Salem-Keizer school staff report frequent violent attacks from students, union survey finds

A survey of more than 1,200 Salem-Keizer School District employees found over half reported a student had tried to harm them or someone else at school in the past year, according to a letter from two local teacher’s unions to the school board and district officials.

School employees reported they were frequently injured by aggressive students, with injuries ranging from broken bones to lasting emotional trauma, the letter said.

Survey respondents said that the district “is not always complying with its legal obligation to evaluate students with special needs after they act aggressively,” and that most employees reported they hadn’t been adequately trained on what to do when a student is violent.

The letter comes nearly four years after the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration found the school district failed to report or investigate staff injuries caused in 2019 by students at Mary Eyre Elementary School.

OSHA at the time found evidence of two serious workplace safety violations and a third minor one. The state fined the district $1,700.

The March 3 letter came from Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, and Edie Buchanan, president of the Association of Salem-Keizer Education Support Professionals. The unions collectively represent around 5,000 district employees.

Retiring superintendent Christy Perry told Salem Reporter that the district contacted OSHA last week to ask for a voluntary consultation “to find better ways that can support both staff and the education of our students.”

“We stand ready with our association partners to do this work,” she said in an email.

Perry said leaders of the district and its teacher unions have the same goals. 

“We all want safe spaces for our staff and strong education for our students – some of whom may be students with disabilities. We’ll continue to work with our association partners to find solutions that help create better conditions for our staff and continued support for the education of our students,” she said.

Of the employees surveyed who didn’t skip the question, 488 – about 51% – reported a student had tried to harm them or others in the last year, while 464  – or 49% – answered, “No.”

One employee reported that the same student had punched them in the face twice with no investigation. Another employee said she “was kicked in the stomach so hard it caused bleeding,” according to the letter. 

Multiple employees reported students had hit and kicked them repeatedly, bit their arms and legs hard enough to leave lasting bite marks, and scratched them “to the point of drawing blood,” the letter said.

“Employees have had their hair pulled out, received blows to their head, been pushed to the ground, and had objects thrown at them. There are simply too many instances of violence to list here, the union presidents wrote in the letter.

Under state law, any time a student who has a disability and attends school with an individualized education plan puts staff or students “at risk of serious bodily injury,” the district must conduct a behavior assessment and create a written plan to help improve the student’s behavior, the letter said.

Of the employees surveyed, 23% reported the district followed that law, and 19% answered that the behavior intervention plans “adequately address student needs,” according to the letter. 

The employees surveyed were also asked whether they had been adequately trained “in all processes that I am expected to use if a student becomes violent,” according to the letter. Of those who answered, 364, or 37%, said they strongly disagreed; 315, or 32%, said they disagreed; and 205, or 21%, said they agreed. 

“After a violent attack occurs, employees are expected to promptly return to work, and students who witnessed the attack are expected to resume their learning, despite the likelihood of emotional trauma,” the letter said. “Meanwhile, the student who engaged in the aggressive act is typically issued little – if any – consequence.”

The union presidents also said in the letter that some employee responses showed that the school district was not complying with OSHA regulations related to safety committees and workplace injury investigations.

“We must continuously improve to ensure that everyone in our schools thrives,” School Board Chair Ashley Carson Cottingham told Salem Reporter in an email. “As a board, we are committed to partnering with our associations as we work toward a solution on behalf of our employees.”

The teacher union letter contained statements from seven school employees, including the following:

  • “Everyone deserves access to their education; no one deserves to be a human punching bag or deserves to be a witness to a teacher/staff member being beat up in front of them.”
  • “There needs to be a removal of students that harm others. It causes trauma to staff and students. .. It feels very surreal to be afraid of little kids, but many of us are. We do not have the tools to deal with them.”
  • “I accepted a job as a teacher. There should not be an accepted, implicit assumption of bodily harm on my part. I did not join the military, become a police officer, firefighter, etc. Simply because I became a Special Educator, I should not be expected to assume the expectation that I will be injured on the job. It is not alright.”
  • “I’ve done behavior in this district for 25 years and am shocked at the things that I’m seeing and experiencing at work. This district is failing miserably at protecting kids and staff.”

The union presidents in the letter asked Perry, the school board and the district’s human resources executive director, John Beight, to immediately take steps to protect employees and students from additional harm.

The letter said those steps include the district properly training employees to protect themselves and students from other violent students, and investigating every student-caused injury to staff and any incident that puts students or staff at risk of serious injury with written recommendations.

They also asked that the district allow employees who are attacked by a student to pause their immediate work to get first aid, recover from trauma and complete an injury report. 

“Students who engage in intentional acts of violence that cause injury or that place staff and students at risk of serious bodily harm should be disciplined appropriately and have their needs assessed to determine if it is safe for them to continue in their current learning environment,” the letter said. “The district should also assess whether returning a student who has engaged in an act of violence will cause trauma to the staff and students who were subjected to the violent conduct.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.