State finds school employees being injured at high rates by Salem students

Educators in some Salem schools are being injured at triple state and national averages, with assaults by a small number of high-needs students a significant factor.

That’s according to a report by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration released on Monday, Nov. 20. The Salem-Keizer School District and its teacher union requested the assessment of workplace safety.

“The report validates what we have been telling the district for several years: that workplace safety conditions across the district are unacceptable,” a Salem-Keizer Education Association summary of the report said.

As a result of the findings, the district is implementing “significant changes to the student continuum of care and service,” said district spokesman Aaron Harada.

The report was sent to the district Oct. 16 and released publicly Monday by the Salem-Keizer Education Association after union leaders obtained a copy.

“Our review found Salem-Keizer Public Schools’ executive management to be strongly committed to employee safety and health. In addition, employees throughout the District are committed to maintaining a safe workplace and responding to situations they encounter. However, there was varied success in preventing student-caused injuries across the District,” the report said.

State reviewers looked at data from McKay High School, Sprague High School, Judson Middle School, Houck Middle School, Faye Wright Elementary School, Kennedy Elementary School, and among bus drivers.

They compared the DART score, a standard workplace safety measure that counts the number of incidents that lead to time away from work against total hours worked, with a higher score meaning more incidents.

McKay’s 2022 DART score was 7.6, Sprague’s was 8.6 and transportation services was 8.4.

The 2021 Oregon rate for schools was 2.2. For schools nationally it was 1.4.

The review didn’t include a count of student-caused injuries, but district data obtained by Salem Reporter showed 445 student-caused injuries reported at local schools just in September and October. That included bites, bloody noses and punches. About half the employees injured were special education teachers and support workers, the data showed.

The district has 65 schools and about 39,000 students.

The work by OSHA began in May and came after teacher and classified employee unions raised the issue of student-caused injuries in March. Employees said in the union survey that injuries weren’t being investigated and behavior plans didn’t adequately address student needs.

State reviewers found the district wasn’t informing all employees of the risk of student-caused injuries, and was not training all employees who work with students how to protect themselves from escalated students.

The report highlighted a need for better communication so bus drivers and instructional assistants are aware of students who have a history of causing injuries, as well as recent behavior.

District employees were doing work beyond their training level and experience, the report said, noting that the district had “a lack of placement options for students with higher needs.”

The state team reviewed injury logs, interviewed about 100 district employees, visited six schools as well as the transportation department headquarters and the district’s Behavior Intervention Center, where a small number of special education students receive extensive support.

Such a review is voluntary, separate from OSHA’s enforcement functions. The report recommended corrections and improvements to district processes, but imposed no fines or citations.

In response, the district has added elements to its new employee training on de-escalation and personal protective equipment, according to a correction plan submitted to OSHA.

It plans to open a second Behavior Intervention Center in early 2024 to provide space for high-needs students who receive intensive help managing emotions and activities with a 1:2 staff-student ratio. District leaders are also working to open a day treatment center to provide intensive mental health care to students.

The district has a new reporting system intended to better capture all injuries and route reports to safety and risk management officials for review and better data collection. The safety unit will follow up on safety committee meetings held by schools to ensure injuries are being investigated.

The report comes as the district is negotiating new contracts with both of its employee unions. The labor groups have raised school safety and violence by students as a top concern.

Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, said the OSHA report validated issues teachers have been raising for years. She said she’s been disappointed by the district’s unwillingness to make changes requested by employees, including creating a a system so educators injured by students don’t use up personal sick time when they’re out for a job-related injury. 

She said employees now must use two days of sick leave before worker’s comp kicks in, meaning employees injured repeatedly by the same students can burn through their inventory of paid leave days.

Scialo-Lakeberg also said district officials refused to share the report with the union when they received it in October, waiting until the union threatened legal action. She said educators held off filing OSHA complaints last spring related to student-caused injuries, hoping the state’s work would lead to improvements.

“We don’t want the district spending a bunch of money on fines. We want them to do what they can to make our schools safer and literally there’s no interest in partnering with us based on these recent actions,” Scialo-Lakeberg said.

Harada said the district shared the report with the union after a final meeting with OSHA, which was held Monday.

“Our work is not complete and the safety of our staff is an urgent issue requiring urgent action by the district. We will continue to make improvements toward providing educational opportunities for all students and safe work environments for staff,” Harada said in a statement.

The district was previously cited in 2019 for failing to investigate student-caused injuries at Mary Eyre Elementary School and fined $1,700. The new OSHA report mentions similar issues district-wide.

Harada said the district delayed fixing district-wide systems in response to the Eyre findings because of the “large interruptions to our school system” since 2019. Safety committee expectations were “reset” with administrators before the start of the school year, he said.

The OSHA team also found the issue of violent students extended beyond the district, with likely conflicts between Oregon Department of Education rules on special education services and OSHA requirements for employee safety.

Education Department rules “may increase the probability of student-caused injuries to district employees because the rules may prevent student placement in the safer, specialized program setting.”

“It was often difficult for staff in general education settings to follow safe work practices when working with students in high behavior due to issues such as the setting’s physical layout, employee education and training level,” the report said.

Scialo-Lakeberg said the staff challenges are compounded by a lack of appropriate mental health care for students and the lingering effects of the pandemic. That delayed development and social skills for many kids, she said.

Teachers are reporting some kindergarten students are still in diapers, she said, something educators never saw before the pandemic.

Salem also faces unique challenges because of its long history of hosting state prisons and mental hospitals, and a higher poverty level than many other large Oregon districts.

“While we know our district leaders can’t solve all that, they can definitely help acknowledge a child in crisis,” she said. “They can stop saying, ‘This is what you signed up for.’”

Scialo-Lakeberg said Salem needs more community resources and treatment options for kids.

“They’re coming in and they’re hitting kids and adults and they need help, that’s the bottom line,” she said. “Our schools aren’t funded to provide all those things. We’re doing the best we can.”

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

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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.