SKEA says more than 50% of Salem-Keizer educators experience student violence

Educators in Salem-Keizer fear for their safety, at least that’s the gist of a letter sent to Salem-Keizer Public Schools (SKPS) School Board members and Superintendent Christy Perry.

The Salem-Keizer Education Association (SKEA), which represents the contracted educators in SKPS schools, sent a letter to the district on March 3 expressing concern for the safety of its members and the lack of preparation and training for dealing with violent students.

“Violent attacks by students are frequently occurring in our schools, causing physical injury and emotional trauma to staff and students,” the letter read.

Two questions from a survey SKEA gave to its members highlighted the issues at hand.

The first asked if they or others had been caused harm by a student in the last 12 months. More than half, 51.2% of the 952 that answered, said yes.

But information on a campus spreads.

According to SKEA Vice President Maraline Ellis, most staff would know about an incident, whether within a day or a week.

So it would appear to be safe to assume that, with the question asking “you or others,” a single incident could be the cause for the majority of a campus’ staff answering yes, possibly skewing the result.

“When I look at the responses to some of our other questions, and the data coming back from responses to those questions is equally as concerning, ‘I don’t feel prepared at all,’ ‘I’m not trained,’ ‘I’m worried about my safety but most of all I’m worried about my student’s safety,’” Ellis said. “I think these are realistic possibilities in our schools.”

One of those questions that raises alarms asked about training, stating “I have been properly trained in all processes that I am expected to use if a student becomes violent.” 

Nearly 70% of respondents said they either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. Just over 20% said they were properly trained.

“Ideally we’d like to be able to work on trainings for staff related to de-escalation, identification of concerning behaviors at an earlier point,” Ellis said.

Ellis recognizes one of the main focuses needs to be on getting the students the help needed, but it is a difficult task with current staffing numbers.

And she recognizes the issues with immediate hirings, but it still appears to be the quickest solution to help students.

“They need so much and our resources are simply limited to help students who struggle to function in a regular classroom setting,” Ellis said. “They struggle with impulse control. They struggle with tolerance for frustration. They often have limited social skills or the ability to explain how they’re thinking and feeling. We need more resources for those students and that translates to more staff.”

Unfortunately, these issues could add to the staffing shortages.

“We need our safety to be taken more seriously. We wonder why staff are quitting and why we can’t hire people, yet our safety is consistently an issue,” special programs instructional assistant Melissa Looney was quoted as saying in the letter.

But the truth of the matter is, staffing is always going to be a need, and in some way part of the solution.

“More long-term we think we need more expertise and experience in the social-emotional realm. More counselors, more psychologists to help students work through whatever absence of skills they might have,” Ellis said.

This absence of these skills could be, at least to an extent, attributed to the disruption of the pandemic.

Ellis said that they can draw a correlation to the loss of interaction in those years for younger students developing social skills.

“For some students the lack of social interaction and maybe the lack of a schedule in the home environment or interactions important for development in the home environment maybe didn’t take place,” Ellis said. “Those are the students we’re seeing struggle so much and it’s so hard when they’re in-person.”

Many of these students fall under the special education umbrella, and Ellis said they expect a higher level of acting out from these students, but the issues are not exclusive.

Ellis said that they see these issues in the general education classrooms across all three levels of education, and they have no sort of breakdown that identifies a student as having a learning disability in relation to acting out.

“Our focus is primarily on elementary and middle, those age groups seem to be the hardest hit by this time we all spent away,” Ellis said.

The district at least appears to be on the same page, though there has been no talk about solutions of any sort, just continued teamwork.

“We both 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,” SKPS Superintendent  Christy Perry said in a statement. “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.”

According to Perry’s statement, the district asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for a voluntary consultation.

…we need more expertise and experience in the social-emotional realm.

Maraline Ellis, Vice President Salem-keizer Education Association

The district is coming off of OSHA violations in 2019 for serious workplace safety violations, a point that SKEA reminded them of in the letter.

Other specifics that SKEA want to see acted on include:

  • Allowing employees who have been attacked to discontinue job duties to receive first aid, recover from trauma and complete an incident report.
  • SKPS ensures that first aid kits are readily available in all buildings.
  • SKPS investigates every student-caused injury and develops and implements written recommendations.
  • SKPS conducts a behavior assessment and implement or update a behavior intervention plan for students with special needs.
  • Appropriate discipline for students who engage in intentional acts of violence that cause injury or place staff and students at risk of serious bodily harm.
  • Staff equipped with personal protective equipment to protect themselves from violent attack.

One thing that SKEA does not want or see as a valid solution is the return of Safety Resource Officers (SROs) to campuses.

“They would never even be called on in these situations,” Ellis said. “These are situations where a student in a classroom gets frustrated or angry and lashes out. Kicks, hits, bites, throws things and people are getting hurt.

“You can picture a little maybe 3-and-a-half foot tall second grader who is frustrated to the point where they have an emotional tantrum and hit a kid. We’re not calling a police officer to come and put handcuffs on that kid. That would never be a response that any reasonable school employee would take.”