Education

Anchorage schools see rise in physical altercations and behavioral issues, superintendent says

Anchorage schools this year are seeing a significant uptick in behavioral issues, including physical altercations and emotional outbursts, said Superintendent Deena Bishop.

Students this year have faced additional stress returning to classes and disrupting routines formed during the last year of distance learning, Bishop said. And some of the tension throughout the school district may also reflect a larger sense of division throughout the community, she said.

“I want schools to be a respite from all that where they can go and just be kids and do school, but a lot of our emotions follow us,” Bishop said.

Data about school suspensions does not reflect the incidents, said district spokeswoman Lisa Miller. But disciplinary actions like meditations or detentions aren’t listed, and Miller said “schools are extending a lot of grace right now regarding suspensions, because students are coming back to daily routines.” The suspensions that are occurring this year are prompted by much more severe incidents, she said.

There were 601 suspensions by the end of September at district middle and high schools, according to data from the district. There have been fewer suspensions at the high school level compared to a similar timeframe over the past four years with in-person classes, although suspension rates for middle schools this year are slightly higher than three of the previous years.

Anchorage schools began distance learning near the end of March 2020 and some returned to classrooms a year later.

Bishop said many students felt isolated during that time and lacked the opportunity to grow social skills.

“A 5- or 6-year-old who maybe was just at home and by themselves, even if their families were home, they didn’t have to operate with 20 other children and give and take and whose turn is it for the toy? Think about all those simple things that we say, ‘We learned it in kindergarten,’ but when you’re not in kindergarten, it’s hard to learn them,” she said.

At the middle and high school level, Bishop said routine frustrations have often been morphing into physical fights this year. Bishop said two incidents have involved racial slurs this quarter. The district has zero tolerance for racism and discrimination, she said.

District officials are also concerned about trends on social media this year that have encouraged students to engage in vandalism and violence, Miller said.

In September, more than 80 incidents of vandalism were reported mostly in school bathrooms following a trend on TikTok, according to a statement from the district. New trends are encouraging violence, like the “slap a teacher” trend, although there have been no reports of students participating so far in the district, Miller said.

Students have been encouraged to talk with counselors or teachers when they’re frustrated, Bishop said, but she wants parents to talk with kids at home, too.

“I think more than ever now ... it’s talking to each other face to face and saying, ‘Hey, what can I do?’ ... It’s the normal things that in any other year seem to be perfunctory — of course we would do that, work things out, of course we talk things out, where they’re really just in a stressed environment,” Bishop said.

Parents can also reach out to the school district for help, she said. Many of the tensions and stress students are dealing with at school are also apparent at home, and Bishop said that knowing what’s happening with students can help educators be proactive about preventing tensions or outbursts from escalating.

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