Fighting for Stronger State, Federal Protections from Violent Student Behaviors

Last spring, OSEA asked education workers to share their experiences with violence in the workplace through our “Work Shouldn’t Hurt” survey. While every worker deserves safety and respect in the workplace, far too many OSEA members know firsthand that we can experience challenging and even dangerous behaviors from difficult students. A lack of appropriate safety measures, low staffing levels and insufficient training can result in bodily harm to students, staff and others.

“We work with these students every day and we love them. We don’t want to see them removed from our schools, but we also don’t deserve to be hit, kicked, scratched or assaulted,” said OSEA President Sarah Wofford. “School staff all over Oregon face serious injury at the hands of students, especially in districts which have not invested in adequate training and staffing levels in special education classrooms.”

Wofford recently attended the national Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Workers’ Voice Summit in Washington, D.C., as a representative of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), OSEA’s national affiliate. Wofford was able to speak to federal policymakers about the need for stronger protections for school employees, saying “In places where you wouldn’t assume there would be violence, people are injured weekly. And we can’t file a complaint against a district; we file a complaint against a student, a student we love… we do not want students to be removed unnecessarily, but we want to be safe.”

OSEA has long fought for laws and policies to protect school staff on the job. In 2017, our Work Shouldn’t Hurt campaign resulted in Oregon’s first-ever law covering special education staff safety, House Bill (HB) 3318.

Since the law went into effect in 2018, some things have improved. Under HB 3318, schools must assess student behaviors which could cause serious injury to themselves and others, create plans to prevent harm and allow relevant service providers to give input into behavior plans. Oregon OSHA now requires schools to track and report workplace injuries. And OSEA-represented workers say it is helping: most are given training on working with challenging student populations; most also say their employer has a process for reporting a dangerous incident, and that they have been trained in reporting procedures.

However, our survey showed that too many staff are still vulnerable. While 65% of workers say their employer provides training for working with students with special needs, only one in four say their training adequately prepared them for their work, and one in five are routinely asked to work with student populations for which they have not been trained.

There are many reasons why these issues still occur. Some workers, especially those hired after the law went into effect, are unaware of their legal rights. Administrators do not always live up to their obligations to inform, train and protect workers. Once the pandemic hit, learning disruptions stressed students, causing some increases in dangerous behaviors, while simultaneously creating workforce shortages which leave many classrooms understaffed. It all adds up to dangerous working conditions: staff are being injured on the job, both by students lashing out (76% have been physically injured by a student) and by the physical strains of supporting high-needs students (40%).

Now, OSEA is taking its Work Shouldn’t Hurt campaign further, using survey results to determine what systemic issues still allow staff to be hurt on the job and advocating at federal and state levels for better protections. Quotes and statistics from the survey are being shared, anonymously, with lawmakers to help them understand how dire the situation is in certain classrooms. As part of a workgroup with Sen. Michael Dembrow and other legislators, OSEA is helping create a package of education workforce policy priorities for the 2023 legislative session. These priorities include increasing educators’ pay and other efforts to recruit and retain quality school staff, as well as plans to address working conditions by setting minimum staffing levels, additional training standards and more. These align with the four top priorities identified by workers who took the survey last spring: higher pay for staff working with challenging students, improved training, higher staffing ratios and more substitutes to allow support staff to take leave.

“It is a powerful thing when OSEA members share their stories through surveys or by speaking publicly about these issues,” said OSEA Government Relations Specialist Bob Estabrook. “These stories help us illustrate the situation when we are talking to lawmakers so they really understand how serious the problem is. They strongly impact what the Legislature will do to help.”

As OSEA works to push these bills through the legislative session and strengthen the laws protecting school employees on the job, members with first-hand experience with violent students may be asked to provide written or oral testimony for legislators. If you are currently experiencing an unsafe work environment, contact your field representative right away. Find your field rep or call (800) 252-6732 for assistance.