LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E7: Why Is There More Physical Violence Than Usual in Schools This Year?

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Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

This week, Diane and Michael engage in a frank conversation about the challenges students and schools are experiencing this year. Headlines have noted an increase in physical altercations. The two discuss why this is and what solutions do or don’t exist.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Michael Horn: Hey, Diane. It’s good to see you.

Diane Tavenner: It’s good to see you. I must admit, I needed the holiday break and, quite frankly, I’m going to need the next one that’s just a few short weeks away.

Michael: I don’t think you are the only one, Diane. It has been quite a year for so many reasons. I submitted a first draft of my new book that’s based on many of the themes from this podcast, as you know, just before Thanksgiving, and I’m still feeling exhausted, Diane.

Diane: Well, congratulations. That’s a huge accomplishment. No surprise there around the exhaustion. Let’s see what we can do today, because this is exactly why we decided to do a third season of Class Disrupted. We anticipate that this year with essentially all schools returning to in-person learning was going to be a really big one, but honestly, I don’t think we fully appreciated what we would be seeing and experiencing. We’ve taken this inquiry-based approach for that reason, to season three. We’re asking different who, what, where, when, why, and how questions each week. Today’s topic is one you and I have been talking about since the summer, Michael, but we haven’t… well, I will say I haven’t had the courage to really open up and discuss it in a public forum yet. And honestly, even as I say that I can feel the emotion on it, and it might be the most important conversation that we are having or should be having right now.

Michael: Absolutely right. So we’re going to approach this episode with the nuance that we try to bring to every one of our discussions. We’re going to stay curious, that applies particularly for me I think in this particular episode, and ask questions. No, we don’t bring all the answers to this topic and hope to invite further conversation. With that, I’ll let you tell the audience exactly what we’re going to be talking about today.

Diane: Thanks, Michael. We’re going to be talking about students today, and specifically student behavior. It’s interesting, even finding the right way to frame this feels a little bit challenging. So let’s begin with our firm belief that there aren’t bad kids, and there are kids who are and always have, quite frankly, engaged in behaviors that make themselves and/or others physically unsafe.

Michael: Completely correct. This is showing up in the news right now a lot, we should say. It’s not the way we like to talk about it, but stories are appearing around school discipline in response to violence. For example, not too far from me in Boston Public Schools, a 16-year-old female student recently assaulted a school principal, which resulted in her arrest and the principal going to the hospital. What’s striking, I think, is this is far from an isolated story right now. We’re seeing this appear in all of the newspapers and telecasts over and over and over again. And the framing, Diane, has been that students coming back, they’re not okay. They were isolated, many have experienced trauma, many are dealing with deeply emotional and social challenges, and there appears, as best as I can tell, to be a spillover.

Diane: What we want to do today is explore what’s happening and a deeper set of reasons for why. As always, we’ll start with sort of the what’s close to home and try to expand out.

Michael: Let’s begin with the what, Diane, because I’m thinking back to our conversations last spring and over the summer, and you’re very on record as continually saying over and over that we needed to be focused on the whole child as they returned to school. You were adamant that people who wanted to test students within the first few days of returning were completely missing the mark. You were advocating for an intense focus on building relationships and school culture. And I know that you did that in your own school. So I’m curious, what’s happened?

Diane: We did just as you described, Michael. Each of our schools engaged in extended onboarding, almost all began this summer with a four-week optional session that enabled students to be on campus. Many of them had never literally set foot on our campus before, build relationships and community, and to engage in some pre-teaching of the academics to launch the year strong. Then every single school, the whole school engaged in a really well designed two-week onboarding experience that really was seeking to further build relationships and culture. And as you know, mentoring is a foundational part of our regular program. So we have that ongoing as always, and increased our counseling and mental health supports as much as we’re able to hire for, Michael, which is a real constraint right now. And a significant portion of our students are very happy to be back and they are re-engaging in a really productive way. So this has worked for a lot of our students, so I don’t want to miss that in all of this conversation.

Michael: That’s helpful context, Diane, but I’ve also known you for a while and we’ve been doing this podcast for a while now. So I think I’m picking up on your tone that there seems to be a big but coming. So, but what?

Diane: But every one of our schools has some percentage of students who are engaging in behaviors that are physically unsafe.

Michael: What do you mean by physically unsafe, Diane?

Diane: I mean literally physically fighting.

Michael: Look, I’ve been in your schools, I’ve spent considerable time in them, and I know you have safe schools. Yes, they’re middle and high schools, but for our audience, how different is this from the past? Have you never had any fights here and there in schools?

