Discipline problems persist at public schools post-COVID

There’s a lot of catching up to do in schools following the catastrophic state policy of preventing students from attending class in person due to COVID. The drastic decline in state test scores puts the pressure on districts to make up for lost learning. Yet at the same time, schools have found they also need to spend valuable instruction time on the ABCs of how to behave in class and the hallways.

The Mankato School Board recently focused on the district’s efforts to deal with student discipline issues in an intense, nearly two-hour long discussion covered by the Free Press.

Mankato Area Public School principals delivered a student behavior report Monday to the School Board, reviewing work done to address the topic, especially as kids get back to another year of in-person learning.

While the work being done isn’t new, Supt. Paul Peterson said the report is timely as kids re-enter school on a more regular basis.

“There were much more challenges related to kids learning about ‘how to do school’ is how we’ve been saying it. There was a lot of teaching and re-teaching last year,” he said.

By all accounts, last academic year presented unprecedented problems with student behavioral problems at all grade levels. The Mankato principals on the panel openly acknowledged the challenges they faced keeping kids in line their first year back after the pandemic.

“In all honesty, last year was a really difficult year,” Mankato East High School Principal Jeff Dahline said. “I could find some words to share with you that I’m not going to. But it was really just a difficult year.”

“Last year at one point we had 3 [students] that did require a high level of need. There were a few times throughout the year that we would have to evacuate the classroom,” said Hoover Elementary Principal Mollie Meyer.

The elementary, middle school and high school principals on the spot agreed that the level of disciplinary problems has decreased so far this academic year. Hoover Elementary School has seen a five percent reduction in the number of physical altercations and a nearly three percent decline in classroom disruptions. Middle school suspensions have decreased to date, while roughly six percent of the 1,300 students at Mankato East High School have been referred for behavior issues. But it takes a much more concerted effort than before.

“You’ll see signage all over our buildings,” Dahline said. “You’ll see how we try to create climate and culture within our buildings using those opportunities and reminding and teaching behaviors on a constant basis. If we don’t do that, we have no chance. That is how we remind students on how they’re going to behave and what they need to do.”

Overall, Mankato educators say disciplinary problems are moving in the right direction, more in line with pre-pandemic levels. But if things truly get out of control, teachers always have a sort of hotline to help by dialing zero on their phones for backup from the administration office.