Still images of videos of fighting are seen at Monarch High School in Coconut Creek, Florida. (Document / Sun Sentinel / TNS)
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) – When the students returned to school this year, they took with them the energy accumulated after a difficult period in near isolation during the pandemic.
Now reports of fights, criminal batteries and fear of violence are becoming an unwelcome part of students’ full return to in-person education.
While violence doesn’t happen in all schools, many see the problems erupting on more South Florida campuses than in the past. There are reports of teachers, security guards and administrators being taken down. Images of students fighting are often shared on TikTok and other social media.
—At Coral Springs High, a video went viral on social media showing a college student beating up a female student as a staff member attempted to intervene. Their horrified classmates screamed from their seats with every blow to the student, and as her attacker knocked her to the ground.
—At Monarch High in Coconut Creek, at least 10 incidents of assault and battery have been reported since mid-September, and several students have been arrested.
—In Palm Beach County, 68 incidents of assault and battery have been reported since mid-October, 29 of which have resulted in arrests, school police said.
—Broward reported 712 fights and 223 physical assaults from the start of the school year until the end of October.
—At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, the site of the 2018 mass shooting, a teacher reported in early November that he was attacked by a freshman towards the end of the school day.
“We are legitimately afraid every day to go to work because we don’t know what’s going to happen today,” said a teacher at Coral Springs High, who declined to give her name, fearing retaliation.
School district officials say the pandemic was a major factor as students fell academically and lacked structure, social interaction and mental health support.
Adding to the problem is the lack of guidance counselors, therapists and behavioral health specialists. Those who are there often have to act as substitutes or room monitors due to shortages among other staff.
“It has definitely been a concern,” said Alexandria Ayala, a member of the Palm Beach County School Board. “I think that’s to be expected after two years of unconventional learning, financial strain, family loss.”
Teachers and administrators immediately noticed that these students were in a different mental and emotional state than they left off, she said. Today more and more teachers are leaving out of concern for their own safety, said Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union.
“They didn’t sign up to be abused,” Fusco said. “Even kids in our younger years, preschool and kindergarten, come in angry and frustrated. We just had an incident where a 10 year old smashed a teacher’s head with a snow globe.”
The Broward County School District acknowledged the violence was of concern and said students were under more stress due to the pandemic.
“Due to the fewer opportunities for social interaction during the pandemic, many communication skills and coping strategies that are normally used in everyday life have not been exercised,” the communications director’s office wrote in a statement.
“Since COVID-19, more students and families have sought mental health resources available in our schools – including therapists and counselors – to help deal with the experience,” the statement said. “Mental health professionals at Broward County Public Schools are trained to recognize signs of mental distress in children, how to deal with them effectively, and can connect them with mental health resources.”
The Broward School District is trying to deter students from resorting to violence through school communications, video messages and social media efforts, the statement said.
The district has also hired staff and implemented technology to monitor social media. The district has seen a recent increase in the number of tips submitted to the FortifyFL and SaferWatch apps, the statement said.
Many students had grown used to learning in their bedrooms in their pajamas, never really meeting their classmates. At least not in an academic environment.
Upon their return, all of the traditional school social pressures – bullying, cliques, pervasive threats of violence and now heated mask debates – that they had gone so long without rushed into.
On top of that, their academics have taken a hit and the pressure to get back on track is immense. At home, they may experience increased financial hardship or grief over the loss of a family member.
Throw it all together and classrooms have become pressure cookers. Every week, fights broke out.
Students who were in desperate need of validation clung to new teams that only lead them down the wrong path and get them in trouble.
“They were more exuberant,” Ayala said. “They had forgotten how to interact with each other. They are all so excited and have their own circles, conversations that take place on social media, which is another big part of it. There was a feeling of it. social and emotional instability, student well-being. “
Monarch High, a school that has never had a reputation for violence, has reported at least 10 cases of assault and battery this year and numerous brawls, according to reports from police, students and staff at Coconut Creek. Ailin Le, a junior at the school, said she didn’t remember any fights before the pandemic, but said she had seen a lot this year.
“When this happens during lunch, the kids don’t feel safe going to lunch and relaxing,” Le said. “I feel like the students are at home, they have no motivation. They may not know the risk of fighting either.”
Some fights resulted in injuries. One report describes an Oct. 14 incident at Monarch where a student rushed over and tackled another student to the ground “and started repeatedly hitting him around the face.” The student who was attacked also said that once he got up, the other student kicked him in the face.
“He said he suffered grazes in his right eye, bruised his back and arms and his eyes were bloodshot from the fight,” the report said.
Parents frightened by the fighting and especially the threats have removed their children from schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties, some permanently and others just for the day to avoid the threats.
Either way, it disrupts learning, Ayala says. For students who utter threats or fight, those split-second decisions can disrupt their future, she said.
“In our policies, we have expectations of conduct. There must be consequences for that behavior, especially if it endangers another student in any way,” she said. “It’s hard to envision evictions for things that didn’t need to happen.”
Administrators are encouraging students to seek help from behavior specialists in schools, and they are encouraging parents to talk to their children about what they are going through before it becomes a bigger problem, Ayala said.
The Palm Beach County School District has its own police force for public schools, and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has also partnered with the school district to help address larger-scale issues related to the school. school happening in the community, off school grounds, she mentioned.
The situation is more difficult to resolve due to the lack of staff in schools and police services. And because students are aware of the rhetoric around masks at school board meetings, they have the false impression that it is okay to argue no matter what problem they are having.
“They see that this behavior does not calm the temperatures in the schools,” Ayala said. “They are learning that if adults can do it, I can do it. I don’t think anyone is happy that we are here right now as a society.”
Lisa Sipes, whose daughter attended Northeast High School in Oakland Park, said she had to take her daughter out of school to protect her from the harassment she faced from her peers. She plans to finish high school taking the GED, she said.
“I feel so hopeless at this point,” Sipes said. “I don’t want my child to drop out of school, but she said, ‘I can’t live like this.'”
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