Diane: It’s fundamentally different, Michael. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever experienced in our schools. It’s interesting, one of our school leaders said at the start of this year, we’ve had more fights in our school at the start of this year than we’ve ever had in the history of the school, and maybe in one school more than we’ve ever had across the schools. So there is a significant increase in just the sheer number of students who are fighting or who are at risk of fighting. How quickly things are escalating. We see an accidental backpack bump in the hallway, accelerating to a fight within seconds. This is very unusual. And there are all of these challenges of intervening. If and when there has been a fight in the past, other students would very often end it and intervene, teachers and administrators could intervene and end it. That is much more difficult now. And finally, this one is really confounding, we’re actually seeing parents supporting their children in these acts.

Michael: Meaning that the parents are advocating for the children that do the fighting, and saying this is normal in some sense?

Diane: They need to stand up for themselves, they need to protect themselves. Yeah, there is a normalization of it.

Michael: So interesting. It doesn’t seem that this is terribly unique to your schools, as we discussed upfront with all the headlines, which is striking, Diane.

Diane: Michael, I don’t know a middle or high school that isn’t dealing with some version of this challenge. And I think it looks a little bit different in elementary school, but not necessarily that different. I think we’re seeing some stuff happening there that is definitely out of the ordinary and very widespread.

Michael: All right. Let’s shift a little bit to why perhaps this is happening. These are the same students in some cases, not all, as you said, some of them are new to the school, but that you had before the pandemic. So what’s going on? Because I know when I read these news reports and I talk to educators constantly, I feel like I’m grasping for a lot of answers, and I suspect other parents and educators who maybe aren’t seeing this up close are, as well.

Diane: Let’s talk about several things that we’re noticing. Again, Michael, as this unfolds, part of the reason we’re having this conversation later in the year is because we’re trying to make sense of what we’re seeing. One of the interesting things we’re noticing is that our students, they were virtually learning last year for the entirety of last year and, as you know, several months in the previous year before that. And so when they were learning online, they were pretty free to dress how they wanted, sit where they wanted, eat what they wanted, get up, walk around, go to the bathroom, whatever they were doing. And all they had to do was turn off their camera and mute so they could do that. It’s turning out to be more difficult than we anticipated to adjust to being back in a shared space where doing whatever you want is distracting and disruptive to everyone around you. This is a pretty significant adjustment, and it’s causing some real friction between everyone. And the friction leads to frustration, which ends up building. That’s one thing we’re noticing.

The other thing that happened when we were only virtual is that most of our students and, quite frankly, adults in our world, their lives moved online. And a lot of those online behaviors are super unhealthy, Michael. I don’t need to tell you this, the whole world’s talking about this right now. As I am sure we are all aware, people have been incredibly aggressive online and via social media throughout the pandemic. Some of those toxic behaviors online, maybe in the online world, you never end up seeing those people in person, but now kids are coming back to school and seeing those people in person.

So when you take those toxic behaviors and you put them in a real-life setting, they turn into physical fights. When people run into each other and see each other, it turns out that last year when you called someone terrible names on social media and you had no physical contact, it didn’t result in a fight, but when you do that in a building, it does. So we’re seeing a lot of that. And to add to all of this, we see that most people don’t, they just don’t have a lot of grace right now. And this is sort of across the board. This is in our society. People are just really quick to their temper, and they just don’t have the ability to just shrug it off and let it go and move on. And so those are some of the key things we’re seeing.

Michael: Wow. What I hear you saying is that while many kids have returned to in-person school and are doing well, everyone has perhaps a little bit less patience than they did before, and they’re having to build some different habits than they had online. And it sounds like there needs to be a huge cultural reset, not just of the schools, but of individuals and their families, and that there is a much larger percentage of students than you’ve ever experienced before, who are quick to move to violence, and perhaps maybe they’re struggling to differentiate between online aggression and physical aggression, because the natural consequences of doing something online are a lot less immediate and severe, at least it seems, than doing it in person, with this change. If you’re inappropriate online, there’s a safe distance between you and the other person, or so it seems. You’re in person, that doesn’t exist.

Diane: At least a safe physical distance. We’re sort of leaving the emotional part aside today, or the psychological safety, because we’re so focused on the physical, but exactly.

Michael: I hesitate to even ask this question, but what do you do about that?

Diane: This is where things get incredibly complicated and are fundamentally different from what we’ve previously experienced.

Michael: So, let’s break it down. How is it different?

Diane: Let’s start with what most schools do when it comes to behaviors like fighting, Michael. I think that’s probably worth it. People might not remember or have been involved in that. I think most schools follow a rather traditional disciplinary process. They have policies or handbooks that enumerate what behaviors will be subject to discipline. There’s likely some sort of system that provides warnings, and then more severe punishments, depending on the number of infractions and/or severity. Fighting is generally something that yields a suspension. I suppose it can escalate to an expulsion if there are a number of offenses or depending on the level of harm, or if there was any sort of weapon involved, etc.

Michael: So that’s certainly what most schools do, Diane, but what’s sort of the ripple effect, I guess, given the increased challenges of this happening among a number of students and the ferocity going up, as well?

