As someone who teaches the youngest children in Spokane Public Schools, Roni Gross has become used to violence.
"I've been hit and kicked and punched and broken and hurt," says Gross, a Logan Elementary K-3 special education teacher.
In the 2017-18 school year, there were 85 staff injuries while administering isolation or restraint of students in Spokane Public Schools. That number, however, is likely far lower than the actual number of injuries to staff, as many injuries go unreported. Gross, for instance, very rarely reports any injuries to the office — not even when a student punched her in the face and broke her glasses.
Brent Perdue, principal at Logan Elementary, has been an administrator in four different schools. But in recent years, he says he's noticed a difference in the kinds of behaviors he's seen from students.
"I don't know that the behaviors are worse, but they present like they're worse because I do believe the volume is greater," he says. "I think there are more kids with those levels of needs."
Perdue doesn't want to come off like he's blaming kids. There are a variety of factors contributing to why a student may have behavioral issues at a young age, like family poverty, a lack of mental health care and childhood trauma. At Logan Elementary, 90 percent of students are considered low-income, according to state data. As Gross puts it, students in her behavioral intervention class are "tiny people with big things happening in their lives and ... there are things they don't have control over."
Spokane Public Schools has emphasized "restorative practices" to change a student's behavior in the last several years. "Exclusionary" discipline such as isolation, suspension and expulsion are expected to be used only as a last resort. Though secondary grade levels have seen decreases in exclusionary discipline since 2014-2015, elementary suspensions or expulsions are about even overall when comparing 2018-19, according to Spokane Public Schools data. The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction contends Spokane Public Schools is "overusing" isolation, which involves locking students in what is often a padded room.
State officials say that isolation and restraint should never be used as a punishment. But at Holmes Elementary, students were put into isolation more than 500 times in the 2017-18 school year, among the highest of any school in Spokane, according to state data.
"The district is not saying exclusionary measures can never be used," Stephanie Lundberg, principal at Holmes Elementary, says. "They're saying there's not a lot of research to support that suspending a child is going to change behavior." She says the school has seen "a fair amount of success" in exclusionary discipline. "It's always about safety," she says. "We don't want staff getting hurt and we don't want kids getting hurt."
Though Lundberg says it's "absolutely" a goal for Holmes to reduce that number, "This year alone I had two separate teachers punched in the face," she says. "It wasn't unintentional ... this was a targeted punch to the face. That was a new thing we haven't seen."
This past school year, Holmes tried a pilot program to support students in behavioral intervention. The goal, Lundberg says, was to "try something different" with students. It was one of two elementary schools in Spokane to jump on the pilot.
"We wanted to create an environment for our kids that would be more therapeutic in nature," Lundberg says.
Some students had heart rate monitors to track when they're becoming upset. The class also varied instructional strategies, with some students taking online courses through Spokane Virtual Learning. A specialist was on site to support kids when they needed it. Lundberg calls it a "step in the right direction."
Students could also use more mental health support in school, Perdue says. Logan, for instance, has one mental health counselor. But he argues that's not enough.
"The challenge there is we have over 400 kids who attend the school," he says. "And there are way more than 24 kids who could benefit from that."
Gross, the teacher at Logan, emphasizes early intervention as a way to change student behaviors and ultimately keep themselves — and teachers — safe. She says she sees more success with students she's able to work with at a younger age.
"A big part of my job is to help them see that school can be fun and safe and silly," Gross says.
For Gross, safety is her No. 1 concern when a student becomes violent. If she does decide the isolation room would be useful, she monitors to make sure the kid is OK.
And minutes later, things are usually different. Sometimes, children don't remember what happened.
"Often," she says, "they don't even remember that they hurt you."