Back in school after a year online, Salem kids are getting into more fights

Freshmen head to classes at McKay High School on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Grace Caldwell was in a conference room with a classmate when McKay High School went into a lockdown last week.

Caldwell, a senior, and other students rushed into a counselor’s office, where she said they could see police running into the building with guns drawn.

Officers responded to the school Nov. 17 after students reported seeing a classmate with a gun.

While school administrators are determining what happened, police interviewed several students, never found a gun and left without making any arrests.

Principal Ranae Quiring said administrators don’t believe the report was false and are still trying to determine if a gun was ever on campus.

There was no shooting, but Caldwell said she and her classmates had no idea what was going on as they sheltered inside the school.

False rumors swirled on social media, including a video of the school’s parking lot edited to superimpose audio of a shooting, Caldwell said. She said many of her classmates believed there was an active shooter in the school, only learning that wasn’t true after texting their parents.

“For it being a report, it didn’t feel that way. It felt way more serious than that,” she said.

The incident is one of several that has disrupted Salem schools in recent weeks as educators report they’re seeing more fights and aggressive behavior between students.

From the start of the school year through Nov. 5, the Salem-Keizer School District recorded 386 incidents where a student was cited for fighting, up from 272 during the same period in 2019.

So far this year, school officials have conducted 71 assessments of possible threats against local schools, with 22 more serious threats evaluated by a district team. In the 2019-20 school year, local schools conducted 199 lower-level threat assessments and 43 more serious assessments for the entire school year.

Other district data shows improvements in discipline issues. Suspensions and expulsions are down compared to the fall of 2019, as are the number of students written up for insubordination in class.

Local schools have also recorded fewer physical assaults – a total of 57 so far this year compared to 107 during the same period in 2019. A fight generally involves multiple students, while an assault is one-sided, district spokesperson Aaron Harada said.

(Graphics by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The report of a gun at McKay was the second police investigated in the district that week.

On Nov. 15, Salem police arrested a 13-year-old boy at Adam Stephens Middle School for bringing a gun to school in a backpack. Another Stephens student had a knife confiscated the same day.

District officials said Monday the incident remains under investigation.

Chris Moore, a former school psychologist who now runs the district’s social and emotional learning program, said the uptick in fights and other disruptive behaviors reflect students being away from in-person school for over a year during the pandemic.

“We have kids who have been disconnected for a very long period of time and don’t really have some of those basic social emotional skills needed to navigate conflict,” Moore said. “When you’re out of practice from those things for so long and you’ve been able to navigate your day on your own schedule … having to step into a situation that’s a lot more regimented and rigid is a huge shock to the system.”

It’s not just older students. Elementary schoolers saw the largest increase in fight violations, from 41 in fall 2019 to 98 so far this fall.

The district tracks incidents involving students where there’s some connection to school, so those numbers include fights that take place on school grounds after hours, as well as at school-sponsored events like dances or games.

“While there’s other areas in school that we’re really pleased about in terms of behavior improvements and discipline going down … our fighting is up a lot higher than it has been and we just need to own that,” said Iton Udosenata, an assistant superintendent.

Iton Udosenata, assistant superintendent of Salem-Keizer School District. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

He presented data on the trends at a school board work session Nov. 16.

“Kids are coming in differently than they did two years ago and they’ve been impacted by all that’s occurred with the pandemic and schools shutting down for two years,” Udosenata told Salem Reporter. “A lot of them being unsupervised during that time, a lot of them coming back to school feeling impacted from a psychological standpoint.”

Caldwell, who also serves as the student representative on the school board, said she agreed the social ramifications of student isolation during the pandemic are now showing up in school.

She said both in her own observations and from talking to teachers, younger high school students are struggling more because many of them were seventh or eighth graders during their last “normal” year of school.

School days feel packed, Caldwell said, as educators work to help students catch up from lessons they missed during online school. Stress levels are high among both students and teachers.

“Even though we’re in school, we can’t talk to people as much as we’d like to,” Caldwell said. “Everyone’s on the struggle bus, even teachers.”

The problems aren’t unique to Salem.

