In classrooms across Eastern Oregon, teachers have seen a swell in concerning behaviors: verbal outbursts, or students getting violent toward themselves, peers and teachers.
A report published last month by the Oregon Education Association reveals that statewide, schools are dealing with these problems more frequently.
John Scanlan, a teacher at Pendleton’s Sunridge Middle School, said teachers have noticed more students coming into class ill-equipped to handle their emotions.
He said there have been instances of students flipping desks, lashing out, and teachers having to do “room clears” — removing all the other students out of a room while one child is out of control.
As board member for the National Education Association, Scanlan travels to Washington, D.C., three times a year to meet with congressional delegates and lobby for education policy.
When he went this month, he said lawmakers were blown away by the reports they heard.
“Senator Wyden’s education person asked us what a ‘room clear’ was,” he said. “He’s talking about education at the policy level, but this is a real boots-on-the-ground situation.”
Increase in reports
Hermiston School District provided data for teachers injured on the job in the past five years. There has been a steady increase in the number of teacher injury reports, as well as reports in which a student caused the injury. In 2015-16, there were two student-related teacher injury reports, and in 2017-18 there were 13, out of 24 total teacher injury reports.
District spokesperson Maria Duron said there is a difference between reported injuries and worker’s comp claims. An employee is required to report an incident, but may decline to submit a claim. Additionally, she said, there has been a recent push by the Oregon School Employees Association to report student-related incidents, which has caused the incident count to climb.
Pendleton School District officials said the only data they could provide were the number of worker’s comp claims. In 2018, three of 13 claims were caused by student behavior, and the previous year, two of seven were caused by students.
Throughout 2018, teachers around the state were able to share their experiences at a series of 14 forums around the state, including in Hermiston. OEA representatives asked teachers to discuss barriers they face to a safe school environment, and what changes could be made to improve that environment.
“It kind of helped us realize the problem,” said Chris Demianew, a teacher at Sunridge Middle School in Pendleton. “I think as teachers, we were taking it really personally. But once we started the listening sessions, there were stories upon stories of teachers that quit — brand new teachers that didn’t make it the full year because they couldn’t handle the behavior.”
Those forums led to OEA’s report, “A Crisis of Disrupted Learning.” Compiling the responses of the more than 700 people who participated, the report identified a “disrupted learning environment” as a class where student behavior significantly interferes with instruction and classroom stability and safety. Educators described behaviors like verbal abuse from students, spitting or kicking, destroying property, and using scissors or pencils as weapons. The report identified contributing problems, including increased class sizes, not enough adults per student, insufficient resources to support students with special needs, a decrease in physical activity at school, and a lack of training for teachers.
A safety risk for staff and other students, the report said these behaviors also cut into instructional time for students.
The behaviors also negatively impact teachers.
Trauma in the classroom
Julie Smith, Pendleton’s director of special programs, said they have to make sure they take care of their staff.
“Teachers love their students,” she said. “When (they) see children struggling, it takes an emotional toll on them.”
Smith said more extreme behavioral problems often stem from students who are dealing with major stressors outside of school, like domestic violence, financial strain on their families, or food or housing instability.
“When you live in a toxic stress environment, you’re always surviving,” she said. “You’re not able to relate to others — you perceive everything as a threat to your safety.”
That can lead to students getting violent, or running away.
“If there’s trauma — one, two, multiple events, long-term trauma — a child could be sitting in class and have an internal flashback, like a PTSD response, and could just lose it,” Smith said. “It seems out of the blue because it’s an internal response.”
Understanding that trauma, as well as how to deal with the secondary effects on teachers themselves, is a crucial part of training, Smith said.
Smith said those behaviors aren’t new, and teachers have been dealing with them for years. But she said one reason for the spike in schools is the inclusion of those students in general education, where they may have been separated before.
Though there are many factors contributing to the problems, Scanlan said it’s hard for teachers to deal with them with limited resources.
“Kind of a Band-Aid, something immediate, is how do you keep creating structure at school?” Scanlan said. He said there need to be more adults per student in schools, including counselors. Though they’ve added one back, a few years ago, Sunridge had one counselor for 750 students.
Though teachers feel the strain of being asked to do more with fewer resources, Smith said the district is trying to allocate funds to solve the problem.
The creation of safe spaces in the classroom, she said, has allowed children to have a place to calm down. There are also rooms where students can take structured breaks, which Smith said has drastically reduced the number of room clears.
She said they also try to identify problem behaviors early on and take preventative measures.
Scanlan said to truly address the problem, schools need more state and federal funding. More than 4,000 teachers, including Scanlan, marched in Salem on Monday, calling for lawmakers to allocate more funding for public schools.
The root of the problem lies in providing wraparound services for families, Scanlan said.
“Ultimately, it’s a problem that goes beyond the doors of the school,” he said. “We need to be thinking about how we can support families and get kids in a good emotional place to go to school.”