If America’s public high schools were a city, that city would be one of the most violent in the country.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 939,000 incidents of violence in public schools during the 2019-2020 school year, and 70% of schools had at least one violent incident. For some, the problem is acute: 15.6% of high schools recorded 20 or more incidents of violence. The numbers almost certainly would have been higher if schools had not shut down at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2019-2020, there were 1,500 incidents of “serious violence,” defined as rape, sexual assault, physical attacks and threats of physical attacks with a weapon, and robbery, per hundred thousand public school students in the country.
For context, only eight cities in the country have a higher violent crime rate than 1,500 per hundred thousand.
This is not a perfect equivalence, since unlike high schools, major cities don’t close for three months out of the year. Additionally, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program (UCR) uses a slightly different definition of violent crime than the Department of Education. (Unlike the DOED, the UCR does not consider threats of violence, or sexual assaults that are not rape, but it does count murder.)
Any way you slice it, the in-school violence data is bleak. Of course, a school need not be violent in order to be miserable: Other classroom disruptions also impede learning and harm children’s wellbeing. More than one in every four students aged 12-18 reported being bullied in the school year cut short by COVID. Teachers feel the pain, too. In that same year, “Ten percent of public schools reported student verbal abuse of teachers, and 15 percent reported [other] acts of student disrespect.”
Prolonged closures during the COVID era have made the problem worse. The Washington Post reports, “Compared with a typical year before the pandemic, 56 percent of schools reported a rise in classroom disruptions because of student misconduct in 2021-2022.”
This trend is resulting in an exodus of teachers who no longer wish to be subjected to the tyranny of terrible behavior. In a Chalkboard Review survey of 615 recently-resigned teachers, 319 of them cited poor student behavior as the primary reason for leaving the profession. In contrast, only 134 of them cited “insufficient salary.”
When the teachers’ unions and their leftist allies kept schools closed for more than a year in most major cities, students missed out on more than academics: They missed out on peer-to-peer interactions that are an irreplaceable part of childhood development. Not only are kids falling behind in reading and math, they’re behind on coping skills, managing disagreements, and social norms—things that show up in discipline statistics and crime data, but not in test scores.
No one learns to share colored pencils during Zoom kindergarten. No one learns to wait their turn to be the third grade line leader when there are no lines to lead. No one learns to cope with the disappointment of not making the team when there is no team to make. The rising generation was robbed of the interactions that shape children into functional young adults who play by the rules of society and can manage their own feelings.
Regaining lost ground in children’s social and emotional development may be even harder than getting them up to speed academically.
Four of every five schools report wanting greater mental health resources, which—beneficial as they may be—is far from a lasting solution. One real and lasting fix here is something money cannot buy: Stable families with a moral grounding passed on from parents to children, and children who have the freedom to interact with their peers in a way that develops their sense of self and respect for others. This change will not happen overnight, if it ever happens at all.
Getting kids back to school is only half the battle. The other half is ensuring their classrooms are orderly enough so that learning can take place.