One afternoon last fall, a Fort Worth middle schooler turned to a friend in his English class and told her he had something he wanted to show her. Then, the boy reached into his backpack and pulled out what looked like a handgun.
The boy’s teacher, sitting at the front of the classroom, caught a glimpse of the gun and asked him what he had in his bag.
“It’s nothing,” the boy said, according to the teacher.
The teacher asked to see what was in his bag, so the student pulled out the gun and showed it to her. The teacher, by this point growing alarmed, told the boy she would have to confiscate it, so he handed it to her. It wasn’t until the teacher had the gun in her hand that she realized it was an airsoft pistol, and not a real gun. Like many airsoft guns, it was a realistic replica of an actual firearm, she said. The boy had removed the orange tip that’s intended to indicate that it isn’t a real gun and colored over the space where it had been with a black marker, she said.
“The way you treated it, the way you loaded it, everything about it was a real gun, except it took airsoft pellets instead of .22,” said the teacher, who asked not to be identified by name because she was concerned about retaliation.
The incident was just one of several disruptions the teacher noticed at her school last year, she said. Like any other school, there had always been occasional behavior issues. But last year, those issues were much more regular occurrences, she said. Where she used to see only a few fights at her school in an entire year, last year, there were instances where there was more than one fight on campus in a single day.
Last year marked the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that nearly all students in Fort Worth ISD were back at school in person, and teachers in the district say they noticed a sharp uptick in student behavior problems. With students returning to class on Monday, some teachers say last year’s behavior issues were so severe that they’re dreading the beginning of the new school year.
Those problems aren’t limited to Fort Worth schools: A report released in early July suggests that school leaders nationwide have seen more disruptive behavior since students returned to school following shutdowns.
Federal report shows more fights, behavior problems in schools
The report comes from the federal Institute of Education Sciences. It’s based on surveys from 850 principals and other school leaders nationwide.
More than half of principals and school leaders surveyed said they’d noticed an uptick in disruptive classroom behavior since the beginning of the pandemic. About half said they’d seen more rowdiness outside of the classroom, in areas like hallways and school cafeterias. Thirty percent said they’d seen more instances of bullying, and about a third said they’d seen more physical attacks or fights between students.
More than 80% of school leaders said their students showed stunted social-emotional and behavioral development as a result of the pandemic, according to the report.
In an emailed statement, Michael Steinert, Fort Worth ISD’s assistant superintendent for student support services, said the district had seen more student mental health needs and behavior issues “attributable to the isolation they experienced during the pandemic.”
“Our student support services staff, professional school counselors, intervention specialists, and case managers work with campus administrators when behavior concerns arise and provide supportive interventions and referrals to our Family Resource Centers when indicated,” Steinert said. “More serious discipline issues are addressed with progressive interventions designed to minimize removal from instruction. We do use in school suspension and out of school suspension when there is a clear safety concern. Our out of school suspensions have not increased significantly compared to previous years.”
The Star-Telegram submitted a public records request for documents showing the number of students suspended in the district during the 2021-22 school year. That request is pending.
Often, problematic behavior in the classroom is a warning sign of other problems, said Olga Acosta Price, the director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Students who act out in class may be feeling stress from housing insecurity, food insecurity or instability at home, she said. Those stressors can affect young people’s ability to regulate their own emotions, she said.
“We have to remember that behavior is an expression, often, of distress and dysregulation, and it needs to be better understood,” she said.
Speaking July 25 at a conference organized by the nonprofit Education Writers Association, Price said the social isolation that came along with school shutdowns and remote learning continues to affect how students interact with each other. In some cases, conflict may be the result, she said.
Price said she recently spoke with a school psychologist who also served as the bullying prevention coordinator in her school. The counselor said she’d seen an uptick in the number of bullying referrals she received. But when she investigated those referrals, she found that all but one of them were not instances of bullying. Rather, she found that social isolation had left students anxious and lacking the skills to interact with each other.
While it may be easy to think of the student mental health crisis as solely a product of the pandemic, there’s strong data that suggests that isn’t the case, Price said. She pointed to data showing that a mental health crisis already existed before the pandemic began, particularly among Black youths. According to a 2019 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, suicide attempts among Black youths increased by 73% between 1991 and 2017. Suicide attempts among white youths declined during the same period, according to the study.
Although researchers didn’t look at factors driving the trend, the study points to possible causes, including racial discrimination, abuse, neglect and poverty, all of which affect Black children disproportionately.
But even if the pandemic didn’t cause the uptick in youth mental health problems, it almost certainly exacerbated it, Price said. Nearly everyone has been touched by the pandemic in some way, she said. Families of lower socioeconomic status often experienced several losses at once: They may have lost jobs, housing and family members at about the same time, she said.
West Handley teacher sees social effects on students
Low-income families were hit hardest by the economic fallout from the pandemic, according to a study released by the Pew Research Center in September 2020. They were about three times as likely as middle-income Americans to report struggling to pay their rent or mortgage or having to rely on a food bank or other similar organization to feed their families.
Sarah Russell, a P.E. teacher at West Handley Elementary School, said she can see the effects the pandemic has had on her students socially and emotionally. Many of the students at West Handley come from low-income families, Russell said, meaning they’ve been exposed to the trauma of poverty even before COVID-19 reached Texas. The pandemic added another layer of trauma on top of that for those students, she said.
School shutdowns also left students stunted socially, she said. Elementary school is supposed to be the time when students learn how to live in society, she said. They learn basic social skills like how to walk in a line, how to sit at a table and eat their lunch appropriately and how to have conversations with each other.
But students didn’t have opportunities to learn those social skills during school shutdowns, she said. They also didn’t learn skills like conflict resolution and emotional self-regulation, she said, so blow-ups were common. Students also didn’t have the basic skills needed to get by in school, she said — skills like sitting quietly on a carpet and listening to a lesson or sitting at their desks and working.
Despite those challenges, Russell said she’s more optimistic about the upcoming school year. Those skills that students missed, things like emotional self-regulation and coping strategies, can be taught, she said. And although last year was difficult, things seemed to be improving slowly, she said. She expects there will continue to be some struggles at the beginning of the year, but she’s hopeful that things will continue to get better as the year wears on.
Riverside Middle School teacher saw more fights, anxiety
A teacher at Riverside Middle School said she’s dreading going back to school because of the discipline problems she saw last year. She noticed more fistfights last year than during a normal year. A couple of times, she counted three fistfights on campus before 10 a.m. On one occasion, all three fights were happening outside her classroom. So she gathered all her students into her classroom and locked the door, she said.
The teacher, who asked not to be identified by name because she was concerned about retaliation, said she also noticed more disruptive classroom behavior among her students last year. In one of her classes, students would get up and roam around the classroom while she was trying to teach, talking with each other and laughing. When she tried to get them to go back to their seats, they ignored her.
The teacher said she’s also noticed that students seemed much more anxious last year than in years past. They were filled with nervous energy all the time, she said. Among other things, they worry about catching COVID, she said. She thinks most of that anxiety comes from the social isolation students felt during school shutdowns, and the fact that many of them were thrown back into school without receiving any kind of mental health help.
“They’re very worried about everything all the time,” she said. “Everything is magnified for them.”