By Juliana Demarest and Alex Hoeft
It was a scene that has played out in schools time and again: two Alder Creek Middle School students in fisticuffs, surrounded by a crowd of cheering onlookers while a faculty member tried to break up the brawl.
Schoolyard scuffles are nothing new — what was unusual about this incident is that it took place during the second week of school.
Following a year and a half of modified school days due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the current state of schools is far from ideal with tensions running high as students become reacquainted with the realities of campus life.
“Everything’s happening earlier in the year,” said Kari Michael, principal at Incline Middle School. “Normally you wouldn’t see a fight in September, October — and we’ve already seen fights.”
At ACMS, staff members have “noticed TikTok and other social media challenges have created a new layer of behavior problems,” wrote Principal Hien Larson in an email.
On the high school level, students are showing signs of stress through increased anxiety, depression, and withdrawal, says Incline High School principal Tierney Cahill. “I’ve never seen so many kids need mental health services where they’re actually going off to mental health hospitals,” she said. “It’s so sad.”
The pandemic, not yet over, has altered the adolescence of youth the world over, and the effects will linger long into the future.
“It’s going to take several years to get back to what we all know as normal,” said Tom LeFevers, an English teacher at North Tahoe High School.
Middle school is full of growth — mentally, physically, and socially.
“The middle school years are so formative for their growth and development,” Michael explained. “And there’s so much happening to begin with, with hormones and puberty and all the things; [then] you add in all of these other challenges [with the pandemic].”
Schools are accustomed to such growth, and not just for middle schoolers, but all grades, kindergarten through 12th. The Washoe County and Tahoe Truckee Unified school districts have long-standing infrastructure to support students facing the highs and lows of adolescence. But the pause that Covid-19 placed on regular in-person schooling has necessitated a new layer of support.
“Since Covid hit and students were home for extended periods of time, students spent a lot more time online than maybe in the past,” noted Jeff Santos, head of student services for TTUSD. “And based on that, the coming back to school in-person, we’re seeing the need for reviewing school rules for some that have been out of school for some time … increasing some of those [support] services.”
During the first couple of weeks at ACMS, incident after incident occurred, students fighting, vandalizing property, and more. Tales spread of a trash can pitched from a second-story window and crude images scrawled on brick walls and bathroom stalls.
There were more serious incidents, too. A father of a student at ACMS said 10 classmates cornered his son at the end of P.E. one day, jeering at the middle schooler and using racial slurs before one of them punched him in the face and broke his nose. No cameras, teachers, or non-participating students saw the attack. The father requested anonymity so as not to affect his son’s future.
Efforts to address the attack were inadequate, the father believes, saying that he spoke with principal Larson, as well as Santos and TTUSD Superintendent Carmen Ghysels. After being informed that the school and district would perform full investigations, he said that as far as he’s aware, only the kid who punched his son was suspended and put on probation for six months with a focus on counseling.
The family has since left the area because of a job opportunity, pushing the move up an entire month earlier “because of the indifference shown by [Larson, Santos, and Ghysels], which was difficult for us as a family,” the father said.
Moonshine Ink attempted to reach out to other parents of school-aged children to confirm altercations and general rowdiness, but no one wanted to speak out “because it’s a small town.”
TTUSD staff declined to speak about any specific incidences, but Santos did say “that the preventative measures we put into place, there are times when naturally you do see [in] a middle school or a high school or just in general in the community physical fights and/or social media pieces that carry over to the school.”
He added, “The frequency of the problems, I wouldn’t say seem to be increased by any means. I think it’s been pretty consistent with what we’ve seen. I think some of … [the] intensity of some of the situations because of social media posts — and so it’s broadcast more — we’re dealing more with that piece.”
At Incline Middle School, Michael shared a comparison of behaviors between the current school year and the 2020/21 school year. During 20/21, students attended school on a hybrid schedule, coming on campus every other day. With the current year, school’s start date was pushed back eight days due to wildfire smoke impacts.
From the start of school to Nov. 3 for the 20/21 school year, the middle school reported zero acts of aggression. From the start of school to Nov. 2 for the 21/22 school year, the middle school reported four of such acts. Defiance and disrespect toward others, though, has skyrocketed by comparison: During the same date ranges, there were five incidents of defiance or disrespect in 20/21; in the current school year, 61 episodes were reported.
Students aren’t lashing out physically over at Incline High School, says Cahill, but the period of distance learning has resulted in a lack of communication skills, particularly for freshmen.
“They were seventh graders when this started, so they’ve been dealing with this [pandemic] all through middle school, and now they’re in high school,” she said. “I do have a concern about the lack of empathy and meanness … What I’m seeing is people are not engaging socially, so they’re not learning those interpersonal dynamics, like when you talk to someone like that, you can lose a friend.”
The pandemic was a huge disruption because students, high schoolers in particular, want to have a normal teenage experience with dances, sports, clubs, and the like, Cahill said.
