PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Salem-Keizer Public Schools and Oregon’s education department have been notified they will be facing a lawsuit from teachers and staff over injuries they’ve suffered caused by students.

The focus of the suit is primarily on students with social and emotional issues. It comes after a recent survey done by Salem-Keizer school employee unions that identified almost 1,000 staff injury reports — almost all caused by students.

The teachers’ unions, the Salem Keizer Education Association and the Association of Salem-Keizer Educational Support Professionals, tell KOIN 6 News they blame the district and the state for failing to maintain a safe work environment. In their notice of intent to file a lawsuit, the teacher and staff unions say the district failed to take action to protect employees from students known to have violence issues.

One concern, they say, is placing special education students in the general education classrooms when they are staff shortages of instructional assistants to provide extra help. They also claim there’s not enough training on what to do when a student becomes violent.

SKPS issued a statement on Monday, confirming district officials received and reviewed the tort claim notice on March 17. They say the district is “concurrently balancing employees’ safety with state and federal legal requirements for the education of students with disabilities.”

The notice of claims and class action lists several incidents in which teachers and staff have been hit, punched, had heavy objects thrown at them and ended up in the hospital.

The school district, the state department of education and the unions would not talk on camera about the suit on Monday. However, KOIN 6 News did speak with a teachers union leader earlier in March about what some staff members have encountered.

“Many of our staff have experienced concussions, and not just the biting and the kicking and the spitting — but concussions. Sometimes furniture is thrown around the room” said Edie Buchanan, the president of the Association of Salem-Keizer Education Support Professionals.

In the recent staff survey, when asked if a student has attempted to harm them or others in the past year, more than 50% answered “Yes.” When asked if they feel they are adequately trained to respond, 68% said they “Disagree” or “Strongly disagree.”

According to district officials, there are policies in place — such as removing other students from the classroom when a situation escalates and protective gear like bite guards for teachers. Plus, the district says it’s adding more training and more outside counseling help. 

“Regarding training for classified and licensed staff, staff who work in our specialized classrooms are trained in Mandt de-escalation and if needed restraint protocols. All administrators, behavior coaches, and behavior cadre are also trained in Mandt. General education teachers and staff are trained in Mandt as needed to support students with complex behaviors,” SKPS said. “This year, the district also added Ukeru training on top of Mandt for some staff. Ukeru is a new protocol that emphasizes trauma informed processes, intervention and de-escalation without restraint. This training and equipment have been provided specifically to targeted classrooms.”

The district continued on to say they’ve added a “self-contained K-2 classroom” this school year while actively working to get a “youth day treatment facility” in Marion County.

Meanwhile, the teachers’ unions say that state funding, along with state and district rules restricting educators’ ability to successfully manage these situations, has led to this point — and they want change. 

The unions are about to enter contract negotiations with the district for the next school year.