WEST FARGO -- Sara Schmidt teaches special education classes at South Elementary School. She’s attuned to signs that a pupil could be frustrated -- crumpling an assignment sheet, for instance -- and she tries to intervene before agitation can flare into something more serious.
“The goal is to be proactive, to not be reactive,” when a student’s behavior turns potentially disruptive, she said. “These situations do happen.”
To defuse the student’s anger, she might say: “I can see you’re frustrated. Do you want to take a break?”
Schmidt was one of a dozen West Fargo Public Schools teachers who recently took part in a workshop on crisis prevention, which teaches techniques to safely manage disruptive and even assaultive behavior.
Similar seminars are taught in the Fargo and Moorhead school districts, which also follow the methods developed by the Crisis Prevention Institute. Teachers in all of the districts are increasingly encountering disruptive incidents in the classroom, officials said.
In West Fargo schools, 125 incident reports were filed during 2016-17, the first full year of reporting. So far this school year, through Dec. 31, 2017, 61 incidents were reported.
So far in the 2017-18 academic year, teachers and staff of the Fargo Public Schools have experienced 259 incidents resulting in injury linked to student behaviors. Forty-five percent of those were considered major incidents, including aggression with injury, major fighting or property destruction or fighting.
“People have received medical treatment, gone to a doctor to be checked out,” said AnnMarie Campbell, the Fargo superintendent’s executive assistant.
Behavioral incidents are becoming more serious, but Fargo school officials said they don’t know why. Safety in the classroom has emerged as an issue in recent teacher contract negotiations in Fargo.
A relatively small number of students often account for the bulk of incidents. In Fargo, more than half of the incidents, 54 percent, involved 99 students. Less than 1 percent of students were involved in behavioral incidents resulting in staff injuries.
Moorhead Area Public Schools so far this school year have logged 76 incidents requiring restraint or seclusion, involving 25 students out of a student population of almost 7,000. Also, some incidents really were a continuation of an earlier incident.
“These are more significantly disabled kids,” said Duane Borgeson, the district’s executive director of learner support services. Thirty years ago, many of those children would not have been in public schools, but now there is a commitment to allow children to remain at home and to attend schools near home, he said.
“Along with that come challenges we might not have had to deal with 30 years ago,” Borgeson said.
At this point a year ago, Moorhead had 161 incidents, or more than double the number so far this year. Borgeson attributes the decrease to the opening of an elementary and middle school, which eased overcrowding, and to training initiatives.
Regular training sessions help teachers and other staff handle the behavioral challenges they are increasingly confronting.
“It’s very helpful for me,” Schmidt said of the training. “It creates that sense of comfort when these crisis situations happen. They can be stressful.”
The hallmark of crisis intervention is to de-escalate a situation that could spiral out of control. In order to do that, teachers learn what’s behind a certain behavior. Knowing that can guide the most effective response, said Britney Bachmeier, autism and behavioral specialist at West Fargo Public Schools, and a certified crisis intervention trainer.
A student might blurt to attract attention, to use an example Bachmeier gave in the training workshop. The student might have learned that acting out repeatedly provides a welcome break from the demands of the classroom, she said.
The response, Bachmeier said, is to replace the behavior with something constructive. “Looks like you need a walk,” she said, suggesting a possible alternative.
If de-escalation doesn’t work, teachers are taught safe disengagement and restraint techniques. “We see the de-escalation and limit setting on a much more frequent basis than the restraint or holds,” Bachmeier said in an interview. “For me personally, I utilized restraint for the first time this school year” days before the workshop.
West Fargo Public Schools began tracking incidents during the 2016-17 school year. “With one full year of data and two partial years, it is difficult to speak to a trend yet,” Bachmeier said. Still, the incidents appear to have become more common in recent years, she added, which is why the district started tracking them.
Moorhead Area Public Schools have been using the crisis intervention training for more than two decades, and the techniques have been helpful, Moorhead schools’ Borgeson said. The training has been focused mostly on special education teachers and paraprofessionals, but some other teachers, as well as school administrators and school bus drivers, also have received more limited training, he said.
“It works and it’s proven over time,” Borgeson added. “The verbal de-escalation is what we really want our teachers and paraprofessionals to take away from it. The physical holds are just a small part of it.”