#schoolsafety | COVID-19 hardships fuel increase in poor student behavior, threats

When Illinois classrooms fully reopened for in-person learning this fall, teachers anticipated many of their students would need plenty of academic and emotional support to recover from 18 months of COVID-19 disruptions to their education.

But just three months into the new school year, pandemic-era quarantines and virus outbreaks have been upstaged by a surge in troubling student behavior that even veteran educators say is unlike anything they have witnessed during decades of teaching.

“Every morning, one of our elementary school teachers has started putting on shin guards, as she knows her shins will take a beating from a student who has been kicking her,” said Joe Blomquist, a teacher and union leader at St. Charles Community Unit School District 303.

Blomquist, an elementary school music teacher, said the number of incidents requiring crisis intervention in the district’s elementary school classrooms this fall has already doubled from incidents reported during the entire school year pre-pandemic.

“All of our staff do their best, and we really want to take care of our kids, so it breaks our hearts to see them in crisis,” Blomquist said.

While virus rates have climbed in recent weeks, many educators in Illinois and across the U.S. are reporting the hardships posed by COVID-19 quarantines and school outbreaks this school year pale in comparison to dealing with the daily barrage of inappropriate student behavior erupting in their classrooms.

This fall, educators have reported everything from violent assaults of teachers and frequent student fistfights, to a spate of menacing threats.

While school shootings are rare, there has been a significant increase in reports of school violence during the new school year nationwide, including at least 38 incidents of gunfire on school campuses that resulted in death and injury between Aug. 1 and Nov. 30, compared with 14 incidents in the same period in 2019, according to data compiled by the nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety and analyzed by the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Between Aug. 1 and Nov. 30, at least 136 incidents involved a gun being brandished, fired or a bullet hitting school property, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database compiled by the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security.

In Illinois, there were 23 such incidents so far in all of 2021, up from seven in 2019.

Dwayne Bearden, a special education English teacher, said teachers are feeling “traumatized” by an increase in violent student behavior.

“Over the past few months, outside of adjusting to in-person instruction, we’ve been faced with an alarming number of violent incidents … students physically fighting, students assaulting teachers and sharing photos picturing them brandishing weapons,” Bearden said.

“We’re not here to point fingers at anybody. … But we need to take a collaborative approach to this problem, because a top-down approach is not working,” he added.

Noting the pandemic’s “devastating impact on the mental health of children, teens and young people,” the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association recently declared a national mental health crisis among children and teens.

The number of teens “arriving at emergency rooms and primary care clinics for behavioral and mental health problems and suicide attempts have increased significantly during the pandemic,” AAP officials said.

Determined to support teachers who report feeling increasingly unsafe in their classrooms, officials with the Illinois Education Association last week called on school districts that are not adhering to Illinois school safety laws to immediately comply.

“Violence is increasing in our schools across the state. Our educators should not have to constantly worry about their safety and the safety of their students,” IEA President Kathi Griffin said.

“This is not their problem to solve. They’re under enough stress already. School administrators need to take immediate action to keep our students, staff and communities safe,” Griffin said.

Two Illinois legislators, state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Democrat from Hoffman Estates, and Rep. Tony McCombie, a Republican from Savanna, are partnering with the IEA to sponsor new legislation that will ensure school districts comply with requirements in the School Threat Assessment law.

The law requires schools to develop a threat assessment team and protocol and also calls for districts to review each of their school building’s emergency and crisis response plans.

In addition to the trauma many students have experienced during the pandemic, the increase in violent crimes being reported in many communities across the U.S. is another factor likely fueling disruptive student behavior in the classroom, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“Schools are microcosms of our communities, so how can the violence not spill over into our school buildings?” Canady asked.

While violent student behavior at high schools presents the greatest safety threats to students and teachers, many elementary school-age children are displaying defiant and disruptive behavior that even experienced educators have found daunting, teacher Michael Williamson said.

“In a lot of ways, the youngest children doing remote learning during the pandemic forgot what school was. … Some of them had a few months of kindergarten, then came back in second grade, and were saying, ‘This is weird’,” Williamson said.

Schools can provide extra support in the classroom to help students improve their aptitude in reading and math, but far more difficult is teaching classroom manners, like raising your hand, waiting in line in the lunchroom and treating classmates with respect and kindness, Williamson said.

“We’re seeing this whole big gap in social maturity that only happens when children grow together in person in the classroom,” he said, adding that some teachers are reporting their students are arriving at school “angry, stressed and aggressive.”

“One teacher told me she has a child who come comes into school every morning, and tells her how much he hates her, but she told me, ‘I know he’s really not talking to me,’ ” Williamson said.

At the end of each school day, several hours after the morning outburst, the child seeks out his teacher to apologize, he said.

“I asked her how she was dealing with this, and she told me, ‘I don’t know what’s happening in his life, but I know he’s taking out on me, so I always answer, ‘OK, but I still care about you’.”

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