Art class had just started when the seventh grade girl began to worry. As she saw a group of eighth graders filing into her class, she sensed trouble was about to begin.

“I only knew something was going to happen,” said the girl, who asked not to be identified. Within seconds, one of the girls grabbed the seventh grader’s hair and yanked her to the floor. A cellphone video of the incident at Stemmers Run Middle School shows two girls leaning over the girl, punching and kicking her as a teacher tries to pull one of the attackers away.

The school nurse took the girl away. She suffered a cut lip, bruised ribs and redness from where her hair had been torn out.

All that her father, Jason Keihl, could hear when he answered the phone was his daughter’s hysterical crying, so Keihl raced to the school in his truck. After the nurse called to tell him what had happened, he waited outside for several minutes, so angry he needed to collect his roiling emotions before he walked in. Now, every time he goes to work, he worries. “I hope my child is safe.”

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A middle school girl who suffered a vicious attack by classmates displays some of her injuries. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Stemmers Run is one of many schools in Baltimore County and across the nation where assaults, attacks and fights increased this past school year as administrators struggled to control bad behavior by students whose education had been upended by a pandemic. Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford counties also saw small increases in suspensions for aggressive behavior and weapons in the first half of this past school year, compared to the same pre-pandemic period in 2019-20.

But in a surprising twist, some of the largest school systems in the state — Baltimore City, as well as Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — saw the opposite trend. Their suspensions for violent behavior went down, some significantly. Driven by the large decreases of incidents in those districts, Maryland saw an overall decline in suspensions.

What happened in those three districts to stem the number of suspensions isn’t completely clear, nor is there clear data that shows their schools were calmer. But the three localities have been proactive in instituting new approaches to misbehavior aimed at solving disagreements between students before they escalate. After the pandemic hit, they may have been better able to help support students upon their return.

“It is such a complex issue,” said Mohammed Choudhury, the Maryland state superintendent of schools. “I am not surprised you are seeing an over-time reduction in incidents and issues both severe and the ones that we know are most problematic … These systems are taking an intentional, different approach.”

Choudhury said these districts have long served “historically marginalized groups” and have been attempting to reduce the use of punishments that disrupt a student’s education. They instead have looked at resolving the root cause of why a student was misbehaving and training teachers to use that new approach effectively.

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For more than a decade, Maryland’s school systems, at the direction of the state school board, have been trying to reduce suspensions, particularly of Black and brown students and special education students who are disproportionately suspended. Students who attend schools with high rates of suspension are more likely to be arrested and jailed as adults, according to a 2021 study by researchers at Boston University, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Harvard University. The effect translated not just to the students who were suspended, but to all the students who attended the school.

So the city schools, as well as other systems, have tried to reduce the use of suspensions and arrests. Systems that once suspended as many as one in 10 students each year are now suspending half that number.

But even in districts that experienced declines in suspensions, schools faced unusual demands in trying to cope with students returning from the pandemic last fall who were far behind academically and, in some cases, had mental health issues and trauma from being isolated at home. Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said that despite figures showing a dip in suspensions in her system, some schools saw significant increases in behavior problems this year, including Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School (MERVO) and Carver Vocational Technical High School.

“It was definitely a challenging year,” said Doreen Hogans, supervisor of school counseling in Prince George’s County.

Teachers and administrators said some students had forgotten how to adhere to the most basic classroom procedures. They didn’t know how to play, how to be friends with those they sat next to or how to disagree in ways that didn’t lead to fights. Sometimes, teachers and administrators said, students acted much younger than their age.

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“We were not prepared to have kids come back to school and we didn’t think about their social [and] emotional needs,” said Odis Johnson Jr., executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. “They were much different people when COVID forced them from their classrooms. They are arriving very disconnected and that is a recipe for violence in our schools.”

That violence sometimes erupted at high-profile events across the area, particularly in Baltimore County, in the 2021-22 school year.

