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'There was nothing that we could do': Salem-Keizer educators speak candidly about classroom violence

KGW spoke to Salem-Keizer educators, both former and current, who said they’re concerned about the violence and disruption happening too often at school this year.

SALEM, Ore. — This school year, psychologists and educators have talked about disruptive students physically acting out in classrooms more frequently, or getting in fights on school property.

There doesn’t appear to be one specific cause, but educators who have spoken to KGW agree that the pandemic has made things worse.

It’s been a difficult story to tell. Often educators don’t feel they can speak about their experiences, fearing repercussions.

KGW spoke to Salem-Keizer educators, both former and current, who said they’re concerned about the violence and disruption happening far too often at school. The images in the video may be disturbing to some.

For Taylor Woosley and many others, being a teacher during the pandemic has been stressful.

“Last school year […] I was a full-time grad student and I was a full-time teacher. I thought nothing could be harder or worse than that,” said Woosley.

This school year was her first year teaching special education for Salem-Keizer Public Schools. She said she wanted to do it after being an instructional assistant.

“I just wanted to make more of a difference,” she said.

But within the first week of school, Woosley said she began seeing behavior issues. She said her students would use profanity, would kick or throw chairs and tip tables. Soon after that Woosley, who was pregnant at the time, found herself facing scary situations involving her 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in her special education classroom.

“I was getting threatened by students, ‘I'm going to hit you and I don't care if your baby dies,’" said Woosley.

She said kids would climb on shelves and she climbed up with them trying to get them down, all while she was pregnant.

“The second or third week, the behaviors had increased even more. There was zero education going on, zero,” she said.

She says she and other educators were getting attacked.

“Last year I got a concussion. Every single one of my IAs [instructional assistants] have received concussions from students,” said Woosley. “We have bite marks going down our arms, bruises … there was nothing that we could do.”

Woosley was well versed in what to expect in a special education classroom since she had worked as an instructional assistant in one prior to this school year. Even so, about a month and a half on the job, Woosley decided to leave.

“I went to basically almost everybody I felt, except for the superintendent, and nothing was changing,” Woosley said.

New Salem-Keizer teacher says she plans to leave

Deniel Hardin is a fourth-grade teacher for Salem-Keizer Public Schools. This is also her first full year teaching and she has also pretty much made up her mind. Hardin plans to leave at the end of the year.

“My classroom has been destroyed multiple times. The window in my door got busted with my broom,” said Hardin.

“There has been […] many staff that have gone to the doctor, two or three that I know of right now that have gone to the emergency room this year due to these kinds of behaviors,” she said.

Hardin said students in her general education class have assaulted her twice. She said after the second assault, she went to her boss to tell them she’d be leaving unless something changed.

“To me, I morally cannot stay in this if something doesn't change because I feel like it's displaying to students that I have to stay in abuse,” Hardin said.

Hardin says she and her family had, for years, considered moving. Now the heightened stress of the school year has helped solidify her decision.

“I feel like teachers and parents alike have had enough,” said Hardin.

That’s true with Jamie Scott, who has a daughter attending high school in Salem-Keizer Public Schools.

“I'm afraid, not only is the staff going to get hurt. I'm afraid our kids are gonna get hurt worse,” Scott said.

Scott said the school fights she has heard about have meant a change for her daughter.

“I've already pulled her for next year. She will not be going to Salem-Keizer school[s] in person ever again,” said Scott.

“One of my daughter's friends who's a freshman was walking down the hallway … and another student just punched him, broke his nose, sent him to the hospital,” she said.

Scott said some of the fights are posted to social media. She pulled up an Instagram page on her phone dedicated to displaying fights.

“I'm shaking just watching those two videos,” said Scott.

Scott said her neighbor’s granddaughter attends junior high in the district and showed her a photo of a fellow student who was pushed down a flight of concrete stairs.

“His head, there was blood just pouring down this kid's head. So it's not just high school level, it's going lower and lower,” Scott said. “When your kids don't feel safe to go to school because of violence, something has to change.”

Waldo Middle School staff come together

Change is at the heart of a letter to the superintendent from staff at Waldo Middle School. Educators said it was signed by nearly all licensed staff. It calls attention to unsafe situations and asks for more support in the form of counselors, behavior specialists and school security officers as well as consequences for students who misbehave.

“I've never heard of a school coming together unanimously, with such a shared concern,” said Jenny Maguire, who resigned from the district in December.

Maguire worked for Salem-Keizer Public Schools for nearly 20 years. The last nine years of her time there was spent as a behavioral specialist.

