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Oregon OSHA finds serious safety hazards at Salem-Keizer Public Schools

Oregon OSHA found five “serious” safety violations, as well as a dozen more that it considers less serious, during a months-long examination of student-caused injuries at Salem-Keizer Public Schools.

The district and its teachers’ union agreed to the voluntary OSHA consultation in May, in lieu of union members filing multiple formal complaints with OSHA, union president Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg said.

Because the review was voluntary, the state won’t penalize the district for the violations. But it did require the district to provide documentation that it has corrected three of the serious violations by Nov. 30, and the other two by Dec. 15.

“Our staff work very hard every day to support and serve our students,” district officials said in a written statement provided in response to media questions Tuesday. “We are concerned that since returning to in-person education following the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the number of student-related staff injuries and because of this urgent issue, the district has taken action as outlined below.”

Those actions include better training for new hires, resetting building safety committee expectations and a better injury reporting system. The district also plans to open a second Behavior Intervention Center in January and a new Children’s Day Education Center next year. Both will serve high-needs students.

“At the same time, the district recognizes that the children and youth in our community have needs that should be met by the community and not by schools alone,” the statement reads.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools’ employees not trained or equipped

OSHA’s examination focused on student-caused injuries across the district.

OSHA consultants visited the Gaffin Road Transportation Center and the Behavior Intervention Center; Wright and Kennedy elementary schools; Houck and Judson middle schools; and Sprague and McKay high schools.

They interviewed about 100 employees, according to the 27-page report.

They found that injury rates at the six schools were consistently well above national averages.

Bus drivers, instructional aides, teachers and other staff also provided education services outside of their educational backgrounds, above their training levels and beyond their experience.

And district employees had to provide education services even if they were not ideally equipped. This was due, in part, to many position vacancies across the district.

District officials were not able to immediately say how many positions currently are unfilled. But last week, superintendent Andrea Castañeda told the school board that the district was deliberately not filling many open positions to help address a looming budget deficit.

“The report validates what we have been telling the district for several years, that workplace safety conditions across the district are unacceptable,” Scialo-Lakeberg said.

OSHA recommended the following changes:

  • Provide additional, appropriate educational space for students with higher behavior problems, such as the Behavior Intervention Center.

  • Provide more “student facing” staff, such as counselors, social workers, and educators, with appropriate education, experience, and skills to adequately staff school and other settings to provide safe workplaces for all district employees.

  • Take steps to reasonably ensure employees document and report all high behavior issues (hitting, kicking, shoving, beating, clubbing, biting, piercing, pushing, squeezing, and verbal assault), near-misses, and injuries.

  • Assist staff working with students, including bus drivers, in understanding the hazards to which they may be exposed, including hitting, kicking, shoving, beating, clubbing, biting, piercing, pushing, squeezing, and verbal assault from students with higher behavior issues.

  • Effectively train district employees who work with students in acceptable methods to protect themselves from students with higher behavior issues, especially in regard to restraining them.

  • Bring safety committee operations into compliance.

  • Investigate all injuries that lead to lost work time.

  • Ensure instructional assistants and bus drivers know which students have historically had behavior issues that caused injuries and which students riding their bus have had behavioral problems during the day at school.

Lawsuit pending over student-caused injuries

Earlier this year, the district’s two employee unions completed a member survey that showed more than half of district employees surveyed said a student had tried to hurt them or others within the past year.

“We have some people with lifelong injuries,” Scialo-Lakeberg said.

In March, some current and former district employees notified the district they would be filing a lawsuit over student-caused injuries.

Scialo-Lakeberg said the unions have been attempting to address some safety concerns while bargaining a new contract, but the district has not been receptive. Those contract negotiations currently are in mediation.

“SKEA has been attempting to address these safety issues for years and will continue to do so during bargaining and filing potential complaints with OSHA if needed,” Scialo-Lakeberg said. “People should be able to go to work and not be hurt.”

Tracy Loew covers education at the Statesman Journal. Send comments, questions and tips: tloew@statesmanjournal.com or 503-399-6779. Follow her on Twitter at @Tracy_Loew

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Oregon OSHA finds serious safety hazards at Salem-Keizer Schools

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