Live 5 Investigates: Teachers injured by students

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Lowcountry teachers reported at least 122 incidents where they were injured by students last school year, according to workers' compensation claims.

Documents provided by Charleston, Berkeley, Georgetown, DD2, DD4 and Colleton county school districts describe the injuries reported.

"Teachers are in the first line of fire," said a veteran CCSD educator who agreed to talk to us if we did not use her name. "I have been injured by a student, yes… there was a fight and I was trying to stop a student from continue fighting. The student knocked into me pretty hard to get to the other student."

Many of the works' comp claims involved slips and falls.

We specifically narrowed in on the 122 events down that involved students.

There were 25 in Charleston, 24 in Colleton, 29 in Berkeley, 33 in Dorchester District 2, five in Dorchester District 4 and six in Georgetown County Schools.

It was clear some of the injuries were accidents, such as football or cheerleading coaches being knocked down by students unintentionally while at practice.

But many of the injuries were not accidents.

In the injury descriptions, teachers recalled being "hit with a tape dispenser," "punched in the face," "spit in the eye," "bit," "kicked," and "scratched and punched."

In one case, a student "kicked her teacher in the face and made her head go back into the concrete wall. She collapsed and could not move."

In a statement, a Charleston County Schools spokesperson, "One incident is too many. We take any threat made towards our staff, physical or verbal, seriously, and it is unacceptable when a staff member is injured in this manner."

A DD2 spokesperson said many of their injuries involving students with special needs and elementary-aged pupils whose behaviors are not as advanced as older children.

Eleven of the 122 total injuries involving students in the districts specifically said they were related to special needs pupils.

About a fourth of the teacher injuries involving students were a result of students fighting or trying to fight.

For example, a Colleton school employee "was knocked down while trying to break up a fight."

One Charleston report described, "Breaking up a fight between two girls…student pushed and literally threw her off. Teacher has nerve pain."

CCSD shared their policy on how staff is expected to react to fights.

It does not say they have to intervene, but they can. Employees are allowed to use physical force, for example, if people could be injured, property could be damaged, to get weapons away or to defend themselves.

Georgetown County School District is expanding staff training.

They had some of the lowest injury numbers, which they attribute both to being a smaller district and to the expertise Alan Walters.

"I was a SWAT operator and crisis negotiator," said Walters said who is now the director of Safety and Risk Management for GCSD. "I realized some of the techniques we used as crisis negotiators would apply to situations we encounter such as in schools. We deal with people in crisis every day, whether it's students, parents or even coworkers."

Walters developed his own program with that idea of arming educators with crisis negotiation techniques and has gotten national attention. Other districts are also asking him to teach it.

We asked if he believes a teacher should intervene when a fight breaks out.

"That's a situational decision. It's not black and white," Walters said. "If you've got a 5'2", 100-pound teacher… and two football player-sized guys going at it in the classroom, she's probably not the best person to try to intervene."

He said they encourage staff to get all of the other students, who are usually pulling out cell phones to video fights, away to safety. They try to isolate and contain the fight while waiting on a School Resource Officer. He also teaches them verbal de-escalation techniques.

"But as far as physically intervening? Generally, that's a last resort," Walters said.

GCSD lead school district nurse Laura Tucker instructs another course called CPI, Crisis Prevention Intervention.

"The philosophy of CPI is the care, welfare and safety and security of all involved- both staff and students," said Tucker.

She said there are five to fifteen CPI certified adults in every GCSD school. They're rapidly training more at principals' requests.

As a last resort, CPI teaches how to safely restrain a student. Tucker said restraints can be fatal if not done as CPI teaches.

"I experienced that back when I was in the psychiatric world," Tucker said."A child did die in restraints. And so that motivates me because I've seen it happen. I know what can happen."

Charleston County Schools said they also offer CPI foundations training and de-escalation training for school staff.

The district said it partnered with Durham Bus Services and the CCSD Transportation Department to provide de-escalation training for bus drivers and bus monitors.

So far, 624 people have participated in CPI two day or verbal de-escalation training, the district said, "The two-day course is offered monthly."

The CCSD educator we talked to said the vast majority of their kids are great,"It's not everybody. It's a very, very small percentage. But they're taking away the learning for everybody else."

She believes if the consequences were harsher, other students and teachers would feel safer. She said teachers get frustrated when students end up back in school after a bad fight.

"The district brings back students that have fought and have had a very dangerous situation in classrooms, cafeterias, hallways," she said."They come back on probation. What is that telling the students? It's okay to fight, You can come back to school. You put everybody's life in danger, and it's okay we'll put you on district probation."

Charleston County Schools commented on her concerns in a statement: "Per South Carolina state regulations, fighting is a level 2 offense, which is not expellable on the first offense."

It also said, "School administrators determine the level of the incident based on the severity and level of the incident. For example, they will enter a code for fighting, or a code for simple assault. Fighting is a level 2 offense, and goes through the Department of Alternative Programs and Services, based on the PDP. Simple assault, a level 3 offense, would go to the District Constituent Board. Each case is heard, and decisions are made on a case-by-case basis."

Walters said for all districts, role-playing situations and doing regular safety meetings is essential.

"You've got to practice it because in those moments of crisis, you've got to be able to take control," Walters said.

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