Diane: Well, Michael, the big shift here is capacity. So every single incident involves a lot of people on the campus: the principal, deans, teachers, students involved, the parents. There’s work to calm the situation, investigate, make a decision, and then legally execute that decision. So lots of paperwork, lots of meetings.

Michael: Wow. When you increase the number of incidents, you’re talking about a fundamental increase in the needs for adults, which strains capacity, I imagine.

Diane: Yes. And at the very same time, as we’ve been talking about, all those same adults are inundated with the operations of running a school in the time of COVID. Lots of protocols, testing. They’re also facing staffing shortages, so many are already doing multiple jobs: subbing for teachers, filling in for bus drivers, and a smooth running school is grounded in a quality classroom experience. That is truly at the heart of a good school. Students are in classes with teachers who care about them, who know how to engage them in learning that feels purposeful. The reality is we have far more classrooms right now that aren’t living into that role than we normally do, and there’s all sorts of reasons for it.

As we’ve said, they either aren’t staffed with a teacher, or the teacher’s personally struggling in many of the ways our students are, or the demands of trying to rebuild a productive culture are too much, so the classroom isn’t a really good environment. All of those things contribute to the students being sent out of class, walking out of class, being less engaged and connected, and all of that spills into hallways and cafeterias and parking lots, and it can become a downward spiral that’s really hard to pull up from.

Michael: This sounds absolutely awful, Diane, and we do like to shine some bright spots, so I’ll do one right now, which is, dads on duty, for example, was highlighted to support a school in tamping down on violence in Louisiana, where literally dozens of dads showed up to help in the school. But it also seems that what is most likely to happen in these cases, is just a greater crackdown on traditional discipline. So the result of that is, are we going to see more and more students taken out of schools?

Diane: Michael, you’ve just put your finger on the greatest tension in all of this. And it’s the thing that is sitting so heavy with me and everyone I know, is there are more and more schools that are working hard to not engage in traditional discipline, and those include our schools. The reason is, because let’s think about it. What happens to a 16-year-old or a 14-year-old or a 10-year-old, or an 8-year-old who’s suspended from school?

Michael: Traditionally, they’ve been sent home. It’s driven me crazy, because the presumption has often been that they’ll somehow learn a magical lesson and not do that thing again while they’re missing school, which they were acting up in.

Diane: And falling behind. Yeah. That is the presumption. But practically, it’s more often than not, it’s just not true. Being sent out of school, what does it teach you? How does that repair the damage that was done in the school community? More often, it just sets off a series of events that eventually end up with the student not learning, not developing, and therefore not having a place in the school, more acting out, just this downward spiral.

Michael: Yeah, and that downward spiral is the beginning of creating a dropout. And there’s been a lot written, of course, about this idea of the school-to-prison pipeline and the idea that school-based discipline is often connected to, or perhaps that first contact for some students with the legal system and dealing with punishments at a very young age.

Diane: Exactly. So one of the most challenging elements of this moment in time is that you have a lot of educators like me who deeply understand the likely pathway of a student who is suspended and expelled and who are loathed to play a willing role in that. At the same time, we are really struggling to figure out how to hold that individual child and keep the rest of the students and everyone in the community safe. This is a values-based dilemma that is literally ripping educators apart right now.

Michael: Look, Diane, I can put my parent hat on and see that, because I know for my kids, I would want them to be in a place where they could be safe and not worry about physical or emotional harm, but I’m not an educator, and this all has me wondering what is the right environment in which to serve a child? Is the traditional one that you’ve set up with them across the country, is it one that they can actually experience success in? And if not, or if it’s interfering with other students, what’s the way to help them? It seems like, traditionally, the only approach has been suspension and expulsion, but I’m curious about how we can reframe that and move someone to the right environment where there are sets of support for them; focus on the positive as opposed to the negative, but much, much earlier, frankly, and suspension, traditionally, it removes the child from the school.

I’m not saying, Diane, this should be micromanaged from the state or federal government level, because I think sometimes they look at raw numbers and try to get into the weeds of an individual school, dealing with very real school climate issues that they can’t possibly address. Nevertheless, how do you keep it so that an individual child can continue to learn in the right environment that’s conducive to their needs?

For example, a topic that I’ve often been very interested in since I’ve started writing about online learning is how do you create in-school suspension, where there’s a place they can go, but they can continue to learn online and take away maybe some of the negative ramifications of such a momentous action to send them home, Diane. I’m curious, what’s possible here? Is there any light we can shine on it?