A shooting outside Catonsville High School injured two students. Two students were stabbed inside MERVO while a gun was discovered in another part of the city school that same day. A Franklin High School student was airlifted to Johns Hopkins after being punched in the jaw, hitting their head against the wall and losing consciousness. One Baltimore County principal who was injured breaking up a fight spent months recovering from a fractured spine. A student tried taking away a gun away from a school resource officer who was knocked down in a melee at dismissal from Deer Park Middle School. Ten police cars and a helicopter arrived amid concerns the officer was injured, according to county police. A student was stabbed in the parking lot outside Long Reach High School in Howard County.

Suspensions for violent offenses and weapons were down slightly in Maryland for the first half of the 2021-22 school year, at 15,097 compared to 15,352 during the same period in 2019-20. In Anne Arundel, there were 266 more suspensions for those offenses, while the increase in Harford was 98 and Howard 78, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education.

Baltimore County saw the largest increase in suspensions in the region, which were up 824. While Baltimore County’s enrollment is larger than other school systems, it still saw proportionately larger increases than other districts that saw spikes, while other large districts had decreases. Prince George’s County, for instance, saw a decline of 700 suspensions, while Baltimore County had an increase of 800 suspensions during the same period this year. Why there were such divergent trends in neighboring counties is unclear.

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Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Darryl Williams said some of the increase in suspensions and violence was a result of students, who’d often spent too much time on social media at home, adjusting after coming back after the pandemic. “We had to continue to help our kids to understand what it is like to be back in a building,” he said.

“We were not prepared to have kids come back to school and we didn’t think about their social [and] emotional needs.”

Odis Johnson Jr., executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools

One of the biggest problems was in middle schools, Williams said. Eighth-graders would normally set the tone for younger students coming in, but this past year’s eighth-graders had last been in class in sixth grade and weren’t acting as role models, he said. The whole culture of schools was interrupted.

And things didn’t get better as the school year progressed, with suspensions rising in the third quarter (though this hasn’t been reported to the state yet).

Baltimore County police responded to hundreds of calls to high schools for first- and second- degree assaults, rapes, disruptive behavior and deadly weapons, according to data obtained by The Baltimore Banner from the county police department. At Dundalk High School, police responded 19 times to reports of deadly weapons; at Lansdowne, it was 10 times. In all, county police responded 67 times to reports of a deadly weapon in the county high schools.

County police also logged hundreds of assaults at high schools, including 35 at Woodlawn.

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By comparison, Baltimore City saw decreases in both arrests and suspensions for violent incidents this past school year when compared to 2018-19. The number of suspensions for those offenses went down by 311.

Baltimore City Schools Police Chief Akil Hamm said only 35 students were arrested this past school year, down from about 1,000 a decade ago. “It is my belief that we have had a significant reduction because we are focused more on diversion and not arrests for minor offenses,” Hamm said. “We don’t want to contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Data from city school police show that schools more often used other techniques to try to improve student behavior, including suspensions or mental health referrals. This past year, 244 students who had been been accused of assault and other offenses were disciplined rather than arrested.

In addition, Baltimore City’s school system decided in 2017 to invest in training its teachers and administrators in restorative practices, a technique used to help students share their concerns and resolve conflicts. In a 2018 partnership with the Open Society Institute, 15 schools were chosen to be intensive learning sites for restorative practices, with new lesson plans that embedded the practices in the school culture. The institute’s Karen Webber said the continuation of the practice during the pandemic may have helped students feel connected to their schools and reduced bad behaviors when they returned to in-person classes.

A high rate of students who were chronically absent in city schools this past year may have contributed to a more peaceful environment, Webber said.

“There is not a direct correlation with absence and behavior volatility, but absences resulting in smaller class sizes provide greater opportunities for teachers to get a handle on behaviors before they reach crisis levels,” Webber said.

Much of the violence in middle and high schools was the result of disputes that surfaced on social media or in the neighborhoods outside of schools, school officials said.

