Educators at the Groden Center schools in Providence and Coventry picketed on the East Side of Providence to demand safer classrooms for their students and living wages for staff. The informational picket comes less than a week after WPRI/Channel 12 reported that the non-profit had bought an Audi A3 for their CEO.

“We feel we are left with no other choice but call public attention to what’s going on,” said Kaile Bautista, a Behavior Specialist at Groden North school in Providence. “Parents and taxpayers have the right to know what management wants to sweep under the rug: that many of our students are not receiving even the basics of their educational needs due to our safety and staffing crisis.”

Groden staff are currently negotiating a contract with Groden management. Their primary goal, they say, is to reduce turnover and ensure a safe learning environment for students. They say that while they’ve proposed many measures to improve the schools, management denies they are in a crisis and has not taken their proposals seriously. This is unacceptable to staff like Bautista.

“They are refusing to pay a living wage, improve staffing levels, or adequately address our safety concerns,” said Bautista. “That’s why we’re standing up for ourselves and our students.”

The Groden Center is a non-profit that serves students with Autism from around the region. Students who struggle in traditional public schools are sent to Groden, at tax-payer expense, so they can receive specialized education more suited to their educational needs. The school districts believe the students will be taught by professionals who are familiar with the students and have training and expertise in educating students with autism. Instead, staff say, students are too-often watched over by temporary agency staff. Currently over one third of the classroom shifts for behavioral specialists are being covered by temporary staff that lacks training and familiarity with students.

“Things have never been this bad,” said Bob Arruda, a Behavior Specialist who’s worked at Groden for 20 years. “Every day now our students are put in the care of a rotating cast of temporary agency staff, who don’t know their needs and don’t have the training to help them learn to their full potential.”

The Groden staff say that for children with Autism, consistency is a cornerstone of their education and well-being. The constant turn-over and use of temporary staff not only deprives students of a quality education, it has resulted in daily occurrences of injuries and unsafe situations for students and staff.

The problem, educators say, is low-wages and backwards management priorities. While Behavior Specialists start at just $11.70/hr ($21,294 per year), managers make six-figure salaries and the companies founders were given million-dollar retirement packages. While vans used to transport students are falling apart and lack basic safety features, management bought luxury cars for top executives. In 2016, Groden hired disgraced former DCYF-head Janice DeFrances to be their CEO and paid her $152,218. DeFrances then also left Groden under controversial circumstances. Groden also provided a $1.2 million dollar golden parachute to one of its founders upon their retirement.

“I have been at Groden for six years and have seen countless staff leave for better paying jobs elsewhere,” said Allison Peterson, a Behavior Specialist in Coventry. “They love their job and the students but they leave because of mismanagement. Staff are making far below a living wage while managers pay themselves big salaries and spend money on temp-agency middle-men.”

The picket follows waves of labor action at other schools around the country this year, with teachers’ strikes in multiple states resulting in increases to education funding, better classroom-ratios, and higher wages for educators.

“Educators all around the country are standing up and saying ENOUGH!” Arruda said. “Today we’re joining the chorus and demanding that our management fix this crisis immediately. The quality of life for students and the staff that are committed to them depend on it.”

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