Las Vegas struggles with rising violence in schools

After several days of classroom lockdown as violent brawls broke out at Las Vegas’ Desert Oasis High School, Cherish Morgan had had enough.

She began organizing parents and students to pressure the Clark County School District to crack down on expulsions and called for more security and training for teachers. Morgan recalls standing on the sidewalk outside the school on the second day of fighting in early March, texting her 17-year-old daughter who was trapped inside.

“It’s scary when you’re out here and you think I know where she is, I could just grab her, she would be safer with me if I could just go get her,” she said.

In one of the fights, which was all over the local news, the father of a Desert Oasis student was seen in the thick of it, throwing punches.

“Listen, our principal and teachers shouldn’t jump on a parent to stop them from hitting a student,” Morgan says. “There’s no world where that’s okay, there just isn’t.”

Violence has long been a problem in the Vegas world. After all, the mafia made this city famous. But things have been particularly tense since the pandemic, with violent threats, harassment, thefts, assaults and guns increasingly spilling in places many once thought safe.

In fact, the trauma at Desert Oasis is hardly an isolated incident in the sprawling Clark County Schools District, the fifth-largest in the country, home to about 305,000 students. County officials and police report an increase in violence since the return to in-person learning last fall. There were approximately 8,300 calls to police from Clark County schools to report incidents of violence, an increase of approximately 1,300 compared to the entire 2018-2019 school year.

The most shocking attack in April involved a 16-year-old student who authorities say strangled his teacher in their classroom during an argument over grades and allegedly sexually assaulted her. The student was charged with attempted murder.

Teachers are nervous and learning is pushed aside

While a recent national survey showed an increase in harassment and violence against teachers, there are indications that things could be worse in Las Vegas. In interviews with staff, students and parents, many pointed out that children spent a full year and three months studying virtually during the pandemic, which led to a lot of social isolation. The Las Vegas economy has also been hit hard by the pandemic, with mass layoffs and closures in the entertainment industry leaving many children experiencing additional stress at home.

Many teachers say they don’t feel the district — or the wider community — has their back. Locally, at least three martial arts studios have even begun offering free or discounted self-defense classes for CCSD instructors.

“When you have constant concerns about your safety and that of your students and what’s going on in the hallways, it’s very difficult to just focus on the lesson and focus on the needs of the students in your classroom,” says Ariane Prichard, a biology teacher at the city’s Bonanza High School.

Prichard, a 14-year veteran of public education, thought several times during that stressful school year that she might give up classes altogether. Burned out and exhausted, she has decided to continue but not teach at the summer school for the first time.

CCSD currently has at least 1,000 open apprenticeship positions. At the start of the year, Prichard’s grades were 40 deep. Teachers and administrators told NPR that class sizes have become a little more manageable lately, but only because more kids are playing truant. Still others seem to have disappeared from the map all together. The city has long had a transient population.

Violent crime has also generally increased in large cities

Sergeant Ben Abarca says he’s seeing more truants patrolling east Las Vegas. Some get into trouble on these roads or become victims themselves. One recent morning, dozens of kids were milling around the back of a school near some modular classes. Across the street, in a church parking lot, several students were skipping class, hanging out, and eating fast food.

“You’re going to Chaparral? Why aren’t you in class?” Abarca said, rolling down his window on his squad car. “Go to campus.”

Abarca is with the CCSD Police Department – the district operates its own law enforcement agency separate from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. His agency has also faced a shortage of officers since the pandemic, while violence has increased both in schools and around the city. In fact, violent crime has increased in most major American cities.

“A lot of people like to blame the pandemic, but the kids have been going to school for over a year now,” says Abarca. “I think it’s a community issue and I think everyone has to do their part, including us.”

In Vegas, Abarca sees a lot more shootings. On patrol, he points out several that have happened near schools recently, including an elementary school. Abarca in black hues is a big behemoth of a man, a former Marine who served in Iraq.

