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Oregon Teachers Call For Solutions To Disruptive Student Problems

<p>An empty hallway at Auburn Elementary School in Salem before school starts. Auburn was originally expected to be rebuilt under the proposed bond measure for the May 2018 ballot.</p>

Molly J. Smith

An empty hallway at Auburn Elementary School in Salem before school starts. Auburn was originally expected to be rebuilt under the proposed bond measure for the May 2018 ballot.

Staff at Adams Elementary School in Eugene got so fed up with behavior problems in their classrooms, they showed up in force at last week’s school board meeting.

"Come on up, grab a chair, bring it up, it’s fine," encouraged Alicia Hays, the chair of the Eugene 4J school district board of directors.

Teachers needed the extra chairs, as they took turns — each staying within the allotted two minutes of public testimony time — reading a lengthy letter signed by more than 40 teachers and other staff at Adams.

Teacher Ann Piazza recited problems facing students with medical needs — a litany that followed testimony earlier in the evening from parents of kids with such needs.

Meg Carnagey followed with a multi-part list of how students disrupt classrooms: they walk out and roam the halls, or they stay and break things or throw room-clearing tantrums. And worse. 

“That includes physical aggression such as hitting, punching, tackling, biting, choking and/or kicking directed at students and staff,” Carnagey read.

The letter from Adams' staff was also on behalf of a neighboring school, El Camino del Rio, but these problems are not just in Eugene. Portland teachers have delivered similar messages. State officials and teachers unions have convened meetings recently to examine the problem.

Those conversations come as Oregon legislators discuss making a big investment next year in the state’s struggling public school system. School board members, teachers and legislators all agree that Oregon's education spending has barely kept up with rising costs, as school outcomes like graduation rates have stayed in the national basement.

Teachers say some problems have only gotten worse, like fraying supports for students’ emotional and psychological needs. And they're running low on patience, as demonstrated by the recent testimony by Tad Shannon, the president of the Eugene Education Association. 

“We are facing a real and present danger in this district — and at the risk of stating the obvious, we’re in the midst of a behavioral crisis," Shannon told board members.

"Although it might be tempting to conclude this is a problem concentrated at a few schools — this is not the case.” 

Shannon called for stop-gap measures, like deploying central office staff to schools.

Some board members, however, were skeptical of short-term fixes for a problem.

“This behavioral issue has not just come up this year - or last year," said Eugene school board member Jim Torrey.

Torrey said he tried to get lawmakers to pay attention as much as six years ago to problems in another Oregon district but was ignored. He says it’s different now.

“They now know how important and significant that issue is,” Torrey said.

Among those Torrey would likely say understand the urgency, is Rep. Barbara Smith Warner (D-East Portland).

“I wish I could tell you this was an isolated incident, but we heard about this everywhere we went on the Student Success tour around the state,” said Smith Warner, referencing a months-long tour of Oregon schools that she helped lead. 

State officials could only provide discipline data over the last three years — and that didn’t show any increase. Smith Warner says violence among young students has grown over a long period of time.

“I had made note of a principal who said when he started 20 years ago, it was a big scary thing to do a safety plan for a kid," Smith Warner recalled.

"And he said this year, just in the first five weeks of school, he’d done 20.”

Teachers say their out-of-control classrooms may drive them out of the profession. Educators and lawmakers say it’s a complex problem stemming from kids dealing with hunger, trauma and poverty — without enough counselors and support staff to help them.

Smith Warner said the fix is somewhat simple, if expensive.

“First of all, just plain having more hands, more caring adults in the schools, and dealing in a more significant way with the mental health needs of our kids," Smith Warner suggested."More counselors, having more school psychologists — all of that.”

Lawmakers plan to bring a hefty set of spending measures for the 2019 legislative session, but they’re still working on what will be included. According to one state model, adding enough counselors would cost more than $70 million. Legislators are increasingly convinced that the truly long-term solution to help with a range of problems is to invest more in preschool to catch issues upstream.  

When it comes to disruptive behavior and little kids, Judy Newman is in a unique position to evaluate what's going on — as both a Eugene school board member and director of Early Childhood Cares of Lane County. She said the problems show up in daycare.

“Our 2-year-olds, our 3-year-olds are having this same thing happen — they’re at home, they’re in child care, and they’re in centers that are structured differently," Newman said.

"So there’s something significant going on.”

Even if legislators can agree on a spending package, with counselors and preschool included, the help wouldn’t show up until next school year at the earliest. In places like Eugene, that may feel like a long time to wait.

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Rob Manning is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Rob has reported extensively on Oregon schools and universities as OPB's education reporter and is now a news editor.