“They are students in crisis”: educators grapple with bad student behavior

By Peter D’Auria / VTDigger

Since starting school about six weeks ago, students at Bristol Primary School have smashed the school piano, smashed computers and dented cars in the parking lot.

In the Missisquoi Valley school district, more staff could be added to handle a slight increase in hazing, harassment and bullying investigations.

And at a recent Addison Central School Board meeting, a substitute teacher warned that conditions at schools in the district had become “chaotic” and “dangerous.” “I’m afraid you have a huge problem on your hands if something doesn’t change,” teacher Fawnda Buttolph told the board on Monday, October 11. “The kids are in control and they know it,” Buttolph said.

Across Vermont, teachers and school staff are facing an increase in student bad behavior, school officials say, with teachers in some schools even voicing fears for the safety of staff and students.

School officials and mental health professionals describe behavior problems as an indicator of a mental and behavioral health crisis in many students – a crisis that can be at least in part traced back to the Covid-19 pandemic and the distance learning it brought about.

“This is a larger trend that we’re seeing statewide,” said Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association.

While educators initially feared students would face academic setbacks, social / emotional issues turn out to be much more disruptive.

High school teachers are reporting that more students are cutting classes, Nichols said, while students in younger grades have been sanctioned for “physical violence.” At a school he refused to identify, a kindergarten student broke a teacher’s tooth, Nichols said; in other schools, students have broken furniture or run away during school hours.

“Principals across the state say teachers are more stressed than they’ve ever been and students are more deregulated,” he said. “Which leads to behavior problems.”

Officials stressed that the incidents in question affected only a small fraction of students in schools.

But some episodes have a disproportionate impact.

Safety concerns

At Bristol Primary School, a group of teachers compiled and shared a list of episodes that have taken place there since the start of the school year.

Thousands of dollars in school facilities and equipment – including computers, furniture and a piano – had been damaged or destroyed, teachers said, while school staff “were bitten, spat on , kicked, punched, urinated on it, hit by thrown objects, etc.

In a statement Tuesday, Oct. 12 to the Mount Abraham Union School Board, Andrea Murnane, a second-grade teacher, called on board members to strengthen safety protocols and add mental health support programs to the Bristol school.

“During this school year, students are not safe, staff are unsafe, learning environments and learning tools have been damaged, classes are being moved from their classrooms to alternative workplaces – and inadequate – learning for all grade levels has been disrupted, student work is being torn from hallway walls and a general sense of helplessness and fear has permeated our school, ”Murnane wrote in his statement, which was first reported by the Addison County Independent.

Patrick Reen, superintendent of the Mount Abraham Union School District, said that despite the “pretty extreme” behaviors, only a small number of students were responsible. “What we are seeing unfolding in our schools, as evidenced by the events in Bristol, really reflects the fact that our students who were struggling the most before the pandemic are those who have been most affected by the pandemic,” he said. -he declares. noted.

“These are students in crisis who need our help,” he said.

Jeanne Collins, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said school officials were “surprised at the level of behavioral needs of our students.” There has been an increase in cyberbullying and inappropriate comments at school, Collins said. A school in the district had to limit visits to the school library because students “destroyed” it, she said.

“We are seeing a real regression in behaviors which are much more important than what we saw before Covid,” she said.

Is no longer alone

In March 2020, all schools in the state became completely isolated. For the 2020-21 school year, most schools adopted a hybrid model, meaning that thousands of Vermont students attended in-person classes only part-time and often saw only members of the school. their cohort.

So, for many Vermont students, the start of the fall semester six weeks ago marked the first time in about a year and a half that they had taken classes entirely in person.

This transition meant that students could no longer stick to their own schedules, a change that was likely stressful for children who had become accustomed to their own routine, said Matthew Habedank, program manager at Northwestern Counseling and Support Services.

“That kind of ‘I’m not on my own schedule and I’m not on my own schedule,’ I think has a pretty big impact on a lot of kids,” said Habedank, who focuses on the behavior of children and works with a number of Vermont schools.

Superintendent Catherine Gallagher saw this in the Lamoille Nord school district, where schools have faced vandalism in bathrooms – a national trend linked to the social media app TikTok – and more cases of students. “Challenging the authority of adults”.

After a year where kids were able to “log in and out at will” during distance learning, some “are really struggling to re-engage,” she said.

The root cause of the behavioral problems of different students is probably “widespread,” Habedank said. But he noted that Covid-19 had increased stress in all households: Many parents feared to keep their jobs amid the economic fallout from the pandemic, and the pressures of entire families working and learning from home did not. made the situation worse.

All of this is exacerbated by a statewide staff shortage. Administrators in Vermont struggle to fill many positions in schools, from bus drivers and substitute teachers to mental health professionals.

“Whatever needs the kids brought to the table, they’re really made worse by the fact that there aren’t enough people to meet all of the needs anyway,” Habedank said.

“Forgot how to behave”

Although Vermont collects data on student disciplinary actions, the current semester’s numbers won’t be available for months, Heather Boucher, assistant secretary of the Education Agency, said in an interview.

Bouchey said she had only heard “more anecdotal” evidence of student behavior problems.

But even before the start of the school year, the state had designed an online platform with a free set of programs for students’ “social and emotional learning”, Bouchey said, with the aim of giving students teachers and parents more resources to meet the emotional needs of children. . The platform should go live in the coming weeks.

“I wouldn’t say we would necessarily be surprised to see an increase in challenging behaviors from a statewide perspective,” Bouchey said. “Mainly because we are still going through a pandemic. “

School officials say they are trying to invest more in mental health services for children as best they can. In Lamoille-Nord and Missisquoi Valley, officials said schools have been successful in increasing the number of mental health care providers on campuses.

Many officials said their schools tried to avoid punishing students for misconduct and instead used restorative methods. In Lamoille Nord, for example, vandals were assigned to work with facility staff to repair the damage they had caused, Gallagher said.

And some schools, like those in the Rutland Northeast School District, are making an effort to review basic practices with students: classroom etiquette, going from one class to another, standing in line.

“I don’t even know how to explain it,” said Rutland Northeast Superintendent Collins. “It’s almost like people have forgotten how to behave at school.”

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