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Florida schools dealing with student violence

by Tribune News Service | November 28, 2021 at 3:07 a.m.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- When students returned to school this year, they brought with them pent-up energy from a tough time 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 the violence isn't happening at every school, many are seeing the problems break out on more South Florida campuses than in the past. There are reports of teachers, security staff and administrators being knocked to the ground.

Footage of students fighting is often shared on TikTok and other social media. Some fights have led to injuries.

At Coral Springs High, a video went viral on social media that showed a male student beating up a female student as a staff member tried to intervene. Their horrified classmates screamed from their seats with each blow to the student and as her aggressor slammed her to the floor.

"We are legitimately scared 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 be named, citing fear of retaliation.

School district officials say the pandemic was a major factor, as students slipped academically and lacked structure, social interaction and mental health support.

Adding to the problem is a shortage of guidance counselors, therapists and behavioral health specialists. Those who are there often have to fill in as substitutes or hall monitors due to shortages among other staff.

"It definitely has been a concern," said Alexandria Ayala, a Palm Beach County School Board member. "I think that's to be expected after two years of unconventional learning, financial strain, family loss."

Teachers and administrators immediately noticed these students were in a different mental and emotional state than the one they'd left off in, she said. Now, 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 youngest grades, pre-K and kindergarten, are coming in angry and frustrated. We just had an incident where a 10-year-old cracked a teacher's head with a snow globe."

The Broward County School District acknowledged that the violence is concerning, and said students were under more stress due to the pandemic.

"Due to the lower number of opportunities for social interaction during the pandemic, many communication skills and coping strategies that are normally used on a daily basis have not been exercised," the office of Chief Communications Officer wrote in a statement.

The district 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, it read.

Many students had grown used to learning from their bedrooms in their pajamas, never really encountering their fellow classmates. At least not in an academic environment.

When they returned, all the traditional social pressures of school -- bullying, cliques, ever-present threats of violence, and now heated mask debates -- that they had gone so long without came rushing back, too.

On top of that, their academics had taken a hit and the pressure to get back on track is immense. At home, they might be experiencing increased financial strain or grief from the loss of a family member.

Throw that all together and classrooms became pressure cookers. Each week, fights broke out.

Students who felt desperate for validation clung to new crews that only took them down the wrong path and got them into trouble.

Parents scared by the fights and especially by the threats have pulled their children out of schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties, some permanently and others just for the day to avoid the threats.

Either way, it's a disruption to learning, Ayala says. For the students who make threats or get into fights, these split-second decisions can disrupt their future, she said.

Print Headline: Florida schools dealing with student violence

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