Meet me in the bathroom after class” or “behind the buses at 3” are not new threats among high school students. Neither is school vandalism. (Students: For confirmation of this, ask your parents and grandparents.) Schools are a microcosm of society, so rising violence and disruptive behavior in schools are likely signs of the times. Perhaps Keene High and other schools are seeing an escalation of such incidents as a result of the proliferation of social media “challenges” and the stresses of living amid a public health crisis.
TikTok’s “devious licks” challenge garnered a lot of publicity about the time the new school year started, when students not only in Keene but across the country shared videos on the social media platform of acts of school vandalism. Keene High School reported damage to soap dispensers, faucets and the walls of bathroom stalls. A subsequent such challenge, to “shoot up your school,” fortunately went unanswered last Friday, and has been disavowed by the social media company.
Behavior issues in Keene’s schools are not new; physical threats to staff brought complaints to the school board and state from teachers two years ago. Then pandemic struck, and students were sent home to learn.
About 5 percent of Keene High’s 1,200 students is exhibiting disruptive behavior, School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay estimates. That’s about 60 students. Administrators outlined recent incidents for the school board at a Dec. 14 meeting: Between Nov. 9 and Dec. 14, two fights broke out that injured staff who tried to intervene; another two fights were pre-arranged to take place in the school bathrooms, where there are no cameras; a student shoved a teacher; some students refused to wear masks, as required. Vaping continues to be a problem in the bathrooms, Principal Cindy Gallagher told the school board. (As smoking was in years past, we might add.)
The disruptive behavior is enough to cause concern, so the high school is organizing a task force of faculty, parents and students to improve school culture. The task force will consider how to move forward under a state law that went into effect July 1 altering the way schools deal with discipline. The law calls for a “restorative system,” Gallagher told Sentinel reporter Molly Bolan. “You have to teach [students] how to be members of the community and help them graduate.”
It’s an appropriate response because students are in school to learn, after all. They are learning which behaviors are appropriate and acceptable under certain circumstances in civil society. This is a lesson lost on some adults, as the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol and incidents of excessively violent social-justice protesting the preceding summer demonstrate.
Many adults haven’t modeled particularly good behavior in recent years and during the pandemic especially. Tensions have increased and tempers flared over lockdowns, mask mandates and vaccines. Medical and airline personnel have been assaulted. Arguments, finger-pointing and ugly threats have infiltrated public discourse. Teens witness these battles in the streets, on screens and in the home.
In addition, the necessary public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — including remote work and school, as well as general social distancing — have upended our normal social systems.
Harvard University psychiatrist Doris Iarovici recently wrote a piece for The Washington Post about students feeling disconnected from reality and detached from themselves. Those in the field call it derealization and depersonalization.
In an informal survey of colleagues in college counseling centers nationwide, Iarovici found that other clinicians had seen an increase in student complaints of disconnection and detachment. Some had noticed this over the course of the pandemic, not just when most campuses reopened. One psychiatrist commented that even pre-pandemic, she encountered these symptoms more frequently among college students than among adults, Iarovici wrote.
We are all students relearning how to behave in the real world. For adolescents, who have spent a greater proportion of their lives operating in relative isolation and primarily online, the problem is particularly acute. Existing more and more in a virtual arena, disconnected from reality, may lead only to more detachment, misunderstanding, resentment and anger. How to deal with those acting out should be viewed within that context. The tougher task is preventing violent behavior in the schools to begin with.