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Threats, fights on the rise across St. Louis schools as students face pandemic stress

Threats, fights on the rise across St. Louis schools as students face pandemic stress


Someone phoned in a threat Tuesday to Affton High School, causing a lockdown and increased police presence at the school for the day. It was the sixth such incident this fall at the high school or nearby Rogers Middle School.

Schools nationwide report an uptick in threats, fights, truancy and other behavior issues as the stress and anxiety of the pandemic spill into the classroom. Superintendents largely blame such behavior on the loss of social and study skills after 18 months of disruptions and virtual schooling.

“As much as we all love having kids back at school each day, it’s the right thing to do, it is just relentless,” said Affton Superintendent Travis Bracht. “Maybe the best way to explain it is that the pandemic has probably had far deeper reaches than maybe we even realize.”

When schools went virtual for much of last year, discipline reports essentially disappeared, Bracht said. Now, when a large percentage of students are in their schools for the first time, and unfamiliar with the environment and rules, face-to-face interactions can turn tense or even violent.

High schools and middle schools in Kirkwood, Mehlville, Rockwood and St. Louis Public Schools have experienced vandalism in bathrooms inspired by a social media challenge. Racist graffiti was found in a bathroom at Parkway Central High. High schools have been evacuated this fall in the Mehlville, Ritenour and Riverview Gardens districts after receiving threats. Eight students were arrested and two security guards were injured last month in a large fight at Confluence Preparatory Academy in downtown St. Louis.

Leaders at Riverview Gardens hosted a virtual town hall last week to discuss the mental health challenges and behavior issues on campuses and buses.

“What I’m witnessing on a daily basis is anxiety, stress, fatigue, frustration, fear and even anger,” said Elizabeth Austin, assistant superintendent of leadership and accountability. “It’s resulting in things that we haven’t seen before — a high number of physical altercations, stemming from many of the issues that COVID has presented.”

In the Normandy Schools Collaborative, a girl was taken to the emergency room after being assaulted by a boy in a classroom, a student slapped a bus driver and a 6-year-old was punched in the face by a middle school student on a bus, according to Superintendent Marcus Robinson.

“We’ve had a number of resignations from teachers who are disturbed by the level of violence that some kids have brought to school,” Robinson told the Normandy School Board at its October meeting.

There had been 1,454 days of out-of-school suspension for students in the district by mid-October, compared to 1,389 by the same date in 2019, Robinson said.

School leaders said they plan to use some of their federal pandemic relief funding on mental health services to address students’ struggles.

“In the last recession, with the last big chunk of recovery money, this conversation wasn’t happening,” said Amanda Fitzgerald, the assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. “Now, the tone across the country is very focused on the well-being of students.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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