding of the district’s position on the staffing problems, but instead Applegate “turned that meeting into a formal meeting with HR.”


“It felt very much like a disciplinary meeting, though they claimed it was not a disciplinary meeting …,” Poulin said. “It was made clear I needed to work on my relationship with administrators, that I was perceived as being contentious.”

Prior to sending the email, Poulin said, he had never heard any concerns about his job performance, professionalism or relationship with administrators. He shared a letter he said was put in his employment file after the meeting saying he was uncooperative and preoccupied with the issue of staffing.

When he was not asked to be part of the districtwide work group, Poulin said he emailed administrators expressing an interest in being included. He was told the district wanted to keep a “balance of roles” between teachers, ed techs, administrators and others.

“However, that doesn’t make sense given that three of four teachers are on the work group and only one was excluded: me,” Poulin said.

Botana, in his written response to questions, said Poulin is not in the workgroup because the teacher from the 2-5 classroom is representing the elementary program.

“The decision to appoint staff was made by district management and was not due to the concerns Mr. Poulin raised about the program. There are two ed-techs from the K-1 program on the workgroup,” Botana wrote.



The ed techs in Poulin’s room signed an email sent in December to the unions representing teachers and ed techs. They asked the unions to help advocate for Poulin to be part of the work group, but they never heard back, Philbrick said.

“The Dirigo consultants noted that our room was ‘uniquely challenging’ and as staff we believe more representation will best support our classroom,” read the email pitch.

Carrie Foster, president of the Portland Education Association, did not answer a question about whether the union had received and responded to the email. She said staff vacancies and absences have been a daily challenge throughout the pandemic.

“Educators in every school and in district special programs like Beach are foregoing lunch and prep time in order to be with their students when colleagues are out sick or a position hasn’t been filled,” Foster said in an email. “We know it’s a national challenge, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult.

“The PEA has been very involved, meeting with educators and administrators virtually, in classrooms, and in workgroups trying to find solutions. It’s been a rough year, and we want to bring forward the expertise of the people on the ground in whatever ways we can.”


Staff in the K-1 classroom say they understand there are worker shortages nationwide but they still want to see changes made in their program.

They said they would like the district to consider creating a “floater” position for an ed tech who could serve as a permanent substitute when staff are absent and could help prepare materials, bring students to other parts of the school and assist with behavior management at other times.

“If we could have a floater, I feel like that would really benefit the program,” Knowles said. “They’ve tried to change everything else about the room like taking out the cubbies so the kids don’t have access to open toys, but that wouldn’t be a problem if that kid had the staff.”

Sara Connolly, a former teacher in the K-1 classroom who left in October 2020, said that the district should also look at low pay and a lack of incentives to take on the additional duties in self-contained programs like Beach. Pay for ed techs in Portland Public Schools ranges from $15 per hour to $26 per hour depending on education and experience and is negotiated through collective bargaining. Aside from normal classroom duties, Beach ed techs also take students to the bathroom and perform physical work like lifting and restraining students.

“People would far rather take a normal ed tech job because at the end of the day there’s no compensation or incentive to take that harder job,” Connolly said. She said staff could also use more training and time to collaborate.

“I know pay isn’t going to go up by a whole lot, but I think preparation would make a huge difference,” Connolly said. “They really need time without students there that they can problem-solve, discuss and critique each other, things like that.”

After the Conroy news broke, Duca said she noticed more of an effort to get substitutes when someone was out. “There were three or four weeks there where we were well-staffed. We liked it. It was manageable for us,” she said.

But then that stopped.

“It’s frustrating,” Duca said. “It feels like all of us are banging our head against the wall or we’re just being labeled whiners, when really we’re fulfilling our part of the job. Part of my job is to advocate for these kiddos. So is Eric’s. It’s all of ours.”

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