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'Right now we're in a crisis': Educators, parents concerned about school fights and outbursts

School psychologists say they're seeing aggressive behavior in the classroom, from younger kids to those in high school.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Since the start of the school year, we've heard from teachers, parents and school staff about the disruptive behavior and fighting happening at schools.  

This month, KGW reported on harassment and fighting at Roseway Heights Middle School in Portland, a student who brought a gun to class and another student who brought a knife to Adam Stephens Middle School in the Salem-Keizer Public School District and now Reynolds Middle School is temporarily moving to distance learning to deal with similar issues. 

The violence and classroom disruptions across different schools and districts have parents like Tina Reynolds worried about their kids.

Reynolds has a 13-year-old son who attends a middle school in the Salem-Keizer district.

“He's been flipped off. He's been slapped in the back of the head,” said Reynolds.

She said her son Dimitri told her someone had also tried to push him down the stairs. Reynolds said she’s heard of similar things happening to other kids. Aside from the aggression directed at her son and others, she’s also worried about the fights.

RELATED: Reynolds Middle School pausing in-person learning for two weeks after student outbursts, fights

“The most recent fight had happened just as school got out. Four or five Salem police cars went speeding by my house up to my son's school,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds shared a video of the fight with KGW and said it was taken on Nov. 3 at her son’s school. She said she obtained the video from another parent.

“It shows a fight between two students and then when an adult tries to step in, one of the students attacks the adult,” said Reynolds.

"A huge increase in social emotional needs"

Karley Strouse is a school psychologist with Salem-Keizer Public Schools and president-elect for the Oregon School Psychologists Association.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot of that just extreme, you know, aggressive behavior. And it's not just the young kids. It's middle school, high school," said Strouse. 

“I'm seeing a huge increase in social-emotional needs. Students who have experienced loss due to the pandemic, students who have been isolated for a long time and are getting reacquainted with engaging with their peers and adults in a school setting,” said Calley Ekberg, a school psychologist for Portland Public Schools. Ekberg is the current president for the Oregon School Psychologists Association.

Strouse and Ekberg said the reasons for the increased issues are layered and compounded by the pandemic. Part of the difficulty is students needing to acclimate to the new routine of all-day, in-person school. The process is tough on both students and staff, especially as districts struggle with a staffing shortage.

RELATED: Concerns over staffing shortages, lack of supervision lead parent to pull daughter from public school

“Having to endure, you know, whether they're getting hit, they're getting kicked, breaking up fights, that's not something that they necessarily signed up for as a teacher,” Strouse said.

Data from Salem-Keizer and Portland Public

Salem-Keizer Public Schools said disciplinary actions like suspensions are down when compared to this time pre-pandemic during the 2019-2020 school year. The district looked at data from Sept. 1 to Nov. 5. However, the number of fights was up this year versus 2019.

According to Salem-Keizer Public Schools, there were 45 expulsions at all school levels from Sept. 1 to Nov. 5 of 2019, and there were six students expelled this year during the same time period. Suspensions went from about 1,200 to around 700 this year while behavioral violations went from 1,693 to 602. Insubordination, which includes situations like a student going to the bathroom without permission or students coming to class without proper materials on multiple occasions, went from 6,231 to 2,786 at all school levels.

But when it comes to fighting, instances jumped from 272 during the one-month period of 2019 to 386 in 2021.

Portland Public Schools is reporting fewer fights and suspensions for the same time period. But school psychologists say anecdotally, colleagues have said there's been an increase in student behavioral issues and needs as compared to before the pandemic.

However, Strouse and Ekberg said there was already an upward trend in classroom disruptions before the pandemic.

Perspective from inside the classroom

“We just are seeing more of it,” said Angela Bonilla, an educator at Scott Elementary in Portland who frequently works in classrooms alongside teachers. This year Bonilla also helps oversee lunch and recess, which allows her more insight into student behavior.

“Students are really struggling not just with the academics, but with the interpersonal development,” said Bonilla. “Students have a very low capacity for being able to problem solve independently.”

