Salem-Keizer confronts reality of attacks by students ahead of school year

A troubling trend of teachers being assaulted by students in the classroom is causing school district officials to prioritize tackling this issue.
Published: Aug. 30, 2023 at 9:02 AM PDT
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SALEM, Ore. (KPTV) - A troubling trend of teachers being assaulted by students in the classroom is causing school district officials to prioritize tackling this issue ahead of the start of school year.

According to public records, from the beginning of 2019 until the middle of June this year, there have been 1,081 staff injury reports filed in Salem-Keizer Public Schools. About 77%, or 835, of those reports were injuries caused by students.

Data also revealed the date, location, and description of each injury from affected staff.

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Salem-Keizer Public Schools is the second largest school district in Oregon, with about 40,000 students and 65 schools. By comparison, Portland Public Schools, the largest school district in the state with about 49,000 students across 81 schools. In Portland Public Schools, records show there were only 521 reported staff injuries from August 2018 through July 2023, nearly half the number of staff injury reports filed in a similar period as Salem-Keizer.

In the data set obtained by FOX 12 from Salem-Keizer, statements from injured staff in the injury reports described some of the incidents and injuries in gruesome detail. Names of involved staff and students were all redacted in the data set.

At Leslie Middle School in May 2023, an injured staff member describes an outburst where a student began throwing books and hitting them, saying: “As he is throwing books he attacks me and hits me in the body, arms, face, neck, jaw, stomach and the side of my head. He also kicks me in the shins and thighs multiple times. This attack continues for six plus minutes at a high intensity level.”

At McKay High School in January 2023, a staff member describes how a student’s outburst quickly got out of hand: “…(the student) got escalated again, and grabbed my hair again, and pulled while dropping on the floor. He pushed a foot in my face again and ripped again a large chunk of hair from my scalp in the process.”

This web exclusive interview is part of a FOX 12 Investigates story on student attacks in Salem-Keizer Public Schools.

To get a better firsthand account of the mental and physical impact on educators, an elementary school teacher in Salem-Keizer Public Schools spoke to FOX 12 anonymously, and described an attack allegedly committed by the same student, causing injury that needed a doctor’s attention. The teacher describes how these incidents happened usually at the end of class.

“They’ve been during times of cleaning up or getting themselves situated to transition to the next class,” said the teacher. “And the student just didn’t want to follow the directions and wanted to do their own thing.”

The teacher describes the student having an outburst when asked to follow directions. In one occasion, the teacher describes how the injury was so painful, they had to go home for the day and seek medical care.

“So it ended up turning into an escalation where I had some items thrown at me,” they said. “And that’s where the injury occurred. And not just physical injuries, but the mental capacity just to, you know, be in that room with that student in the future.”

This teacher’s story, and many others, pushed the Salem-Keizer Education Association, the union representing all district staff, to conduct a survey over the last year to determine how safe staff feel at school, and to gather information on threats and attacks experienced from students. About 1,200 district employees responded, and more than half claimed a student had tried to harm them or others in the last year.

The Salem-Keizer Education Association shared those results in a detailed letter to the Salem-Keizer school board back in late February. The findings prompted the school district and teacher’s union to adopt an agreement of new safety protocols back on March 7 of this year, which include instructing supervisors to ask staff if they need medical assistance immediately after an injury caused by a student occurs, encouraging a break for 15 minutes or more, getting coverage for the injured covering a staffer’s class if needed, and checking in with that staff member in the following days and weeks.

Even though educators feel this new policy was helpful, the attacks continued at a rapid pace last school year. Since the Salem-Keizer teacher’s union informed the school board of the survey results on staff injuries back in February, records show there were still 225 staff injuries filed throughout the remainder of the school year March 1 to June 14. Out of those reports, about 84%, or 189 of those were staff injuries caused by students.

Also in March of this year, the Salem-Keizer Education Association filed a tort claim against the school district over the trend of teacher injuries, and several other teachers filed their own lawsuits.

Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg is the president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association. She says a combination of effects from the COVID-19 pandemic over the last few years have contributed to a rise in students lashing out at teachers. Scialo-Lakeberg says stresses on families during the pandemic, staff leaving the district, and lack of behavioral health resources have contributed to an environment creating a rise in student outbursts.

“Our staff should not have to go to work and be beat up. They shouldn’t fear their students that they’re serving,” said Scailo-Lakeberg. “We need money for behavioral support. As educators, I think it gets frustrating that our schools seem to be the fix all for society, but we’re not resourced, we’re not equipped, and we’re not funded to be the fix all for all of these things that we need, and our students need more.”

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The problem is one of the top priorities for new Salem-Keizer Public Schools superintendent, Andrea Castañeda. She says the new staff injury protocol adopted in the spring, is part of new efforts to train all staff in the district who work with students on how to better respond to potentially dangerous situations when a student is agitated.

“The protocol that we developed together is actually just part of a bigger network of changes,” said Castañeda. “And as a team, what we’ve done over the course of this summer is made the safety issues the top issue in the way that we are introducing people to the new school year.”

Castañeda agrees the classroom should not be a “fix all” approach to mental health issues facing students. She says the district is working to provide more for certain students than what a school counselor can offer.

“We are expanding the range and number of options for students who fall kind of into that 1%. Students with exceptional, complex, interrelated needs,” she said. “These are more therapeutic sites, more therapeutic services and more intensive clinical support.”

But until Salem-Keizer Public Schools starts to see the impacts of these changes, teachers faced with violent outbursts from students must balance taking care of themselves, with their concerns for how the rest of their class may be impacted. This is something the Salem-Keizer teacher who spoke out anonymously to FOX 12 says is constantly on their mind.

“As far as students who are just doing what’s expected, it makes a fearful place,” they said. “Students disengage, they withdraw.”

This web exclusive interview is part of a FOX 12 Investigates story on student attacks in Salem-Keizer Public Schools.

The Salem-Keizer Education Association says Oregon Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA), is investigating the trend of staff injuries in Salem-Keizer, and will recommend safety improvements to the district once their investigation is complete. As for the tort claim filed against the district in March, the Salem-Keizer Education Association says it is still pending as a notice.

Students will return to class in Salem-Keizer for the fall semester after Labor Day, with sixth and ninth grade returning on Sept. 5, and first through fifth, seventh, eighth, and 10th-12th grades returning Sept. 6.