Rochester schools alarmed over disruptive students post-COVID

The ominous impact of locking K-12 students out of the classroom for most of a school year due to the pandemic may take years to get a handle on. But the initial clues that have surfaced so far clearly warrant concern.

The across-the-board decline in math and reading scores on 2020 state tests provide evidence of a learning loss that many students may never make up. Now three months into the new school year, another unintended, yet hardly unpredictable, consequence appears to be showing up in the form of disruption in the classroom and hallways.

Rochester school officials have reported an uptick in unruly, even violent behavior, prompting the school board to make the issue a priority, according to the Post Bulletin.

Several officials, including [Interim Superintendent Kent] Pekel, have characterized the situation as students having to relearn how to behave in a school setting.

“The big picture is we’re talking about a subset of kids who are really struggling to readjust to learning in person, and for whom defiance of adults and sometimes fighting with other students has been a challenge,” Pekel told the Post Bulletin.

On Monday, an ambulance was called to John Adams Middle School after a fight resulted in a “medical situation,” prompting students to be held in their classrooms for 30 minutes. The district would not release any information about the nature of the incident.

But the school district’s public update left out the context of what goes on routinely on the playground and hallways. Here’s how one parent described the atmosphere at the 6-8 grade school with more than 1,100 students during a public forum.

“The schoolyard is completely taken over with violence,” she said. “Girls being dragged by their hair. Punched in the face. Kicked in the gut. Garbage cans are being thrown down the stairwell at children. We have videos of all of this … these are 11-, 12- and 13-year-old children.”

[Julie] Mayer went on to describe a seventh-grader who stood up for himself after having items thrown at him. She said the other student “picked him up, slammed him on his head three times until he went unconscious and began to have seizures.”

“And we get an email saying there was a minor schedule adjustment in our child’s school day,” she said.

Those concerns also apply to another middle school in Rochester, where utter bedlam evidently also breaks out from time to time.

Prior to the ambulance being called to John Adams, a letter from a building-level representative of the Rochester Education Association invited both the Rochester School Board and Pekel to Willow Creek Middle School to witness similar issues.

“Students are running in the hallway, playing tag, and swearing at adults. Many students are having a difficult time taking responsibility for their own actions. Asking students to go to class becomes a battle that often ends with the student swearing and running off, while making sure the adult knows there is little that can be done,” the letter reads. “We have students and staff that are frightened and feeling overwhelmed. We are concerned about the mental and physical health of our staff, paras, and administrators.”

Some teachers lock their classroom doors to keep kids roaming the hallways from coming in and disrupting class. Others report assaults on staff, vandalism and fights among students. Yet the school district’s plan to address the violence may not exactly inspire confidence in many parents.

According to Pekel’s memo, administration has laid out several steps, including “The Perspectives Project,” in which staff will create focus groups and speak with students who have been exhibiting problematic behavior.

The district will also use some of its COVID-19-relief funding to hire more equity specialists. Pekel said part of equity specialists’ work is student engagement, which can be both proactive and reactive. The equity specialists also work with the rest of the staff to ensure the “kids that need the most support are getting the support.”

Failing all else, the superintendent insists suspension remains an option. But no mention apparently of enhancing the role of school resource officers employed by the district, the police officers who restored order after the brawl at John Adams.