“A lot of hopes and dreams have been dashed,” she said. “You have a lot of athletes who really hoped that they were going to get a college scholarship. They would get to work on that. [But there were] games getting canceled because someone was positive [for Covid], seasons being shut down. The weight of that on kids is so heartbreaking. And for some kids, it is those kinds of things that keep them in school … Those are the things that tether them to school.”
On the flip side, some students are literally embracing the chance to be back in school. Paula Bossler, a science, technology, engineering, and math teacher for kindergarten through fifth grade at Kings Beach Elementary School, said during this current school year she’s received more hugs from her students than ever before.
“This year, first and foremost, has been just so rewarding being back in person with the kids,” she told Moonshine. “… When it comes to behavior and things that are unexpected this year, I would say it’s that connection students are really craving, as well as stability and routine.”
At Tahoe Expedition Academy, which covers pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, Program Director Mara Morrison said her fellow staff hasn’t seen anything out of the norm for adolescence. The students, she continued, are simply learning to “build back stamina for the school day and stamina in interpersonal relationships.”
Red light, green light, TikTok
A challenge circulating on TikTok, the short-form video-sharing platform especially popular among ages 18 to 29, was fairly open-ended: In September, vandalize school bathrooms.
At Alder Creek, students stole a soap dispenser and poured red Kool-Aid into toilets.
At Incline Middle, students smeared red dye on the walls and toilets.
IMS principal Michael, who’s worked in education for 22 years, was shocked. “It was confusing to me,” she recalled. “I was like, where is this coming from? I’m not used to this one.”
On the evening of the red dye incident, Monday Sept. 13, Michael found out about the TikTok challenges through a principals’ Facebook group. Each month, students are inspired by other users of the app to perform different acts of vandalism and violence at their schools.
“Then the next day, I brought it up to school police for Washoe County and they said, ‘You’re the fifth school we’ve heard from about that,’” she said. “It really started to explode that Tuesday across the county.”
Michael even heard about a school in Reno where students tried to flush a teacher’s laptop down a toilet.
“Luckily we didn’t have that here,” she said. “But you know, trying to disassemble bathroom doors and take off soap dispensers. We were lucky we didn’t have severe damage.”
The California Teachers Association issued a warning statement about an October challenge circulating on TikTok that encouraged students to slap or smack a teacher. Michael said that thankfully that hasn’t happened on her campus. A November challenge involves kissing a friend’s girlfriend on campus. According to lists circulating the internet, remaining challenges include physically assaulting others and vandalization of school property. Per USA Today, TikTok has removed content relating to the challenges, focusing on certain hashtags like #deviouslicks — the one that started the trend to begin with — and redirecting users to the platform’s community guidelines; users are, however, utilizing different hashtags to avoid removal of content. The school-related challenges began in September with a TikTok user posting a video of numerous disposable masks they had stolen.
“I think [social media is] inviting more devious behavior because [kids are] constantly trying to figure out how to get more access to it,” said Amy Vail, an Olympic Valley-based psychologist specializing in adolescent, child, and family therapy.
Vail explained that during school hours when students aren’t allowed to be on their phones for social media and texting (schools typically utilize firewalls to limit efforts to get on the internet), the students will download virtual personal networks, VPNs, to get around any blockades.
At the elementary school level, social media isn’t as much of a presence. But Kings Beach teacher Bossler said that while she hasn’t heard of the challenges happening on her school’s campus, media is still rearing its ugly head.
“One thing we did see and are concerned about is what students are watching at home,” she said. “They were playing red light, green light in relation to Squid Game [a show on Netflix identified as being appropriate for ages 16 and up]. We actually had to send a call that goes to all parents [asking them] to monitor what their [children] are watching and remind them that that is not an appropriate show for kids to be watching.”
Bossler added that with elementary school-aged children, normally 5 to 11 years old, she and fellow teachers are more concerned about influences from older siblings or family members, regarding social media, TV shows and movies, and video games.
“I think as our fifth graders get older, I could see [the TikTok challenges] coming down,” she said. “Maybe over Christmas break they get exposed to it a little bit more. But as of right now, that’s not something that’s on our radar.”
SAFE SPACE: Wellness centers at schools across the region provide spaces for students to decompress in social and emotional ways. Pictured here: A sign welcomes students at North Tahoe High School; and students lounge in the Truckee High School center. Courtesy photos
Abundance of trauma, shortage of staff
All things considered, Santos believes TTUSD was better prepared than other school districts at handling the pandemic-induced trauma in students.
“Pre-Covid, our district already had a very strong structure in place to meet the social, emotional needs of students,” he said. “For example, we had wellness centers at our high schools. These are centers that students can go to for social-emotional support.”
In addition to having full-time counselors, TTUSD campuses also have well-established peer mentor programs like Link Crew at the high schools and Where Everybody Belongs (WEB) at the middle schools, where incoming students new to the school are paired with student leaders who serve as their mentors throughout the school year.
With a return to full-time in-person school, the district has shifted into hyperdrive: For example, it hired two social workers — one for the lakeside schools, the other for Truckee — to provide resources for students experiencing serious trauma. Partnership with local organizations like Gateway Mountain Center and Sierra Community House allows the school district to utilize area resources for children in need of more assistance. There’s also a youth healthcare navigator who serves as a link between Tahoe Forest Hospital, where she works, and TTUSD.
