Teachers accuse Salem-Keizer School District of ‘indifference’ as injuries mount

For three hours last September, school employees contained a student in an empty classroom at McKay High School, enduring hits, body slams and dodging items thrown at them.

At Sprague High School, a student crawled through a window into the attendance office, throwing a computer at a worker who had transferred out of classroom work to avoid injuries.

A seventh grader at Leslie Middle School in December used a pencil to stab a teacher through her jeans, striking her thigh.

So far this school year, the Salem-Keizer School District has logged 738 reports of employees being injured by students. In 88 instances, employees filed claims for medical care.

The teachers’ union now is claiming district officials have shown “deliberate indifference to known dangers” from students, paired with a lack of proper training to address student needs 

The Salem Keizer Education Association put the district on notice in a 10-page letter dated March 17 that it intended to sue on behalf of teachers, instructional assistants and others injured by students.

READ IT: Union notice

The notice was filed by the Tedesco Law Group in Portland and detailed the experiences of current employees or those who quit over the injuries.

The union claims that district officials aren’t providing adequate staff as they move students with special needs more often in regular classroom settings.

“District employees reported that they have not been adequately trained on what to do when a student becomes violent.”

-Salem Keizer Education Association tort claim

“Ultimately, we want safe schools for our students and our staff,” said Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, union president.

Aaron Harada, district communications director, didn’t address the union’s claims in detail in a written statement.

“The district is concurrently balancing employees’ safety with state and federal legal requirements for the education of students with disabilities,” his statement said.

The most recent student census showed the district was educating 6,666 students from ages 5 to 21 who are classified as qualified for special education. That’s about one out of six students enrolled in the Salem district.

The union, which is entering negotiations for a new contract, said that eight years ago the school district moved to “increase the number of special education students in the general education population” that resulted in “a significant increase in student-on-staff violence.”

The school district isn’t properly preparing education plans for such students and in October changed practices to put special education students into regular classrooms at least 30 minutes a day, according to the claim.

School district officials said no new policy was announced in October.

The union claim also said the district is “experiencing a severe staffing shortage” of instructional assistants, often tasked with helping special education students. The union also said that “district employees reported that they have not been adequately trained on what to do when a student becomes violent.”

Harada said district employees who work in classrooms for special education students have been trained in the Mandt system, a professional program aimed at helping educators de-escalate circumstances. Some teachers and other staff also receive such training “to support students with complex behaviors.”

He said some staff also have been trained in the current school year in yet another system for dealing with students.

Scialo-Lakeberg, the union president, said teachers are seeing “more and more students with larger needs” in their classes, and increasingly face “students with violent outbursts.”

She said the district needs to expand staffing to help with such students. The disruptions can be significant, she said.

“I think parents would be surprised how many times we have a ‘class clear’ where a student has escalated and started throwing things around,” she said, explaining that teachers usher all other students out of the room at such times. “Those happen on a pretty regular basis.”

Scialo-Lakeberg said more state funding is needed, but the Salem-Keizer School District should use its  own budget to put more resources into classroom help. She said the union wasn’t prepared to identify which district programs should be cut to provide that money.


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

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.