MICHIGAN — Frustrated educators are expressing their concerns over teacher injuries caused by students in the classroom. FOX 17 tracked down reports of broken bones, chairs thrown at teachers and concussions. This comes at a time when a national teacher shortage still plagues classrooms and more educators are leaving the profession or are not getting in. Teacher injury numbers are not readily available statewide and educators say that needs to change to increase transparency.
When Jennifer Gougeon-Catarino began her teaching career at Kalamazoo Public Schools over 20 years ago, she knew she had found her calling.
“I just knew right away that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.
Not even two years into her career, Gougeon-Catarino says she was assaulted at Milwood Elementary. A student walked into her class as she was sitting with a group of students and without a word, he hit her across the head with a hardcover binder.
“That sent me to the ER,” Gougeon-Catarino recalls. “That was my first concussion while teaching.”
Her first concussion.
There were more on the job throughout her career. In fact, Gougeon-Catarino has been injured by students on the job three times. Along with the first incident, she was punched in the early 2000s by a student while trying to break up a fight. Her third student-caused injury in February of 2016 was an accident, but it changed her life completely. An excited student was running down the hall at Hillside Middle School after school was dismissed early due to poor weather conditions. The student ran into her door which slammed straight into Gougeon-Catarino’s head.
“That one required a little over three years total of neuro rehab, vision therapy, occupational therapy,” she said. “I still have some lasting effects from that. I get dizzy, lose my balance, headaches.”
Gougeon-Catarino hasn’t taught a classroom since that day seven years ago. But despite all her injuries and pain, she still yearns to return to the classroom.
“That was an integral part of my identity,” she said. “Losing that was devastating.”
Unfortunately, it turns out experiences like the ones she’s had are not uncommon.
FOX 17 looked into how vast this problem was. We reached out to some of the largest public school districts in West Michigan to see their teacher injuries caused by students from the 2018-2019 school year to the 2022-2023 school year.
Grand Rapids Public Schools, Battle Creek Public Schools, Forest Hills Public Schools and Muskegon Public Schools sent over their teacher injuries through a Freedom of Information Act request that we filed at no charge. Holland Public Schools sent us the numbers with some incomplete data. Meanwhile, Muskegon Heights Public Schools and Greenville Public Schools ignored our emails and requests.
East Grand Rapids Public Schools sent us an estimate for our FOIA request for almost $1,600 to take a look at the data. Rockford Public Schools sent us an estimate for just over $800.
We then spent weeks combing through the injuries we did receive and organized them by school year – weeks of work for numbers that the Michigan Education Association (MEA) says should be readily available for all.
“If we want educators to stay committed and to stick around, we have to figure out how to essentially curb this epidemic of violence directed at staff,” MEA UniServ Director Tim Russ.
FOX 17 got in touch with the Michigan Department of Education to see if the state is aware of these alarming reports or is tracking them in any way.
“The department does not have any authority to collect those data. We have to be given legislative authority to collect data,” Michigan Department of Education Deputy Superintendent for Finance and Operations Diane Golzynski said. “We would have no way of knowing if incidents happen at the local level.”
After weeks of compiling the data we received from five school districts, we found some alarming trends. During the 2018-2019 school year GRPS, which has about 14 thousand students, had 34 teacher injuries. Everything from a student punching a teacher in the face to a teacher getting hit in the genitals and then spit on.
In that same school year, Muskegon Public Schools, which have only a quarter of the student population that GRPS has, had more injuries – 35 in a single school year. Instances like a student pushing over a teacher, fracturing their pelvis and a student biting a teacher’s left breast.
There was however a clear drop in injuries during the pandemic as schools switched to online learning, but in the last school year, those injuries are trending back up.
“It’s tough when you don’t feel respected in your profession and you don’t feel supported,” Gougeon-Catarino said.
A clear-cut solution to solve this is something that can’t be reached according to educators, but Russ believes there’s a clear first step.
“In order to solve a problem, we all know, the first thing you have to do is admit that it’s a problem,” Russ said.
Admitting to the problem requires seeing the data and trends – all things we found are not available to the general public.
“I think that when you have data it is always a good thing. Because you can use that data to then solve problems to then create the best environment possible,” Chair of the Michigan House Education Committee Representative Matt Koleszar said. “We all want to make sure that no matter who goes into school every day, comes home safe and has a positive experience.”
Gougeon-Catarino says it all ties together to the mental health crisis and that needs to be at the forefront to combat this problem.
“There really needs to be more of an emphasis on trauma-informed teaching trauma-informed care, more staff on site to help with that,” she said.
Gougeon-Catarino tutors now and continues her passion for teaching. Because even after everything she’s been through she, like most educators, still respects and loves the profession, a profession that doesn’t always love and respect her back.