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City teachers report more disruptive student behaviors, data shows schools reported fewer violent incidents

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

It hasn't been an easy year for teachers in Pittsburgh Public Schools. Jeremiah Dugan, who has been with the district for 23 years and now teaches eighth-grade social studies at South Brook in Brookline, says that after 18 months out of schools, students were different when they came back.

“It was like we went from a PG movie to an R-rated movie with the language that was being used," he said. "I mean, I get it: They’re kids. But I think the acceptability of language really was shocking, and it kind of went hand-in-hand with the kids just struggling to interact with each other."

But even as the media and others fixated on a couple of high-profile incidents — a student beating in Brashear High School and a fatal shooting outside Oliver Citywide Academy — and said they were part of an "uptick" in violence, data shows that city schools are reporting significantly fewer violent incidents.

As of this month, there were 45% fewer violent incidents reported than in the same time period in 2018-2019, according to the district. In March 2020, students moved to remote learning in response to COVID-19. They didn’t return to buildings for 18 months.

Violent incidents, according to the Code of Student Conduct, include assault, sexual misconduct and harassment.

Now that students are back in schools, teachers say less serious behaviors — such as leaving class without permission or ignoring staff directions — are the more prominent issue.

WESA spoke with eight city school teachers, all in different buildings, about their experiences in elementary through high schools this year. Half are union representatives who hear from their colleagues about workplace issues. The other teachers were connected to WESA through the union. While they shared a range of perspectives, they all expressed one feeling in common: They’re tired.

‘Just heavy exhaustion’

Jacquilyn Smith teaches English at University Preparatory School in the Hill District.

“Last year, we were burned out. This year, I don’t have the words to describe the feeling that everyone is experiencing, this just heavy exhaustion,” she said.

She’s having a hard time really getting to know her students, because of COVID limitations and limited bandwidth from extra tasks such as covering other classes or preparing assignments for students who are out sick.

“I personally have felt less connected to my students, and I think they’re feeling it too," she said. "I’m seeing friendships break up that have been really good and strong since middle school, just crumbling. So I mean some of that is just growing up, but some of it is shocking."

She’s also noticing that students have less capacity to pull back and not engage in fights.

Jennie Canning has taught at Brashear High School for nearly a decade. She leads the STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — academy. While she doesn’t believe more fights are occurring there than before the pandemic, she said students are stressed and have shorter fuses, so small incidents escalate quickly.

“I just feel like everything’s magnified — like our norm has been shifted from what we accepted," she said. "Like, there’s going to be some fights. Kids and teenagers fight. But now it’s just much bigger, like everything’s magnified and more intense."

Recently a student was hospitalized after another student threw him on the ground and repeatedly stomped on his head. The injured student’s family members now want someone to lose their job for allegedly failing to protect him. At recent school board public hearings, some teachers have said that they’re fearful and need more security in schools.

Interim Superintendent Wayne Walters rejects the narrative that city schools are violent places. He’s upset that media outlets have gone so far as to contact students for videos of fights in schools.

Even without such calls, he said, “We’re in a battle for their minds right now when we have this big emphasis on social media and sensationalizing violence."

Walters took over the district at the beginning of the year after former Superintendent Anthony Hamlet left under a cloud. This month, he launched what he calls a “Fresh Start For the Head and the Heart.” He acknowledges that the first semester was a rough return as multiple transportation issues left some families stranded, staff shortages led to abrupt shifts to remote learning and morale in many buildings is reportedly low.

“We have incidents where students have made poor decisions. We continue to plan and work, and we have the best staff working with our children that are highly dedicated, that care deeply for our children and that get up despite the obstacles and challenges,” he said.

Given the amount of time that students were away, Walters said he knew that there would be problematic behaviors when they returned. Still, he acknowledged, “We did not expect it to be at this level."

“I can see a lot of anger, and a lot of the students are just rebellious,” said Ronnice Sirmons who teaches math at Carmalt preK-8. "A lot of it is, I think, because there was not a lot of structure [during remote learning]. Now we’re going back to all of this structure every day.”

Catching students up  

Sirmons, who has taught in the district for 24 years, says getting students used to “doing school” this year has been a challenge. She’s constantly refreshing and going over what she’s already taught. She believes she’s on pace to finish the content she wants to get through with her students, but she worries about teaching with fidelity.

“I want to make sure they're understanding and grasp me and have knowledge and understanding of the concepts, especially with math, because it just builds,” she said. “That’s the charge and that's the task and the frustration, sometimes because I just want them to be ready for when they go to high school. I don't want them to be so far behind that when they're in ninth-grade, math class is a struggle for them.”

Students are in different developmental stages than adults expected, too. Dugan at South Brook described it as a "time warp." For example, his sixth-graders in many ways act like fourth-graders, which is the last time they were in a school setting. During remote learning, a student could turn their camera off and still get by. Now, that’s harder to do.

“You have more kids that are more reserved and don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable even speaking in class. Not that most middle schoolers want to speak in front of their peers, but at least you [used to] call on a kid and kind of coax out an answer … I think our kids are extremely uncomfortable in that situation,” he said.

At Arlington Elementary School, Loura Goins says her fifth-grade students in many ways are like third-graders. They’re not used to tasks that used to be routine, such as taking standardized tests.

“I had kids crying because they’d never seen a test like this and they didn’t know what to do. And it was upsetting to them,” she said.

Goins said her school doesn’t have the support it needs to comfort all of those students and help them learn how to cope with stressful situations.

Ashton Jones
90.5 WESA

What’s working

Dillworth Elementary School hasn’t experienced the same staffing shortages that other buildings have. Because they’re not stretched thin, staff set the tone of patiently taking their time when students returned to determine who needed more support, Jennifer Disidero said.

But Dilworth is a well-resourced arts magnet school with lots of unique offerings, such as mentorship programs, a family counselor, and social and emotional learning programs. Each day, students start with an assembly with meditation, singing and dancing. There are full-time music and arts teachers — something unheard-of in other schools.

“We’re all on board to help, and we are not short-staffed, which is helping us tremendously,” Disidero said. “But we are also deeply concerned that if there are cuts or there are consolidations and things of that nature, that there’ll be less people and ... there would be strains on our ability to do all of these things.”

Disidero said she’s been struck by the resiliency she’s seen in students. She said that many kids transitioned just fine. But other teachers said that they need more support, and that there aren't enough adults in buildings.

Interim Superintendent Walters has heard the concern. But while many say that hiring more counselors and social workers would ease the burden on teachers, it’s not that simple. The district is in a financial crisis — and even if it had the resources, it doesn't have people in the pipeline to hire, he said.

“Right now, we are struggling with attracting teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, social workers and even some spaces where principals may be on medical leave," he said. "We don't have a bench of individuals who have the qualifications to step into those spaces. So it's easier to just say, ‘Oh, they need more counselors and social workers.’ Even right now, our service providers for our district, they are sharing with us that they don't have the bandwidth to support our needs."

Walter said he is trying to lighten the load for educators. He's asked school principals to work with teachers and staff to figure out how to take tasks off of their plates so they can focus on educating students.

That could mean fewer meetings, he said, or holding discussions in different formats. “Some individuals wanted stronger communication and to allow those things in writing to serve as a way of communication versus an actual meeting so they can have time and space to do things.”

Despite such efforts, staffing shortages may get worse in the year ahead. COVID relief dollars have helped the district to dodge layoffs so far. But with a looming $23 million dollar budget deficit and declining enrollment, administrators may have to close buildings and cut staff.

Some teachers say they’re already looking for a way out. Others say while they remain hopeful, they’re counting down the days until summer break.