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'Pushing, shoving, hitting': Post-pandemic student behavior at Kansas schools worries educators

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

Kansas public school officials report more fights between students and more violent attacks on teachers. Many blame the rise on the COVID pandemic, saying students are still adjusting to life back in the classroom.

Kansas schools are back to in-person classes after the pandemic, but students have come back rowdier and more prone to behavioral blow-ups.

In Wichita, the school year began with several large brawls and weapons arrests. In Shawnee Mission, high school principals have reported many ninth-grade students behaving more like seventh-graders. Across the state, school officials report more fights between students and more violent attacks on teachers.

“Pushing, shoving, hitting, slapping, throwing items,” said Jackie Tabor, a teacher at Harry Street Elementary in Wichita. “The amount of … physical violence has increased so much.”

Educators blame the rise in unruly behavior, in part, on the COVID pandemic. Long stretches of online learning meant limited socialization followed by adolescent students adjusting to life back in the classroom. A report by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that about 85% of public schools say students’ behavioral development has been negatively impacted by the pandemic.

David Smith, a spokesman for the Shawnee Mission school district in Johnson County, said school board members plan to address the issue during a workshop in May.

“There has been … an increase in disruptive behaviors and a change in the types of behaviors” since before the pandemic, Smith said.

But what to do about it? That’s tricky.

Teachers' unions want consistency and a tougher approach to misbehaving students, including the right to remove unruly students from class.

“At one school, there may be a student who’s disruptive and it’s handled in a totally different way than another school,” said Katie Warren, president of United Teachers of Wichita. “What we’d like to see is a menu of options and accountability measures, where everyone knows how we’re going to handle certain behaviors.”

Union leaders also want more slots at alternative schools like Wichita’s Gateway program, which serves middle and high school students who have been suspended or expelled from their assigned school.

“If our students are not being successful in the general education setting, then we need to find somewhere else that can meet their needs,” Warren said. “Maybe they need a slower pace, or one-on-one attention, or more counselors.”

But that requires more staff and more security — which translates to more money.

School leaders say booting kids out of school only makes a bad problem worse. They try to limit out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, in part to reduce racial discrimination in schools. Research shows students of color are suspended and expelled more often than white students for similar offenses.

“Our mission … is not to remove or kick students out of school,” said Gil Alvarez, deputy superintendent for Wichita schools.

A new task force of teachers and district leaders is studying student behavior in Wichita and brainstorming ways to improve it. Before that group’s first meeting last fall, the teachers’ union collected more than 100 anonymous testimonials from school employees. Only three reported no concerns with behavior.

Republican state Rep. Kristey Williams read many of the comments aloud during a committee hearing at the Kansas Statehouse.

“Behaviors are off the charts this year,” Williams, a former teacher, read. “Students have no consequences for actions. Teachers are burned out. Teachers have to lock their classrooms.”

She said later that schools should crack down on disruptive students, even if it means more suspensions and expulsions.

“If you cuss a teacher out, you should be removed from that classroom, whether it’s 30 minutes or a day,” Williams said. “Students need to know what the consequences are, and then they need to decide if they want to be in the classroom or not. But we should not put other students at risk. … That is not fair to those that want to learn.”

Many districts, including Wichita, use an approach called “restorative justice” to help students resolve conflicts and, if possible, return calmly to the classroom.

A student who gets into a loud argument with a classmate or yells at a teacher may not go immediately to the principal’s office. Instead, teachers are trained to diffuse a situation by bringing students together in small groups to talk, ask questions and air their grievances.

“Sometimes, just having a restorative conversation can fix it,” said Warren, the teachers union president. “But you need accountability measures as well. If you make a big mess and throw stuff on the floor … we can’t expect the teachers to clean those things up for the student.”

About five years ago, Kansas lawmakers approved the Mental Health Intervention Team program, which lets school districts work with community mental health centers to pair kids with therapists. Since its launch, the program has grown from nine to nearly 100 Kansas school districts.

And some schools are using federal COVID-relief money to set up mindfulness rooms, where students having trouble in their classroom can meet with a counselor or just decompress.

A new room at Wichita’s Jackson Elementary School features stuffed animals, yoga mats, calming music, a large upholstered “crash pad” and other tools to help children regulate their emotions.

“The anxiety and depression and mental health issues that we see — some of that is temporary because of COVID, but not all of it,” said Jackson Principal Tara Allen. “When they’re taught those coping mechanisms at a young age, that’s super impactful for middle and high school and into their future.”

Tabor, the Wichita elementary teacher, supports multiple ways to approach student behavior.

But some things, she said, should be “hard and fast.”

“Like, ‘Hey, you can’t strike a teacher,” Tabor said. “That’s going to be zero tolerance.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.