Last May, the Department of Homeland Security issued a chilling warning: As the country “returns to normal,” school violence is likely to increase because of pandemic-induced stress.
In a bulletin headlined in bold red font, the federal agency advised schools to keep an eye out for students who may have become “radicalized,” display threatening behavior, or be planning acts of violence. In such cases, a “threat assessment and management team or law enforcement should be contacted immediately,” Homeland Security warned. “The threat of targeted violence in schools will remain elevated as more children return to school full-time.”
In California, the Department of Education also feared an increase this fall in “disruptive behaviors due to increased anxiety and depression,” though state officials stopped short of predicting a rise in school violence. Instead of calling for stepped-up vigilance from law enforcement, they urged school districts to take a more compassionate approach.
Just before the new school year started, the state issued guidance reminding administrators of recent laws governing how students should be disciplined: Support should replace suspensions, they said, and alternatives like counseling and mental health treatment should always be tried first.
“As we now know, suspension can do more harm than good,” the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and State Board of Education president Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond wrote in a letter sent to California’s more than 1,000 school districts. Sending students home doesn’t address the root cause of their behavior, they said. Instead, “it removes students from the learning environment; and it has a disproportionate impact on African American students and students with disabilities, among other marginalized groups that are underperforming academically and overrepresented in our criminal justice system.”
Just weeks into a school year like no other — in the middle of a global public health crisis with mounting impacts on children’s emotional well-being — the state’s approach has already been put to the test in the agricultural Monterey Bay region. School discipline problems here, from the threatening to the deadly, have been so severe some locals are calling for a return to the days of heavier school policing.
At one Monterey County school, numerous students were caught bringing knives and alcohol during the first month of classes. At Aptos High School in adjacent Santa Cruz County, parents spoke out publicly after there were eight fights on campus in the first month of in-person classes.
And on Aug. 31, a 17-year-old Aptos High student was fatally stabbed during school hours near the campus pool. Two fellow students, ages 14 and 17, have been arrested and jailed on murder charges in connection with the stabbing. The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office described the motive as brewing gang tensions, a pervasive problem in this otherwise peaceful, rural area.
The next day, a 13-year-old middle schooler in the city of Watsonville was arrested for pulling a knife on another student.
While such acts aren’t unheard of in this area, the sheer number — in only the first few weeks of school — has alarmed residents and school officials, causing them to question some of the more relaxed discipline now being emphasized in local schools.
“There have been multiple fights on and off campus within the first week of school, all recorded by students and posted on social media,” said Daisy Brooks, a parent and middle school employee. Brooks said students are bringing drug paraphernalia, knives and vape pens to school, adding: “We as a district are not prepared for the possibilities.”
Emerging from a wide-ranging 2020 civil rights lawsuit settlement, California has turned away from heavy-handed school policies, banning suspensions in elementary and middle schools for behaviors like “willful defiance.” Other recent changes to the education code call for suspension to be used only as a last resort.
“Great work is happening in this area,” Thurmond and Darling-Hammond told district leaders earlier this year, “and we applaud your leadership in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline” through initiatives such as implicit bias training and restorative justice practices.
Thurmond’s name has been in the news again recently, with an article by Politico stating that he allegedly “humiliated and intimidated” staff at the department of education, creating a toxic workplace. His department is also being sued over discriminatory student discipline practices statewide.
It’s difficult to prove a connection between kids’ emotional suffering and violence at school. Children respond to trauma in unique and individual ways — and most turn their pain inwards, not outward in ways that cause harm to others.
Still, there is plenty of evidence that children who end up in the juvenile justice system have suffered multiple traumas — witnessing gun violence and the death of loved ones; experiencing racism and police hostility; suffering abuse and neglect from overwhelmed parents; and growing up in poverty.
Now there is even more pressure bearing down on children from marginalized communities. Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association cited emergency department visits, suicide attempts and acute grief to declare a “national emergency in children’s mental health” linked to the pandemic and existing stressors.
“We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, their communities, and all of our futures,” the child psychiatrists’ association president Gabrielle Carlson said in a statement. “This is a national emergency, and the time for swift and deliberate action is now.”
