INVESTIGATES: Violent behavior at Jacksonville area schools doubles since the COVID-19 pandemic

Schools are where we send out children to learn and play. We trust them to keep our kids safe. But the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on schools, and even harder on students. The numbers show it.

Action News Jax Investigator Emily Turner found bad behavior has not only escalated on a national level but at a local, district level, too. She pulled the disciplinary data. Not only does it show an uptick in students acting out, it shows a spike in some of the worst and most dangerous behavior.

Whether it’s in the form of a fight or the words of a bully, the stress of the pandemic is welling over into hallways, classrooms and school yards.

Cheryl Anderson’s grandson is a student at Landmark Middle and was kept home after a school threat in December.

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“He feels safe when he’s with me,” Anderson said, “and I just want him to feel safe wherever he goes.”

But many say they don’t feel as safe at schools at they used to. There have been more threats, more fights, more bad behaviors. After months of distance learning from home, the transition back into the classroom has been tough, especially for special needs kids like Diana Toth’s grandson.

“Sitting still,” Toth said, “not knowing the expectations of the class, I mean, they expected him to come in like he had not missed any time?” The little boy struggled with all of that, she said, and as a result was expelled from Clay Hill Elementary at 6 years old, a move she is currently battling the school board over.

We checked, and the number of disciplinary actions have jumped in Clay County. From 8,693 in the first semester of the 2018/19 school year to 12,762 in the first semester of this year. That trend is also showing up in other districts.

Clinical psychologist, Dr. Lynn Wadelton, treats many children. She said, today’s classrooms are different than the ones students left behind pre-pandemic.

“People have sort of forgotten how to be social,” she said, “so they’re back in this environment and sort of reestablishing themselves in terms of following rules or even who is the pecking order of the group of social kids and there may be more bullying as the power struggles are going on.”

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School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting, or SESIR, tracks all that. It requires every school to report certain incidents to the Florida Department of Education. The data helps to give the state a clear picture of serious crime and violence on school campuses. It encompasses the most disruptive behavior - anything from bullying to homicide fall into the category.

We pulled the numbers and they are alarming.

“How can a child concentrate on school work when they are hearing there is someone there who is going to harm them,” wonders Anderson.

Action News Jax looked at the first semester of the 2018/19 school year as a baseline, before the pandemic began. Then Investigator Emily Turner compared those numbers to the first semester this year.

In Duval County, the number of SESIR violations almost doubled. From 2,695 TO 4,212. St. Johns County saw a spike from 449 to 1,026, though the district also added more than 6,000 students in that time period. Clay County Schools went from 405 In 2018 to 1,093 this year.

When presented with the data, Dr. Wadelton said, “it says we’re failing,” and that students aren’t getting the support they need. She said it’s a disturbing trend not just for students and their parents, but for the entire educational system.

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The nationwide spike in bad behavior has not only sparked conversations around how we discipline our pandemic-era kids, but why they are acting out in the first place.

“We do have a real weakness of mental health services that kids can access in the schools,” Wadelton said, “and through healthcare systems.” Something she says schools should have more of.

And as for Toth, she said taking the context of a pandemic into discipline should be a must for educators. “It’s traumatic for them,” Toth says of students, “it’s hard to deal with. We as adults are having a hard time. Imagine the kids.”

According to the Pew Research Institute, there is only one psychologist for every 1,860 students in Florida schools, well below the national average.

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