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Staff injuries caused by students up 50 percent this year for Fargo’s public schools

John Rodenbiker (left) & Jeff Schatz

FARGO - Staff in Fargo’s public schools are being injured by students at a much higher rate this year than last year, School District records show.

In the 2016-17 school year, there were 341 recorded incidents of very minor to severe injuries to staff due to student behaviors, records show.

Through April 30 of this year, there have been 510 reports, a nearly 50 percent increase, records show.

Superintendent Jeff Schatz said Thursday, May 24, that he expect more incidents before the school year ends June 30.

The increase was not a surprise, given that the district changed its reporting process to include all injuries, from scratches and bruises to black eyes, concussions and other serious conditions.

“We had more people reporting. In the past, we maybe weren’t as good as reporting,” said Schatz.

“We see that (rising injuries caused by students) in the elementaries, we see it in the middle schools, (but) in the high schools, it’s pretty rare,” Schatz said.

West Fargo Public Schools has also been tracking incidents of students injuring staff members since the middle of the 2015-16 school year, district spokeswoman Heather Konschak said. By the end of that year, 68 reports were filed.

In 2016-17, there were 125 reports filed. This school year, through Dec. 31, there were 61 incidents, Konschak said.

At Moorhead Area Public Schools, there were 56 injuries reported to Workers Compensation from July 1, 2017 to May 23, according to Kristin Dehmer, executive director of human resources.

At national conferences, injuries caused by aggressive student behavior “is the No. 1 thing being talked about,” Schatz said. “I have been in this business for 32 years and have never seen some of the things we’re seeing right now.”

Special ed plans on hold

A plan to build a $4.3 million Level 4 or Least Restrictive Environment-Setting D facility at Agassiz for kindergarten through fifth-graders with severe disabilities - including being emotionally disturbed or violent - was put on hold by the Fargo School Board Tuesday, May 22.

Opposition from parents and other advocates to the two-year project helped to halt the effort.

“Certainly, there was no buy-in to the concept set forward,” Schatz said.

Plans to bid two other special education projects at Washington and Madison elementary schools have also been halted, Schatz said.

After weighing feedback he was getting, Schatz said he contacted West Fargo school district administrators a couple weeks ago and urged a slower, more measured approach to deciding whether to build a facility for Setting D students.

That led West Fargo officials to announce their district would not participate in the program this fall.

“It was a collaborative decision,” Schatz said.

Schatz said the debate over having separate facilities for students struggling with behavioral issues, or providing services in each school, must continue.

Fargo School Board members will be asked to take up the issue again at their summer retreat, including deciding what type of task force or group they want to create to study the issue - and perhaps make recommendations, Schatz said.

“In the end, let’s just get it right. That is the most important thing,” Schatz said.

A contract issue

Injuries to staff caused by students remain a sticking point in Fargo teacher contract negotiations, as well.

The issue was one of several items taken to state fact-finding last year after teachers and school board negotiators failed to work through their issues at the local level.

This year, teachers are seeking to have contract language included that says that Fargo Public Schools will make “a good faith effort” to provide teachers training, safety information, a say in developing policies, and a workplace free from threats of violence.

The proposed contract language also asks that teachers be fully compensated for any time lost to threats or injury, without deductions from emergency or sick leave.

In contract talks on Wednesday, May 23, board member Jim Johnson said the district’s legal counsel said the contract language appeared to be simply a way to make injuries caused by students a grounds for a complaint or grievance.

Teacher negotiator Jenifer Mastrud questioned the amount of involvement teachers had in making classrooms safer, saying the district’s decisions are more “top-down” than collaborative.

“Safety is, and has been, our No. 1 priority,” said John Rodenbiker, another school board negotiator, on Thursday, May 24.

Rodenbiker said the district has designated licensed social workers to serve the comprehensive high schools and middle schools; hired 14 people for behavioral intervention; and added trauma training. Schatz said the district has spent $1.5 million on those hires and training.

“We take this seriously,” Rodenbiker said, but “we don’t want to put anything into the contract until we know what will work.”