PORTLAND, Ore. — The fighting and outbursts at schools are front and center for many parents.
It's gotten so bad at Reynolds Middle School in Fairview, they've moved to remote learning for the next couple weeks. There have also been fights and allegations of harassment among students at Roseway Heights Middle School in Northeast Portland. At Adam Stephens Middle School in the Salem-Keizer Public School District, a student brought a gun to class, another brought a knife.
The disruptions are contributing to staff burnout, worrying parents and causing stress for students.
“Everyone was hoping that this year would be a normal year and it is not a normal year,” said Reed Scott-Schwalbach, president of the Oregon Education Association. Scott-Schwalbach is also a high school Spanish teacher.
Students struggling this year
We've heard it many times now from educators and school staff who say students are struggling with social emotional needs.
Sometimes the frustration leads to behavioral issues, from fighting to general classroom disruptions.
“They're pushing chairs, they're kicking desks, they're trying to hurt themselves with their pencils,” said Angela Bonilla, an educator in the Portland Public School District.
Bonilla said that type of acting out occurs on a daily basis, in multiple classrooms, involving multiple children. School psychologists say outbursts had already been escalating and further increased with the pandemic.
“It's not just the young kids, it's middle school, high school,” Karley Strouse said, a school psychologist with Salem-Keizer Public Schools. Strouse is also the president-elect for the Oregon School Psychologists Association.
A need for creative solutions
Scott-Schwalbach said student behavior is an expression of student need — and there is a critical need for creative solutions.
“I can guarantee you that educators from bus drivers to classroom teachers have lots of ideas for ways that we can improve what we have going on currently in schools,” said Scott-Schwalbach.
She wants district leaders across the state to be proactive, ask staff for input, then put ideas in motion.
“Solutions will be different depending on the student needs in every building across our state,” said Scott-Schwalbach.
Strouse said districts also need to focus on a basic level of support for all students. That could be as simple as a reward ticket system at an elementary school.
“Then they can turn them in for a raffle or something fun. And that's for all students,” said Strouse.
Educators say they need more time
“Whether that's one less meeting a week […] I think we have to be creative and find ways that we can take things off of teachers' plates that don't directly serve students, so they can focus on students,” said Bonilla.
“This is not the year to put in place new requirements, not the year to adopt a new math curriculum,” Scott-Schwalbach said.
The extra time, they said, is needed for teachers to prepare and collaborate with each other as well as classroom aides to better meet students where they are.
“If a student is having trouble in school and we're saying, ‘now's the time for you to take this math test. Now it's time for you to prep for this language arts assessment.’ We're not addressing what the student really needs, which is how do you learn to be in school again after a time period of high anxiety and a time period of not being necessarily in what we call 'normal' school,” said Scott-Schwalbach.
What school districts can do
But what makes the situation more difficult is districts all over are struggling with staffing shortages, making it tough for teachers to have enough time. Dealing with staffing shortages will take time, which is why educators say it's so important to implement short term solutions, like asking educators for creative ideas.
Scott-Schwalbach said while unions are asking teachers what they think might be good solutions, she said she’s heard that many district administrators aren’t reaching out to their teachers for the same feedback.
She said if they did, not only would they get new ideas, but the act would also make staff members feel valued and part of the team, which would have a positive effect on retention.
Parents thinking of solutions
One parent said she'd be willing to get a group of parents to walk the halls or be in the lunchroom at her child’s school, just be another positive adult presence.
It’s a concept tried in other parts of the country with some positive results.
Recently, a group of dads in Louisiana did something similar and started a group called “Dads on Duty.” They found their efforts helped in curbing violence at the school.