As Students Return to School, So Does School Violence

On a single day in late October, five teachers were physically attacked at a high school in Rochester, New York. Just days earlier, another teacher reported she was sexually assaulted as she attempted to intervene in a student altercation.

These incidents were just the latest in what Rochester school officials have acknowledged is a troubling uptick in school violence since the beginning of this school year.

“The pandemic clearly appears to have contributed to a substantial increase in violence and a lack of safety,” says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association.

Unfortunately, Rochester’s experience isn’t unique. All over the country, teachers and school districts are reporting rising violence in schools. School violence is defined as youth-involved violence that occurs on school property; on the way to or from school; or before, during or after a school-sponsored event. It can range from bullying and physical assault to incidents involving gangs and guns.

[Read: Why Kids Go to Boarding School.]

While experts say most of the violence in schools does not involve firearms, 123 incidents of gunfire on school property were reported in the United States between Aug. 1 and Nov. 3, according to data compiled by the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s K-12 School Shooting Database. During the same three-month period in 2019, the center recorded only 40 such incidents.

“We are seeing dramatically more shootings than at any other point in our dataset,” says David Riedman, an educator and criminologist who founded the database. “These shootings are different from the pre-pandemic (shootings) because the majority are disputes between students that are escalating into shots fired, rather than planned attacks.”

Noting that more students appear to be bringing firearms to campus, he added, “While threat assessment teams can look for the red flags of a planned attack, it is very difficult to detect a conflict between students that will escalate into the shooting.”

More Violence Was Anticipated

Education and law enforcement experts say the increased violence in schools was actually expected, given how traumatic the past 18 months has been for many school children. The effects of having to attend school remotely, not being able to meet or see friends and watching parents lose jobs and money have all contributed to a student body that is more stressed and on edge. In some cases, students have also lost loved ones to the pandemic.

“It didn’t take a genius to see that whenever school started back, there were going to be a lot of challenges around it,” says Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. “We’re hearing a lot from our members about mental health needs for kids. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but it is, unfortunately.”

Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security issued a public awareness bulletin in May that addressed mitigating the threat of school violence, warning “the threat of targeted violence in schools will remain elevated as more children return to school full-time.” The bulletin noted the impacts of social isolation brought on by remote or hybrid schooling, with nearly one-third of students reporting feeling unhappy or depressed and others reporting anecdotal evidence of an increase in cyberbullying.

[READ: Understanding Different Types of Learning Disabilities.]

“Prior to schools closing, millions of students relied on the mental health resources provided by schools,” the DHS bulletin says in part. “These resources were either severely restricted or terminated altogether as schools moved to online-only instruction. The reduced access to services coupled with the exposure to additional risk factors suggest schools — and the communities in which they are located — will need to increase support services to help students adjust to in-person learning as they cope with the potential trauma associated with the pandemic response.”

Addressing Pandemic-Related Trauma

Christine Mason, an assistant clinical professor at Yale University and the founder of the Center for Educational Improvement, says it will take considerable action by schools to address the pandemic-induced trauma that has made conditions ripe for violence in schools and to start preventing it before it happens.

Because of the lost learning time during the pandemic, many schools are putting pressure on teachers and students to quickly catch up academically, she says. But schools would do better to address social and emotional health services first, because “trauma presents a huge barrier to learning,” according to Mason.

“It may be really important to slow down a bit and truly engage with kids,” she says. “We need to talk to kids, listen to them and help them make sense of the world right now.”

Mason and other experts in school psychology recommend instituting school violence prevention efforts that can help kids adjust. That includes training teachers in trauma-informed practices so that they can recognize students who may be struggling socially and emotionally. Mason added that schools also need aggressive programs for bullying prevention; social and emotional learning that is integrated throughout the school day; and restorative practices that focus less on punishments and more on talking through disagreements with other students.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has posted a list of school violence prevention tactics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published resources to help communities combat youth violence.

[READ: How to Choose After-School Activities.]

Though research and training programs on how to prevent violence in schools have been available since before the pandemic, Mason says many schools have not implemented best practices for averting violent incidents before they happen.

“Most schools haven’t put the right package together,” she says. “It does take time.”

What Parents and Teachers Can Do

Of course, there are many things that parents and educators can do to help. One extreme and very effective example took place in Shreveport, Louisiana. When fistfights led to the arrest of 22 students at a local high school, parents stepped up to form a group called Dads on Duty, with the goal of having a parent — one of the dads — at the school at all times.

“Just being there makes a big difference,” says Tracy Harris, a member of the group, in an interview with CNN. “We give them good affirmations for the day. And it helps … it controls their temper.”

According to the NASP and the CDC, here are some things that adults can do:

— Discussion. Parents can talk to their children about the climate in the school and what they are experiencing each day. Parents can remind their children of the rules in place and, perhaps more importantly, help students take advantage of counseling and other programs that offer help coping with the stress that comes with returning to in-person school.

— Monitoring. Educators and parents can work together to monitor parking lots, playing fields and common areas to increase the presence of adults on hand. Schools can control access to school buildings and monitor guests more closely.

— Reporting. Educators can create anonymous reporting programs that allow students to communicate with school officials without stepping into the spotlight. Parents can encourage their children to use these programs.

— Volunteering. Like Dads on Duty, parents can organize to increase the adult presence at school, greeting students in the morning, visiting classrooms and walking hallways.

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

More from U.S. News

12 Questions to Ask About Campus Safety

Why Kids Go to Boarding School

Understanding Different Types of Learning Disabilities

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