“I saw the direction the district was going as it was pulling back on their discipline policies and really taking away the tools that we had to respond to behavior, and my role was crisis response,” Maguire said.

She said she felt district policies regarding discipline were setting kids up for failure in the long run. Maguire said it’s important students learn about the cause and effect of their behavior.

“There has to be that balance of love and consequence, love and discipline.”

Maguire, who worked at Scott Elementary which feeds into Waldo Middle, said staff at the middle school had dealt with students fighting and acting out for years. Maguire said the school has always had students with high needs.

“For it to come to this critical level where people are saying, ‘We're at a breaking point, we need you to help us’ — that's unique. Because the problem isn't new. It's just gotten so out of control that they're at their wit's end,” Maguire said.

District leaders weigh in

“I think our response is first to acknowledge where our staff are coming from, then ask how we can help,” said Iton Udosenata, the assistant superintendent for Salem-Keizer Public Schools.

Udosenata said while they’re seeing more physical and aggressive behavior this year, in prior years behavioral issues seemed to happen more at certain times of the year, for instance before winter break or spring break. He said that was the case this year as well.

“We, in partnership with our teachers association, went and did some visits at Waldo so that we can assess together what the climate was like in the school,” said Udosenata.

Udosenata said at schools like Waldo, where there seem to be more disruptive behaviors, the district increases security presence not through the use of school resource officers but through school security specialists who walk the halls unarmed. Udosenata said behavioral issues have seemed to be more pronounced at the districts middle school level.

“We have maybe two or three, or maybe even five, school security specialists that we can spread out throughout the school, which really does increase the security presence more than a singular SRO or school resource officer being present on campus,” said Udosenata.

He said there are consequences for kids who misbehave and pointed to the district’s roughly 5,000 suspensions. That number is down from previous years, despite the heightened level of behavior.

“We're putting a lot of other strategies in place that I think deserve credit for the reduction of suspensions,” said Udosenata.

However KGW has heard from parents who are concerned that students who behave inappropriately are not being suspended from school.

Udosenata said the district has encouraged layering an educational piece to school discipline by talking to students involved in behavioral issues about why what they did was wrong and how to improve their decision making. He said it’s a part of the district’s emphasis on restorative practices.

“Unfortunately, people have conflated this strategy of restorative practices with us not holding students accountable. I can’t speak to each individual instance where there may be a lack of consistency, but I’d say it was an exaggeration that we’re not holding kids accountable,” said Udosenata.

He said it’s possible that with 65 schools, there might be mixed messaging. He said some may have misinterpreted the district’s emphasis on restorative practices thinking it means giving students a pass on disruptive behavior or that there wouldn’t be suspensions at all.

“I certainly hope that’s not the reason that [suspension] number is down.”

But teachers like Woosley, say what they were told to do when a student acted out didn’t seem to fix the issue. She said teachers were told to hold mats in front of them to keep an irate student from hitting them.

“How is that making a student feel when you're holding a mat up and kind of keeping them in certain areas to protect yourself,” said Woosley.

“Watching the students like every single day and going through this crisis cycle of just … screaming and crying and just so badly wanting to get out of it as we're trying to protect ourselves," she continued. "It's like, what are we doing? This is a school. These are kids. These are eight year olds, nine year olds, 10 year olds — and as I was pregnant, I thought, ‘how would I feel if it that was my kid on the other side?”

For Woosley, that was one of the many reasons she decided to leave. Now she’s paying for that decision.

A district program covered the cost for her to become a special education teacher and requires she work in the district for at least three years.

“I decided that I would rather pay my schooling, which was over $6,000,” said Woosley.

She’s now taken a job teaching in a smaller district. While she is much happier where she now, she did take an $11,000 pay cut. Woosley is willing to sacrifice the money but she’s worries about the students.

“I'm just terrified of what this whole next generation is going to look like if we continue down this road as educators,” said Woosley.

She said in her time teaching, she heard stories from her colleagues about children in kindergarten using profanity, flipping desks, throwing chairs or breaking things.

KGW filed a Freedom of Information Request and asked Salem-Keizer Schools for staff injury reports for Waldo Middle School. KGW found only three reports this school year compared to a pre-pandemic year that had five staff injury reports.

In addition, calls to Salem Police show fewer offenses this year than in the 2018-2019 school year.

Former educators said a possible reason for the discrepancy is that injuries are underreported. Many teachers may not file one unless they need hospital treatment since it entails paperwork and time.

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