State faults Salem-Keizer for failing to investigate staff injuries caused by students

The Salem-Keizer School District failed to report or investigate staff injuries caused earlier this year by students at Mary Eyre Elementary School and now faces state penalties.

The state Occupational Safety and Health Administration found evidence of two serious workplace safety violations and a third minor one, according to an investigation report obtained by Salem Reporter through a public records request. The state fined the district $1,700.

The state cited the district July 3 after a March complaint filed by Eyre teacher Monica DeMartino, who teaches students with disabilities in their own classroom.

The district has until Aug. 5 to correct the violations or seek an extension.

The school district’s risk manager, Katie Vorderstrasse, said the district wouldn’t appeal the findings and was taking steps to correct the violations.

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DeMartino claimed in a complaint, filed through attorney Ralph Wiser, that she had been injured by students many times, as had classroom aides and other staff assigned to help her in class.

“One instructional assistant, perhaps the most skilled in restraining violent and disruptive students, experienced at least a dozen injuries in a short amount of time (to include bleeding arms, a snapped jaw, student kicking, grabbing, punching, biting injuries, spitting behaviors and the like),” the complaint said.

The state investigation found the school and district did not investigate several injuries that led to time loss, including a Jan. 30 incident in which a student knocked down DeMartino, ran over her with a cart and threw books at her. The resulting injuries kept her off work for 92 days.

State investigators fined the district $700 for that violation.

Document: Mary Eyre Elementary School citation and penalty

Vorderstrasse said those incidents were investigated, but those investigations hadn’t been documented at the time of the OSHA inspection because Eyre principal Corina Valencia-Cushman was behind on completing reports.

To prevent that from happening again, the district will underscore to school safety committees their responsibility to investigate accidents and analyze causes. District employees will create a new worksheet for accident investigations with a reminder to include behavior staff when the accident was caused by student behavior, she said.

Administrators and office managers will be given new training and a worksheet to track their duties regarding an accident. The district will now run periodic reports to identify incomplete reports.

The district requires an employee’s supervisor to complete a report after a staff injury detailing their investigation and preventative steps.

Following the Jan. 30 injury, Eyre staff started using a more structured daily schedule “with increased predictability for the students” which “resulted in less aggressive and hazardous behavior,” Vorderstrasse wrote in a response to the OSHA complaint.

DeMartino’s classroom was also de-cluttered, with scissors and other items placed in locked cabinets out of student reach.

Investigators found the Eyre Elementary safety committee had only three members, none of whom were teachers. The school should have had at least four members, including one teacher, because the school’s function is teaching, the report said. Instead, the committee was made up of the office manager, a custodian and a classroom aide.

A licensed teacher has been added to the Eyre safety committee, Vorderstrasse said, and safety committee chairs at other schools will be reminded of the requirements for the committee.

Employees were also not adequately trained on using protective equipment available in the classroom, including spit masks, arm guards and protective mats and pads.

Vorderstrasse said the district will create a document for staff explaining how to use the equipment.

The state’s citation comes after a Salem Reporter investigation found Salem-Keizer teachers and aides are routinely injured by students on the job. Last school year, school employees reported 580 student-caused injuries to the district.

Most of those injuries did not require medical attention or time off, but the district paid more than $90,000 in worker’s compensation claims related to student injuries last year. Staff missed nearly 300 days of work because of those injuries.

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

On the day of DeMartino’s injury, two classroom aides were absent from work, leaving her and a pregnant aide as the only staff in her classroom, according to the state’s report.

DeMartino complained that a district reduction in one-on-one classroom aides assigned to work with specific students led to inadequate staffing in her classroom, which resulted in more violence from students.

“The complainant often did not have enough trained staff to perform restraints on assaultive or disruptive students,” the attorney, Wiser, wrote in the complaint.

The district disputed that statement, telling state investigators that there have been more efforts to train staff through the Office of Behavioral Learning, established in late 2017, and to have skilled staff in schools who can respond to assaultive students.

“Our challenge is finding a way to keep employees safe while working with students that have unpredictable and sometimes aggressive behaviors.  OSHA does not have a standard for how this work can be done safely. There is not an approved list of personal protective equipment that should be used for this hazard or how to train employees regarding its use in a school environment,” Vorderstrasse wrote in an email.

She said the nature of working with children adds a layer of complexity.

“This situation is not comparable to one at, say, a construction site. This comes from incidents caused by children who sometimes don’t even understand they are injuring adults. There is a human component to this that must be understood,” Vorderstrasse wrote.

OSHA conducted three other inspections at Salem-Keizer facilities in the past five years and issued no citations in two, agency spokesman Aaron Corvin said. In August 2017, OSHA cited the district failing to protect against worker falls at Liberty Elementary School.

It’s not the first time Oregon OSHA has fined an elementary school over injuries and policies related to student behavior.

In March, OSHA fined Portland Public Schools $6,340 for six violations at Sabin Elementary School after an investigation found staff were not properly trained in the potential hazards of student behavior and the school had not investigated all reported time-lost injuries.

The Portland fines were higher because the investigation concluded the probability of staff injury was higher than in Salem-Keizer, Corvin said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.