When Nebraska public school students returned to in-person classes this fall, school administrators saw some disruptive behaviors, acting out, disrespecting teachers and refusals to do the work, but there are some improvements as the school year continued.
Student mental health concerns
It’s the last week before the break at Lincoln High School. Masked students leave class excited to end the day. In these hallways, sophomore Alayia Buchanan saw an odd environment in September: students with their heads down, not turning in assignments, some not even going to class.
"There was a lot of fights. I would go in my classes and like, half of the class would be asleep," she said. "Nobody would really engage in anything and nobody was really like into school."
Some students would swear at the teachers and walk out over simple things. Once, her fourth period teacher asked some students to raise their heads up and do the assignment, but one student wasn’t having it.
"He just got really mad because I think he didn't want to be bothered with, but the teacher was just like, ‘If you want to pass this class, you have to do this," Buchanan said. "And he was just like, 'I'm done' and just started screaming and then he just slammed the door."
These behaviors motivated Alayia Buchanan to write an article for her school newspaper about the importance of mental health. She included advice like don’t be hard on yourself, take deep breaths and use guided meditation when you’re stressed.
Nebraska Public Media wanted to learn more. We requested student misbehavior records from three large public school districts: Lincoln Public Schools (LPS), Omaha Public Schools (OPS), and Grand Island Public Schools (GIPS). LPS had a record high number of student misbehavior reports in September. Russ Uhing, Director of Student Services for LPS, said that when students returned to in-person classes this fall, teachers started to see more anxiety, depression and difficulty following academic and behavioral expectations.
"For some, their ability to problem solve, receive and respond appropriately to direction, those types of things, hasn't been as good," he said. "We have seen an uptick in behaviors that are more disruptive."
Matthew Mims is a mental health and school counseling professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He said, "What I think the students have realized is that high school’s no longer like the high school musicals and a lot of the adventure movies that they’ve seen their entire life. Now that they're in high school that has to have adopted to COVID, the reality isn't matching what their hopes were or their expectations."
Mims said things are so different that students are not engaging with their education like they might have before COVID-19 hit.
"They lost a lot of those positive reasons to come to school, where now we have changed athletics, decreased student activities, as well as I think, just a decrease, lack of hope for the students for careers and employment in the future," he said.
'Devious' TikTok trends in school
KLKN reported that LPS officials have seen a 'Devious Licks' challenge TikTok trend in the schools back in September where students were found to have vandalized school bathrooms at Lincoln Northeast High School.
Junior Layla Riley recalls the trend in her school at Lincoln Southeast High. The student council member said the challenge meant encouraging students to steal things from classrooms and bathrooms and posting them on TikTok. She thinks students are trying to test the limits of what they can do, especially freshmen and sophomores who came into high school during COVID. The TikTok trend became a national concern and the videos were deleted on the app.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychology professor Lisa Crockett specializes in adolescent development and risk behaviors. She said middle schoolers that had to do remote learning last year are likely to seem immature in the high school classroom now.
"Because normally, they would have been in the school setting," she said. "They would have been getting daily feedback about what's appropriate and inappropriate behavior. And, they would know that there were some consequences for inappropriate behavior."
Dealing with misbehavior
Since misbehavior increased, LPS has provided training for staff. They hired three additional therapists, and they’re working with students individually. There was a lower number of reports for them in October. GIPS hired a positive behavior support coordinator. Their reports had increased in October then they went down again after the month. Finally, OPS did not see a spike in reports early in the school year. They have implemented a proactive approach to student behavior. Dr. Anne MacFarland is the district's executive director of student and community services.
"So if the behavior is severe, then it necessitates an administrator to sit down and have a conference with the student," she said. "For example, reaching out to a parent and saying that, 'Annie’s had this behavior, here's the intervention that we're putting in place.' Sometimes it does require a student to be removed from the classroom or from the school environment."
As Alayia Buchanan prepares for a Covid-clouded Christmas break from Lincoln High she hopes classroom interruptions will continue to fizzle out. However, she’s still concerned about the many misbehaviors in September.
"From September to now, I would say it was a big change, because not a lot of stuff is going on now, like with finals. But in September, it was a whole lot of stuff," Buchanan said. "So I would say it did dial down a lot, but people still are struggling."
Some of these teens have lost a lot, a year in school, maybe a family member or friend, and much of their in-person social life has changed. Eighty four percent of Nebraska teachers said they had an increase of student mental health concerns, according to the Nebraska State Education Association’s November survey. However, no teachers were able to speak with us about their perspectives of what’s going on and how difficult the pandemic has been for them too.
Editor's note: The Midwest Newsroom’s Daniel Wheaton contributed to this report. We also had editing help from the PMJA (Public Media Journalists Association) Editor Corps through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Methodology: Nebraska Public Media partnered with the Midwest Newsroom to request records of student incident reports for Lincoln Public Schools, Omaha Public Schools and Grand Island Public Schools from Aug 1, 2018 to Oct. 31, 2021. OPS provided de-identified records of student behavior incidents in November. On receiving the same request, LPS wished to charge 40 hours of labor to release the records totaling $1,538.64. After sending the data provided by OPS, LPS provided the records free of charge. Grand Island released their records without delay in accordance with Nebraska public records law. The three datasets were then analyzed by the Midwest Newsroom, using enrollment data from the Nebraska Department of Education to normalize the different student populations of the three districts. Much like actual crime data, these datasets are the result of subjective decision making made by individual teachers in individual schools.