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After a year of violence, US schools are trying to tame tensions

SAN FRANCISCO – The first week of school was to mark a triumphant return to the classrooms at Everett Middle School in San Francisco after more than a year of distance learning.

But when computer science teacher Yesi Castro-Mitchell greeted a class of sixth graders last fall, one student started hitting her repeatedly.

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

Across America, one of the nation’s most difficult academic years was also one of its most violent. Experts who track school behavior nationwide said fights and other aggressive behavior, including shootings, appear to have increased. Now that students head into summer vacation, schools are taking stock of what went wrong and how to fix it.

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At Everett, many of this year’s issues were no different than they were before the pandemic, but “they were absolutely more severe, more intense and more frequent,” said Cris Garza, an Everett teacher of eight years and a teachers’ union representative.

In addition to the attack on the teacher, according to several teachers and parents, there were brawls among the students almost every day. A brawl left a student hospitalized for at least two days. In other incidents, groups of students rushed into classrooms, disrupting classes and sometimes destroying school property.

Educators and psychologists say the pandemic has contributed to volatility in schools by causing a rise in student mental health issues, trauma at home, a lack of socialization opportunities and a shortage of teachers and counselors who need adult supervision and guidance reduced.

There is no national data tracking school fights and assaults, but education officials across the country say violence has become more frequent and violent.

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“No doubt what we’re hearing across the board is that schools are experiencing significantly more crises related to school violence and emotional behavioral crises,” said Sharon Hoover, co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

The same problems would likely surface again in the fall, she said, if struggling youth don’t get the help and structure they need.

Students in Everett were feeling the effects of the pandemic acutely. About 70% of the school’s 600 students are Latino, many study English, and most are economically disadvantaged. Many have lost parents or grandparents to COVID-19, or lost their homes because families couldn’t pay rent, school social worker Bridget Early said.

Castro-Mitchell said no one warned her that her attacker had a history of behavior problems. After the attack, the teacher transferred to another school but left before the end of the year as she struggled with PTSD.

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Several Everett employees complained that a pandemic rule to improve airflow had the unintended effect of encouraging misconduct. Teachers were not allowed to close and lock classroom doors, and groups of students who skipped classes roamed the hallways and stormed into other classes.

Reports from members of the National Association of School Resource Officers suggest there were more guns on school grounds, more assaults and more fist fights across the country, said Mo Canady, the group’s executive director.

The Clark County School District in Las Vegas, one of the largest in the country, has announced it will be making panic buttons available to teachers following a spike in violence, including an April attack on a teacher that left her unconscious in her classroom . District Police Chief Mike Blackeye said the 2021-22 school year was the busiest in his department’s 40-year history.

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Hoover said when the pandemic hit, young people in particular lost what gave their lives structure: they were cut off from school and isolated from their peers.

Many schools have attempted to address the underlying causes.

When the students returned to Savanna High School in Anaheim, California, it was “fight after fight after fight,” said Penny Hatzis, the school’s senior counselor. The school hired a restorative justice specialist to put mediation over punishment, though next year they are looking for more balance with discipline. In October, they used grant money to open a “relaxation room” 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 day and night,” said Hatzis. The school also hosted support groups for students who have suffered losses, LGBTQ+ students and others – sometimes several in a day.

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A freshman at Savanna, Clara Oliver, struggled with anxiety, which intensified when she returned to in-person school, and found it difficult to have face-to-face conversations with classmates. The relaxation room became a refuge for them. 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 go into this room. There was someone to talk to, there were snacks, there were fidget toys and card games. We could relax, then return to class and get on with our day.”

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

But they couldn’t pull it off. As elsewhere, the wave of coronavirus caused by Omicron has sidelined educators and deepened a staffing crisis at the school, which was already short of security guards and backup staff.

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“In a year when mental health was more important than ever,” Early said, she spent most of her time “putting out fires.” She frequently served as a deputy.

Parents worried about their children’s safety and encouraged them to avoid danger zones.

“My son didn’t usually use the toilets. He waited until school was over,” said Dheyanira Calahorrano, mother of a seventh-grader who hadn’t had a science teacher, music teacher, or gym teacher for several months.

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

A spokeswoman for the San Francisco Unified School District, Laura Dudnick, said Everett, like many other schools, is struggling with increasing student mental health problems and staff shortages.

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

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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.

“What all children need, especially children experiencing trauma, is consistency and stability,” Early said. “We couldn’t offer them that all year round.”

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The Associated Press education team is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/06/23/after-year-of-violence-us-schools-try-to-tame-tensions/ After a year of violence, US schools are trying to tame tensions

Sarah Y. Kim

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