In the Reynolds School District, which includes Fairview and parts of east Portland and Gresham, administrators announced they were shutting down classes at Reynolds Middle School for three weeks in response to student fights.

Superintendent Christy Perry said Salem-Keizer isn’t considering similar steps.

“Having kids engaged in school is the safest thing we can have for kids,” she said.

School leaders also want to engage community groups and parents to support students with mentoring or after-school activities.

“We need lots of adults in the system … to be mentors and monitors of kids. We all should have our eyes on our kids right now,” Perry said.

District leaders like Udosenata and Moore are working with counselors, administrators and security workers at schools that have seen an uptick in fights to try to understand and address the root causes.

“We want to have that number of fights be zero. I know that sounds overly idealistic but that’s the acceptable number to us and we’re going to continue to work on that,” Udosenata told the school board on Nov. 16.

At Stephens, for instance, Udosenata said a recent series of fights was among a group of friends holding a “fight club.” Talking to those students individually has helped curb the problem.

At other middle schools, he said fights have occurred when issues happening in the neighborhood spill onto campus.

The district employs 11 school psychologists, 123 school counselors and 20 social workers. Counselors and social workers are typically assigned to a specific school and can work individually with students struggling with behavior. Moore said they also work to get to know students one-on-one so students feel they have someone to turn to before situations escalate.

“They’re subbing in classrooms, they’re monitoring lunch duty,” Moore said. “Our job right now is to do everything we can to keep kids safe.”

Protestors rallied outside of the Salem-Keizer school district offices on Thursday, June 18, 2020 to urge the district to cancel their contract for police officers in schools. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Last spring, Perry decided not to renew district contracts for police officers in local schools after a coalition of activists led by Latinos Unidos Siempre pushed for their removal.

Three conservative members of the district’s school board who opposed the removal, Marty Heyen, Danielle Bethell and Satya Chandragiri, have raised the issue in recent meetings, saying they believe returning officers would make schools safer.

But the board’s liberal majority that includes Chair Osvaldo Avila, Vice Chair Ashley Carson Cottingham, and directors Maria Hinojos Pressey and Karina Guzmán Ortiz say they wouldn’t support a reversal.

“A (school resource officer) is not a method of addressing these fights with students. We have to understand the root cause … work with the student, meet them where they’re at and help them build skills and knowledge to become better individuals,” Avila told Salem Reporter.

Udosenata said the district has hired more security specialists.

From about 37 full-time security workers in June, the district now has 42, with Udosenata authorizing the hire of an additional five last week.

Those are district employees who patrol the halls and can keep an eye on who’s coming and going from schools during the day.

Some schools, including McKay and South, didn’t have enough security workers on campus after recent campus renovations left more space to patrol, Udosenata said. Now, more are assigned to those schools.

Police responded within minutes to reports of weapons at both McKay and Stephens, as well as to reported fights at schools earlier in the year, Udosenata said. He said the response time is about the same as when schools had resource officers.

McKay senior Grace Caldwell cuts a ribbon during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new addition at McKay High School on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Caldwell said despite the recent lockdown at McKay, she and her classmates generally feel safe at school, though not necessarily in the surrounding neighborhood.

Fights, she said, aren’t new. She recalled students fighting for fun at Stephens when she attended.

But Caldwell said students are too often unaware of what the district is doing to address their concerns. She only learned while sitting in on hours-long presentations to the school board that the district has a system for incorporating social and behavioral skills into class and identifying struggling students.

Caldwell said students need to engage their peers, because convincing teenagers to trust adults at school with their problems isn’t always realistic. She’s working to start a peer mentoring program at McKay, she said.

“I know they want us to go up to them and say, ‘Hey, I need help,’ but that’s not how it works,” she said.

She’s also part of a group of students who will talk with classmates about school safety and bullying.

That effort, planned before the gun incidents last week, is intended to give district leaders a better window into student concerns.

Caldwell said that fellow students immediately reported seeing a classmate with a gun makes her feel safer.

“It’s students taking ownership of their safety,” she said. “It’s not like people are oblivious and they’re just going to let somebody go.”

Correction: This article originally misstated the number of school counselors the district has. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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