US schools try to de-escalate tensions after year of violence

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The first week of school was marked by a triumphant return to classes at Everett Middle School in San Francisco after more than a year of distance learning.

But as computer science teacher Yesie Castro-Michel welcomed her sixth-grader class last fall, a student began punching her repeatedly.

Castro-Michel wrapped his arms around his head and hoped that the blows would stop. She remembers the stunned silence in her class as the other students witnessed the attack. The teacher suffered a concussion, a dislocated jaw, broken teeth and loss of hearing in her left ear, which now requires a hearing aid.

Across America, one of the nation’s toughest academic years was also one of the most violent. Experts tracking school behavior across the country said fighting and other aggressive behavior, including shootings, had increased. Now, as students head out on summer vacation, schools are taking stock of what went wrong and how to fix it.

At Everett, many of the problems this year were no different than they were before the pandemic, but “they were absolutely greater in severity, intensity, and frequency,” said Chris Garza, a teacher at Everett and a teacher union representative for eight years.

According to many teachers and parents, apart from the attack on the teacher, there were fights between the students almost daily. A brawl left a student hospitalized for at least two days. In other incidents, swarms of students broke into classrooms, disrupting lessons and sometimes destroying school property.

Educators and psychologists say the pandemic contributed to instability in schools due to an increase in students’ mental health problems, trauma at home, lack of social opportunities and lack of teachers and counselors, which reduced adult supervision and guidance.

There is no national data that tracks school fights and attacks, but education officials across the country say violence became more frequent and more rampant.

Sharon Hoover, co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said, “Without a doubt, we are hearing across the board that schools face significantly greater distress from school violence and emotional-behavioral crises. are doing.” ,

The same issues are likely to re-emerge in the fall, she said, if struggling teens don’t get the support and structure they need.

Everett’s students felt the effects of the pandemic acutely. About 70% of the school’s 600 students are Latino, many are English learners and most are financially disadvantaged. School social worker Bridget Early said many parents or grandparents lost their homes to COVID-19 or lost their homes because families could not pay rent.

Castro-Michel said no one warned her that her attacker had a history of behavioral problems. After the attack, the teacher transferred to another school, but left before the end of the year because she was battling PTSD.

Several staff members at Everett complained that a pandemic rule intended to improve air circulation had the unintended effect of inviting abuse. Teachers were not allowed to lock and lock classroom doors, and groups of students who had dropped out would roam the halls and break into other classrooms in session.

Reports from members of the National Association of School Resource Officers show that there were more weapons, more assaults and more fist fights on school campuses across the country, said Mo Kennedy, the group’s executive director.

The Clark County School District in Las Vegas, one of the nation’s largest, has said it will provide teachers with a panic button following a rise in violence, including an April attack on a teacher that left her unconscious in her classroom. Had done it. District Police Chief Mike Blake said the 2021-22 school year was the busiest in his department’s 40-year history.

Hoover said that when the pandemic hit, young people in particular lost the structure of their lives: They were cut off from attending school and isolated from peers.

Many schools have tried to address the underlying cause.

When the students returned to Savannah High School in Anaheim, California, it was “fight after fight after fight,” said Penny Hatzis, the school’s principal counselor. The school hired a specialist in restorative justice, who emphasizes arbitration over sentencing, although they are looking for a greater balance with discipline next year. In October, he used grant money to open a “restroom” where students could talk to a mental health counselor.

“We opened it up, and we saw a huge drop in fights and discipline issues. It was night and day,” Hatzis said. The school also organized support groups for disadvantaged students, LGBTQ+ students, and others — ever -Sometimes several in a day.

A freshman in Savannah, Clara Oliver struggled with anxiety that intensified when she returned to school in person and found it difficult to communicate face-to-face with classmates. The rest room became a shelter for him. Eventually it became easier to talk to people.

“The room would give us a break from everything,” she said. “When we were stressed about school, we would just walk into that room. There was someone to talk to, there were snacks, there were fidget toys and card games. We could rest, then go back to class and continue with our day.”

In Everett, school officials attempted a “January reset” with new strategies to bring students closer together, efforts to make lessons more fun and more social-emotional work with children, Early said.

But they couldn’t pull it off. Elsewhere, the Omicron-led surge of the coronavirus has sidelined teachers, deepening a staffing crisis at the school, which already lacked security guards and substitutes.

“In a year where mental health was more important than ever,” Early said, she spent most of her time “fighting fires.” She often served as a substitute.

Parents were concerned about the safety of their children and encouraged them to stay away from danger zones.

“My son didn’t usually use the bathroom. He will wait until school is over,” said Dheyanira Kalahorano, a seventh-grade mother who had no science teacher, no music teacher and no gym teacher for several months.

Principal Esther Fensel resigned at the end of the school year and did not respond to interview requests.

San Francisco Unified School District spokeswoman Laura Dudnick said Everett, like many other schools, continues to grapple with increasing student mental health challenges and staffing shortages.

During the year, she said the district hired an additional security guard, increased substitute coverage and required students to lock cellphones during class.

Next year, Early said, the school will open a grant-funded wellness center with an on-site therapist and other staff to focus on students’ social and emotional needs.

“All children, especially children who have experienced trauma, need stability and stability,” Early said. “We couldn’t provide that for them all year.”

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The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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