He’s quiet but can look imposing, not the type you might want to reply with but still: “I was spat on, a woman took a pen and tried to stab me with it like two weeks ago. I get hit, kicked. The respect isn’t there like it used to be.”

Abarca and other officials attribute some of this to a broader societal problem, namely declining trust in institutions and authority.

On this weekday morning, which he considers slow, there are about 20 active calls across the county. He scrolls through them on his laptop in his squad car: a fight at a middle school, another at a nearby high school, drugs at a middle school, threats at an elementary school.

Abarca stops to interview a secretary who accepted this latest threat, shouted by a mother who seemed angry that her daughter was being disciplined. She had demanded the office’s address and threatened to shut it down, allegedly adding that she understood why “all the schools are being shot at”.

Las Vegas schools have been virtual longer than most

Sergeant Abarca later said he assumed the mother who reported the threat had mental health issues. Nevada ranks last nationwide for access to mental health. Even the largest school district, Clark County, often ranks at the bottom in educational quality rankings. Almost two thirds of the student body are classified as low-income.

“This is an appropriate setting for these types of incidents,” says Samuel Song, a school psychologist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

There were 18 suicides in the one-year and three-month schools, all of which were virtual.

“Do I think it was too long? We did everything we could at the time without knowing it, we had no playbook,” says Jesus Jara, the CCSD Superintendent.

Jara announced a raft of new safety measures after the 16-year-old student who assaulted his teacher was charged with attempted murder and sexual assault. These include the addition of panic buttons in classrooms, more surveillance cameras and tougher penalties for mockers, and more psychiatric services.

Jara said the violence is a nationwide problem and not just in schools. So the challenge now is to refocus students after so much upheaval and make sure they are focused on learning.

“We can’t measure how deep the scars are,” he says. “That’s why we’ve put our extra dollars into mental health support not just for our students, but for adults as well.”

But while the district tries to stem the increase in violence, Jara also faces a $6 billion deficit in maintenance and infrastructure, according to Jara. A new ad hoc group of parents and students is calling on the Nevada governor to hold a special legislative session to address the crisis. A candidate for governor has even pledged to “take over” Nevada’s schools if elected because of the violence.

18-year-old college student Gianna Archuleta had several family members who lost their casino jobs in the area. She says her hometown is nervous. Violence has always been a problem in schools here, but it’s noticeably worse. She has begun popping up at school trustee meetings, demanding student-led solutions.

“Morale is low, people don’t want to be here and to be honest it’s just incredibly sad to see because there are a lot of people here who could do a lot of good but don’t want to be in this environment anymore because of what’s happening,” he said Archuleta.

Some seem to be calming down

The district is using federal Covid-related aid to provide a $4,000 teacher recruitment package to help address staffing shortages. They’ve also tried offering retention bonuses for beleaguered employees. District officials have said the violence is more likely to be perpetrated by small groups of students. In the meantime, it is said, things have calmed down a bit, the end of the school year is near.

One afternoon at Valley High School, east of the Las Vegas Strip, teachers and support staff try to focus on the positive and plan fun activities for several consecutive days to mark Teacher Appreciation Week. Mariachi music played for Cinco de Mayo during a crowded lunchtime.

“It seems like students aren’t interacting with adults or themselves in the way we saw before the pandemic,” says principal Kim Perry-Carter. “There’s a lot of anger and there’s a lot of quick tempers.”

But she pointed out some of her most troubled children who had recently returned to school and were dancing on the cafeteria floor. Some students even dressed up in costumes. She says many are in dire need of a sense of normalcy, some stability.

“We have three social workers on our campus — phenomenal social workers — but those three social workers can’t reach 2,800 students. And I will say that out of every 2,800 students, a small group of students causes problems,” she says.

Still, the staff is few and far between, adds Perry-Carter; her an urgent call for help in one of the largest public school systems in the country.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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