After more than a year of remote classes, educators in Monterey Bay’s coastal, farm-working community had been growing increasingly worried — well before students returned to school this fall. Kids had been stuck at home, often in cramped quarters, with shaky internet and loaded up with responsibilities, some caring for siblings or sick family members. Many lived in households where primary caregivers had lost their jobs. Still others faced grief and mourning due to COVID-19.
“It was hell,” Gonzales High School student Clarissa Jimenez told the local news outlet Voices of Monterey Bay.
Once classrooms reopened, school officials were left to wonder: How had the shutdown and remote learning affected students’ behavior and mental health? How would shaken students experience the return to physical classrooms filled with other stressed-out kids?
Some parents have argued that — given those conditions — the violence should have been expected.
In September, Tiffany Chapman, mother of two Aptos High School students, told school board members that even though her family’s school district hired additional counselors two years ago, needs are still far from being met.
Citing the bulletins from the sheriff’s office and news articles, Chapman noted that “anxiety, depression, domestic violence and child abuse are on the rise, which directly correlates to the rise in violence we see on our school campuses.”
After the killing of George Floyd and demands nationwide to defund police and remove campus-based forces, the Monterey Bay region joined cities including Oakland, Los Angeles, Denver, Seattle and Portland that have cut or diminished police presence on school campuses.
But school districts in Salinas, an agricultural city on the south side of Monterey Bay, had made the shift years earlier, banning school resource officers (SROs) as early as 2017. Two years earlier, one Salinas district had stopped suspending students for “willful defiance.”
The Pajaro Valley Unified School District — including Aptos, Pajaro Valley and Watsonville high schools — was the latest area district to ban resource officers.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart has since criticized the district for removing his deputies. After the recent spate of violence,“Unfortunately, they have indicated that they don’t want any interaction with law enforcement now,” he told the local news website Lookout Santa Cruz. “So — here we are.”
Days earlier, after the Aug. 31 killing, many local residents agreed, calling on the district in a change.org petition signed by more than 1,500 people to bring the officers back to campuses.
Still others urged the district not to rush to rehire police, fearing prejudice in a region where more than 90% of students in some schools are Latino.
Brandon Diniz, one of the area’s middle-school teachers, told the board at a Sept. 15 meeting that local schools are unsafe — not because they lack police, but because they haven’t invested in enough staff.
“Instead of reinstating SROs, we should be filling the close to 50 vacant teaching jobs and putting the staffing in place to ensure that our students are safe at every level,” Diniz said.
Appealing to schools statewide, Superintendent Thurmond has recommended keeping school resource officers on some campuses to protect students from acts of violence or bomb threats. But he told reporters at a 2020 press conference: “We should never, ever at any school, expect a police officer to be the dean of students or a disciplinarian who disciplines a student for doing things that students do. There should be no criminalization of students for engaging in student behavior.”
On Sept. 15, Pajaro Valley district officials decided on a middle course that adhered to the new state guidelines. They have adopted a “hybrid” model of partnering on-campus officers with mental health clinicians that is set to start this month, and police will again be stationed at the district’s high school campuses.
Meanwhile, at Salinas High School, associate Superintendent of Instructional Services Blanca Baltazar-Sabbah told The Imprint her district offers “culturally relevant” programming. The district also relies on restorative justice, partnering with groups such as the National Compadres Network to run “healing circles.”
Baltazar-Sabbah’s district was the first in the area to build school-based wellness centers — a model that Pajaro Valley Unified, the district that includes Aptos High where the recent killing took place, also plans to follow.
Still, some school administrators privately grumble that the state’s “suspension as a last resort” guidelines and wellness-based program, while noble, don’t take into account the difficulties under-funded schools face — especially in farmworker communities where some student bodies have poverty rates of more than 90%.
One school administrator in the region, who asked not to be named because she was not authorized to speak publicly, told The Imprint she wonders “what solid alternatives to suspension do I have when a child endangers others by bringing a knife to school?”
Like Diniz, she blames state mandates that do not provide designated funding to support the directives, such as additional school staffing. The state rules, the administrator said, ought to be backed with funding for at least one full-time staffer to help provide the desired alternatives to suspension.
“We don’t have sufficient resources to meet the needs of these students,” she lamented, “and we have so many kids with socio-emotional issues.”