“The fights that start on the street corner spill into the schoolhouse,” said Julia Burdick-Will, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. Burdick-Will believes students spent too much time on screens.

Howard County school leaders spent considerable time trying to maintain normalcy when students first arrived last fall, with masks and quarantines required, said Michael Martirano, the schools superintendent. “We had to re-acclimate our students to the culture of learning. The behaviors tracked with the academics. When they were regressing academically, they were regressing socially,” he said.

Educators also believe there was a permissiveness in the beginning of the school year that may have given students some false ideas about what was acceptable. “We have to get back to the basics of expectations and responsibilities,” said Cindy Sexton, president of the union representing Baltimore County teachers. Students this year walked out of classrooms, were on their cellphones when they should have put them away, and too often weren’t complying with teacher requests.

“The fights that start on the street corner spill into the schoolhouse.”

Julia Burdick-Will, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University

Teachers said staffing shortages exacerbated the behavior issues. When there were substitutes and not enough teachers available to staff classrooms, students were more likely to exhibit poor behavior, she said.

When Cassandra Hatter, a journalism and English teacher at Dulaney High School in Baltimore County, heard two girls screaming at one another about fighting in the hallway, she went over to try to calm things down. She kept telling them not to fight and to walk away from one another. After she heard one of the girls shout, “I am going to f---ing kill” you, Hatter jumped between them, she said. That’s when one of the girls, who was behind her, began to fight and, in the process, hit Hatter repeatedly in the head.

After a third fight, Hatter said, the girl who hit her wasn’t seen on campus.

The teacher doesn’t believe the consequences for students are clear enough. School leaders should have produced a specific discipline plan for their campus. “Every year there is a group of the most challenging students, but this year those challenging students have been good at bringing others in,” she said.

Hatter is among hundreds of school staff throughout the Baltimore region who were injured in fights during school. The number of workers’ compensation claims filed in the first half of 2021-22 shows increases in Harford and Howard counties for the first half of the year compared to 2018-19, the last year when schools were fully open before the pandemic. Baltimore County claims did not go up for the first half of the year.

Parents and county leaders have been calling on Baltimore County school officials to take action. At a rally before a school board meeting in May, elected leaders, the teachers union and the NAACP came together to demand more focus on getting schools under control.

Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown branch of the NAACP, said some of the problems are connected to a group of students that continually disrupt the school environment. He would like to see more students placed in alternative schools. While he isn’t in favor of increasing the use of suspensions across the board, he said they must be used in some cases. “We are talking about the re-offenders that are destroying the learning environment,” he said.

School leaders say they hope students will feel a stronger sense of community and connection to their schools when they return in the fall, leading to a drop in troublesome behavior. Williams said he began last year by enlisting the help of parents and community organizations to help out in the schools. He started a pilot program that put 20 safety assistants in high schools to walk around and deescalate tensions between students. Williams said he will use federal pandemic funding to increase the number of safety assistants so that they are present in more schools. Elementary schools also have instituted new approaches to discipline.

Prince George’s and Montgomery counties have already been using restorative practices, but Hogans said in January that school counselors began meeting with every student when they returned from suspension. They discussed what caused the behavior that got them sent home from school, and what the student should do differently in the future. More students are being referred for mental health counseling, she said.

A middle school girl who suffered a vicious attack by classmates displays some of her injuries. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The victims of the attacks and fights are also searching for help. The Stemmers Run student who was assaulted said she believes many students in the school hate her, even though she was a victim. She said she has anxiety when she sees the students who attacked her in the hall. Her mother has searched for counseling for her, but even with the family’s health insurance, the waiting lists are long.

Students will act out when they feel the school is a “frayed social existence where I don’t know anyone and I feel threats, not just physical threats but threats to my identity,” said Johnson. “All kids need to feel they belong, that they are connected to the teachers and the staff and that they are affirmed as someone who has value and is loved.”

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