At Heights Community School, an elementary school on the East Side of St. Paul, students are fleeing class, tearing posters down from the wall, playing hide and seek with administrators, hitting teachers, jumping classmates, and trashing classrooms.
But they're not being sent home after going berserk. They're not even being asked to apologize.
St. Paul schools focus on keeping kids in the classroom instead of suspending them. Kids only learn when they're in school, after all, and some children don't feel safe in their homes.
Still, teachers say that the lack of consequences transmits damaging life lessons.
One teacher at Heights Community School says it's a problem when one belligerent student attacks another, only to hang out with a social worker for about 20 minutes before getting sent back to sit with the victim for the duration of the day. There's palpable tension in the room, which makes it difficult for her to teach and the students to focus. She did not want to be named because she fears for her job.
There are many reasons why a student would suddenly stand up and walk out of a classroom, the teacher says. They're almost always dealing with rough home situations and the emotional trials that come with them. Sometimes the work outpaces their motivation, so they get frustrated and refuse to participate. When they hear students from other classrooms pick up and leave, run down the hallways opening and slamming lockers, others follow suit.
"It's been kind of ridiculous. Honestly, it's been over nothing," the teacher says. "One student threw a chair because some girl said something to him. It's hard to imagine, but it's happening."
Last year, a fifth-grade student punched his teacher in the stomach. He was sent home for the remainder of the day, but returned the next. Another kid took off half a period for choking a classmate and came right back after lunch to study with the same group of students.
High-flight kids escape class multiple times a day. One second-grader bit her kindergarten and first-grade teachers and ransacked an art class, dumping supplies on the floor, throwing furniture, and shredding projects.
Sometimes, when one student throws a tantrum, the rest of the class needs to be evacuated.
Heights Community School used to have a special behavioral coach, but that position was slashed. Ever since, the behavioral problems seem to have escalated, the teacher says.
The worst of it, she says, is that there are no opportunities for these students to set things right. They can't be forced to help clean up. There's no structure for holding a class circle to talk about what happened, where the destructive student can apologize to classmates and learn from the mistake.
"I don't know what a solution would be, but I do know that what we're doing is not working," the teacher says. "If someone is physically violent, whether we want to or not, we need to have some sort of suspension, or put them in a room where they can have other work to do and stay the rest of the day so the students who have been threatened don't have to deal with the fear later on."
An overwhelming 85 percent of students at Heights Community School are on free or reduced lunch. About 75 percent are kids of color. The faculty and staff are mostly white. Teachers attend diversity training where they are taught to recognize that students may be naturally sensitive to that cultural rift.
"The diversity training, that's one thing that it's doing well, asking us to acknowledge that when we enter into every situation and learn from students," the teacher says. "There's always tension, but I really think a lot of the teachers in our building are working hard to try."
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