Bonilla said when things get too stressful in the classroom, whether it’s due to an issue with a classmate or due to frustration around understanding the material, students often act out.

“They're pushing chairs, they're kicking desks, they're trying to hurt themselves with their pencils,” Bonilla said.

According to Bonilla, that kind of outburst happens multiple times a day in multiple classrooms and involving different students.

“It's not like this one kid over and over again. I think every classroom teacher has at least one student who needs more support than they can provide and they've been asking for that support because it's unsafe,” said Bonilla.

Strouse said the explosive behavior and fights result not only in unsafe situations, but also in teacher burnout.

RELATED: Survey shows Portland teachers are overwhelmed and overstretched

Possible solutions

Possible solutions vary, but some believe more funding is needed to hire additional school psychologists, counselors and social workers.

“The National Association of School Psychologists has a recommendation of one school psychologist per 500 students and unfortunately, that's not the case across the country. In Oregon, most school districts are double or triple, or even more of that recommendation. And Salem-Keizer, we're hovering about one to 3,500 students for our ratio,” said Strouse.

Bonilla said giving teachers more time to prepare themselves is imperative since they now have to walk kids through social-emotional problem solving all day and at the same time try to teach students who may have differing and huge gaps in learning.

“They need more help maybe with academics or even just dealing with the day-to-day minute things like the little micro decision making. […] That takes time and teachers would benefit from more time to not only figure out how to teach kids that have these big learning gaps that are bigger than before, but also how to address their social-emotional needs,” said Bonilla.

RELATED: Suspensions decrease, fights increase in Salem-Keizer’s first months without officers in schools

Bonilla said typically a teacher might be prepared to adapt curriculum a grade level below or above their class, depending on students’ needs. But this year, the issue is more pronounced. For example, Bonilla said there could be a child in a fifth-grade class reading at a first-grade level.

“How do I support that student when I have a whole class of other kids who are reading anywhere from a first-grade to a sixth-grade level?”

“Right now we're in a crisis and we're trying to keep pretending everything's normal and just keep pushing through. But our kids need so much more and we need the time to be able to give them that,” said Bonilla.

Strouse said in a perfect world, there would be easy access to community supports and outside therapists without a waiting list. According to Strouse, in some cases, it can take up to a year for families to get a student professionally evaluated.

“There's just a lot of systemic issues that are affecting students and families and unfortunately, schools are kind of that place where students are seeking a lot of that support,” said Strouse.

“But there’s only so much a school can do. It’s not like we can provide that outpatient treatment for those really intense needs and that's kind of where we see schools really struggling with those students with significant needs.”

As state and school leaders try to think of ways to support students, Reynolds had an idea of her own that involved putting parents and volunteers in schools and supervising in the hallways.

“I honestly would love to […] get a group of moms together, volunteering and helping the students and observing them,” said Reynolds.

“I've actually seen a lot of success with those types of programs,” said Strouse.

“It's not a new concept,” Ekberg said. “This school year, I've heard teachers start talking about, ‘Hey, I'd love to get some community members.”

“But I think it's not just about warm bodies. It's about trained bodies,” said Bonilla

Bonilla said money and resources to support students from the Student Success Act got funneled into districts last school year but due to the pandemic and distance learning, it was hard for some families to access it. Now, one big issue is the staffing shortage as districts attempt to find enough people to fill positions, like school psychologists and social workers.

The role of School Resource Officers (SROs)

There have also been discussions around whether the removal of school resource officers in some districts is fueling the chaos in classrooms and at school. Both Ekberg and Strouse said they don’t think that’s necessarily the case because pre-pandemic, when SROs were still in schools, disruptive behavior was already trending upward.

When Bonilla was asked about the impact of not having SROs on campus, Bonilla said it would be more beneficial to have more mental health supports and afterschool programs.

“I worry about having folks who aren’t necessarily trained in child development, child mental health, coming in and being the enforcers,” said Bonilla.

For some students, having an SRO on campus may be an added stressor. Bonilla said there are students who live in communities where an increased police presence does not make them feel safe.