Diane: I so appreciate your sincere and very logical questions, Michael. At the risk of being the person who tells you all of the reasons why this isn’t happening and why the logical thing isn’t taking place, I do think I just have to share some blockers to what you’re talking about. The first one is what is that environment? As great as it sounds like, oh, there’ll be a place where they could do online learning while they’re suspended. Suspensions are one to five days long. That just mechanically doesn’t work. You’re not going to leave a classroom, as we learned with hybrid last year, and be able to seamlessly transition into some other learning for five days and then come back. So creating, imagining these other environments is really challenging. So in my experience, they rarely, if ever, exist.

I have been in schools for 25 years, and we are truly trying to seek an alternatives for students. They just don’t exist, especially students who are really struggling in these behavioral ways. And, for a lot of good reason, there’s been a lot of policy and regulation that don’t support other types of environments. In-school suspension has really been cracked down on. And so depending on the state you’re in, it is virtually impossible to do it at this point, again, for lots of good reasons, but with consequences. And sometimes, as you know, we don’t have a system that has lots of different school-type options for kids. So we are grounded in sort of this mindset that there’s only one way to do things in a system, so that becomes problematic.

Then I would just say, big picture, our society kind of likes and believes in punishment. Schools are a reflection of the broader society that has, as I’m sure you know, a huge commitment to incarceration and punishment and all of those challenges. And we also are a society that is really struggling to deal with people who don’t fit into the system, whose behavior is not consistent with what we want and need. And so I just think all those things are coming to play.

Michael: From my perspective, Diane, listening to that, I hear all the blockers, and I think it just cries out for way more experimentation and innovation on the ground to create more personalization, to create more choices, to not assume that there’s a one-size-fits-all schoolhouse that is going to serve every single student. And, frankly, like a lot of the micro schools and pods that have popped up where community organizations have been leading them with all the supports and from the social services that they can bring to bear, I think there’s something that districts and schools ought to be leaning into and doing themselves, if for no other reason, Diane, than to try to make the problems at least more manageable and smaller in size.

Because you’re just not going to create this perfect system that serves every child and keeps every child safe. I think both are really, really important right now. And I hear you completely, it doesn’t exist today, but I think this is why leaders have to start today leaning in, to start to create those options, because we’re not going to get it right on the first go-round. We’re not going to get it right on the second go-round. We’re going to need to test and learn, but then we need to start testing and learning now, I think.

Diane: I think you’re right, and clearly both of us have been on this same journey for a very long time about the deep need for more choices and more options and personalization. I’m with you in thinking that, one of the things, one of the interesting results of the pandemic and not learning in buildings is this real lust for having an experience that is more curated and more autonomous and more flexible and all of those things. And I think some of the reaction is to this clamping down in this traditional building. But I also think I would just maybe sort of wrap us up here, Michael, with something that we probably want to talk about in the future, because it’s a big topic, but the sheer amount of expectations being placed on schools, it’s always been intense, but over the last couple of years, just more and more expectations coming onto schools with nothing coming off the plate.

We expected them to be able to switch on the dime in the pandemic to operate virtually. We expect schools to be able to come back in person perfectly. We expect them to deal with all the potential loss of learning and all the emotional stuff. We expect them to… I’m not sure what we’re expecting them to do now with all of the school board wars and what they can and can’t teach and should they be co-parenting or not co-parenting. And we’re in a moment where a lot of people are rethinking the jobs they’re doing. Well, a lot of educators are rethinking the jobs they’re doing, and we’ve talked about that before. And so I just think that we’ve got to get a little bit realistic about what we’re expecting, and if we want that innovation. That’s all I’m saying.

Michael: It’s a good place to leave us, Diane. It suggests several directions for our next episode, dare I say, that have popped to mind, but we’ll leave it there. Let’s maybe shift, and I’ll just say before we do, thank you for being so raw and honest, and I hope those listening appreciate these are real struggles going on right now that, like so much during the pandemic, are fundamentally different from the experiences we in schools have had before. So just appreciate your honesty in talking about it. And maybe I’ll segue us a little bit to say, walk outside of your school for a moment. What are you reading, watching that maybe is giving you some strength or enjoyment?

Diane: Well, thanks for that, Michael. I’m not going to stray too far from where I’m clearly feeling like I need to be a leader, a better leader than I’ve ever been right now. So that’s probably why I’ve been rereading The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Dethmer, Chapman, and Klemp. I’m in a group of leaders, and we use this as our foundational text as we seek to strengthen our leadership skills in community. And as we’ve just talked about, the demands are really significant right now, so I’m redoubling my own efforts to grow and learn in hopes that I can help meet the moment. How about you?

Michael: You know, I don’t have much to report, Diane. We finished Ted Lasso, loved it.

Diane: Hooray!

Michael: I loved the second season, too, so I was not one of those that experienced a dip, but I confess I’ve been mostly so head-down on finishing this book on reinventing schools, which we’re calling From Reopen to Reinvent. So I can’t say I have much to offer this time around, but I will try to resurface with something more inspiring for our next episode, as will we all. With that, for all you listening, thanks so much for joining us on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life. 

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