High school. We all have memories of this place, whether it’s the tasteless bean burritos served at lunch, or the first ball, or maybe a speech we gave at graduation. But today’s high school students are trying to build memories in a much less friendly environment. I asked my high school sister why she didn’t go to basketball games at her school. Surprisingly, she replied that she did not want to be sprayed with pepper when she heard from other students that the school police (SPO) would spray the students with pepper at almost every game. For many parents in Las Vegas, this scene may make sense in a violent protest or perhaps in an attempt to grab a bag, but at a basketball game in high school?
For years, many CCSD students have rallied behind anti-school police reports, citing what they consider to be an abuse of power. Despite data from many trusted sources who conclude that SPOs lead to increased arrests of “non-criminal, youth activities,” as the Brookings Institution puts it, school districts, including ours here in southern Nevada, continue to expand their police forces. In fact, in the CCSD, while the budget for licensed staff and support staff increased by only 1.4-1.8% between 2014-2019, the budget for SPO salaries increased by 8.4%, according to the school budget. Clark County for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. This increase in the SPO’s salary comes amid a historical shortage of teachers, as many teachers point to the need for higher pay.
In addition to these already difficult circumstances, the recent return to personal learning after the interruption caused by COVID-19 leads to an even greater problem with school discipline. We have all experienced the unique social consequences of the pandemic. Not only was our way of life reversed, but returning to a “normal” world meant learning again how to communicate with classmates and teachers. This was and still is especially difficult for the children. For more than a year, online training in Clark County for K-12 students required learning at home away from friends and countless lost opportunities to communicate with classmates and friends. Now, more than ever, students are learning again what you should and should not be in the classroom. Our schools need to be lenient and cooperative, but instead youth behavior is all too often met with brutal repression by force. The recent horrific incidents of violence against teachers and colleagues – each unforgivable – are contributing to an increasingly tense and confrontational environment.
The first seven months of the 2021-2022 school year saw an unprecedented increase in school violence from the CCSD, with about 6,827 calls to the Violent Crime Police. In addition to these crimes, nearly 800 students were arrested, a staggering number of students being transported to adult or juvenile detention facilities. What can be done to address this obvious problem of growing violence in our schools? The district continues to show in its budgets and political elections that their response is more police. But the time has come to assess the effectiveness of political decisions, when they continue to yield worse and worse results. If school violence continues to increase and school police budgets continue to increase, it may be time to consider other ways to improve the safety of K-12 for students, teachers and staff.
Violence in CCSD schools is clearly a significant problem given these figures, and current policies have clearly failed to reduce these horrific incidents. Yet the school district continues to pursue behavioral discipline methods that do nothing but temporarily remove a student from school. The arrest of a young person for his or her behavior and the sending of children to alternative institutions is not a failure to provide adequate mental health services in our schools. Emotional and mental illness may be the main causes of some of the behavioral outbursts that are contributing to a growing crisis that is not unique to the Clark County School District. The burden is not only on the mental health of the student. The American Psychological Association wrote a report on teachers and individuals at school during COVID-19 and found that 49% of teachers out of 9,370 respondents nationwide had “a desire or plan to leave or relocate. It may come as no surprise that at least 1/3 of the teachers surveyed said they had personally experienced at least one incident of student violence during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that influenced this decision. This study helps to show how intense the increase in school violence is. But how do we fix a problem that seems to be getting out of hand?
Instead of relying solely on growing investment in school police officers, the CCSD should increase funding for mental health counseling, a service that is desperately lacking in many CCSD schools. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 20% of young people will develop mental health problems and that 75% of K-12 children will receive their mental care in schools. According to a recent publication by the Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West, Nevada is ranked 50thyou in the youth mental health indicators of 2015 and for this reason the problem of school violence is no longer related to child misbehavior.
Students have legitimate mental health concerns and deserve quality mental health professionals and resources. In an editorial published in Nevada Current, Caitlin Saladino and William Brown spoke of continuing action at the state and national levels to increase funding for mental health, but the change in Nevada does not seem to keep pace. CCSD schools have a habit of dealing chaotically with youth behavior, leading to unnecessary trauma and arrests that can result from problems that need to be addressed with professional psychological help; increased levels of funding do so much only if no action is taken to use this money effectively. CCSD students have seen enough of current disciplines to know that it’s time to try something new, so why not start by taking care of the young person’s physical well-being and mental health?