At the beginning of the 2021/22 school year, the district anticipated the need for additional support in welcoming back students. Before school started, TTUSD brought in Heather Forbes, “a national and international trauma-informed classroom expert,” as Santos described.
“She presented an entire day to all of our staff on trauma and what that means, understanding students that have gone through that,” he continued, “She demonstrated strategies staff can use within their classroom to recognize student behaviors and how traumas impacted those kids.”
The training included de-escalation strategies for when students are showing signs of heightened verbal or emotional stress.
Expanding wellness centers into more schools is another response to Covid-19. Through a state-funded Extended Learning Opportunities grant and federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER III) funds, the district is focused on extending such support hubs for at least a few more years, and setting them up in local middle schools. Glenshire Elementary created a new wellness center, carving out the funds from its site funds.
While grant opportunities are also available on the Nevada side of Tahoe, finding staff is proving to be the challenge.
“I’ve tapped into [the University of Nevada, Reno] and asked their professors, ‘Do you have any interns? I’ll pay an intern,’” said Cahill of Incline High. “There is such a shortage right now at schools. Counselors, social workers, mental health professionals — even if you have the money, which I do have the money … there is no one to hire. You can post a job and no one will apply.”
Within the TTUSD there’s a shortage of resource officers, too. Officer Andrew Holbrook with the Truckee Police Department normally covers just the Truckee schools, but with an officer vacancy on the North Shore side of the district, he’s stretched to cover those schools, too. In all of Placer County there are six school resource officer vacancies, according to TTUSD.
What IHS does have is one counselor for its 350 students. But, Cahill clarified, “Counselors at the high school level are academic counselors. They’re not all health professionals.”
She continued: “What we really need is someone consistent, someone to do career college planning and then someone to help with small groups and [help] kids deal with loss. And we just don’t have it.”
The whole child
Though disciplinary protocols were established prior to the pandemic, Covid-19 furthered a nationwide shift in how schools deal with disciplinary issues. Evolving from the days of merely punishing transgressors, the present way of thinking is to get ahead of any potential incidents by exploring the root of the problem and learning how to prevent similar scenarios in the future. (Punishments such as suspension or expulsion are still applied in serious violations such as possessing or selling of firearms and committing or attempting physical or sexual assault, among other things.)
“California [educational] code over the years has really made it clear to school districts that you need to look at alternatives to suspension and really look at preventative measures, restorative practices,” Santos explained.
In the case of a fight, he said, district administrators will look at everything from meetings between the kids involved and having them compose apology letters to each other to exploring ways for students to learn from the experience or requiring attendance at a behavioral class. The focus, Santos stressed, remains on educating the whole student, nurturing the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive needs of each individual. Restorative measures such as setting up behavioral contracts with kids who frequently struggle, socially or behaviorally, can promote positive replacement behaviors for those students.
At ACMS, Larson and her staff seek to “empower our students and make them feel part of the solution.” Through homeroom and advisory classes, students participate in restorative circles where they have the opportunity to talk about their experiences of living through the pandemic as well as any current issues and how they are addressing them. Advisory lessons also focus on character development, with a focus on respect for self and others.
Peer Helpers are also available to meet with students if they feel more comfortable connecting with someone closer to their own age. Safe School Ambassadors (student leaders) have been trained to eliminate the bystander effect by using specific intervention techniques. This can be anything from recognizing when to intervene and calming down those involved to facilitating a dialogue between the parties and when it is appropriate to summon a teacher.
Parents, too, play a key role in their children’s entire educational experience, says TTUSD’s communications coordinator, Kelli Twomey, and that includes their in-school behavior.
“We see parents as our partners,” she said, noting that “when we become aware of something like the TikTok ‘Devious Licks’ challenge, we share information with parents so they are aware and can talk with their children at home before behavioral situations even arise, and that includes educating kids about screen time and proper use of technology.”
The district in the past has offered digital citizenship and social media educational classes for parents.
Psychologist Vail says part of the screen time problem is that kids are staying up late at night, spending time on devices when instead they should be sleeping. Without adequate sleep, the frontal lobe — the part of the brain that controls judgment and decision making — does not get to rest and repair overnight, which leads to more challenges with decision making.
“They’re more likely to engage in conversations with peers or [text] inappropriate content because they’re exhausted [during late-night hours],” Vail said. “… Then they go to school the next day and they have to fend off more of the social drama that they might not have engaged with if they weren’t texting those things in the middle of the night. That’s not to say that they’re not texting similar things during the daytime.”
It used to be that if there was drama during the school day, it was left at school until the next day, Vail explained, but with technology, there is a constant, direct link to that situation, which leads to overstimulation.
“I think that’s one of the reasons that … the transition in life, not just back to school … is so challenging, is because they don’t get a break [from technology],” Vail said. “I’d like to think it’s a transition, but I think it’s really more the new normal.”