Defiant, aggressive students disrupting Nebraska elementary school classrooms

1 month ago Omaha World Herald

Defiance, physical aggression and disruption are the most commonly reported student behavior problems in Nebraska elementary schools.

That’s what The World-Herald found in behavior data from six school districts across the state.

Those behaviors, by far, accounted for the most disciplinary referrals — far more than bullying, harassment and weapons, which hardly make a showing in the elementary data.

The data, obtained through public records requests, offers a revealing look at the challenges teachers face in their classrooms. And it frames the challenges of the education system in dealing with disruptive kids who may need mental health support or discipline to get on track.

It also backs what teachers have been saying for years about concerning student behaviors. Nebraska educators have pleaded for greater support from district administrators and called for more spending on student mental health.

On a positive note, the data shows that the vast majority of elementary kids in the districts had either no disciplinary referrals or just a handful.

In school after school, a relatively small number of students were responsible for a large share of referrals — in some schools five students accounted for as many as one-third to one-half of all referrals. In rare instances, individual students piled up 80, 126, even 144 referrals in a school year.

Teachers frequently express frustration about discipline being a revolving door, one where a child is referred to the office only to return without the underlying behavioral issue resolved. It’s not clear if those students with high referral counts were repeatedly returned to the classroom without a solution, or if those referrals piled up while the child was excluded from the classroom in another setting.

Defiance can be somewhat subjective, educators say, and may be defined differently at each building. Generally, a student is defiant when he or she refuses to follow directions or talks back.

Physical aggression can range from flipping a desk to hitting, kicking, hair-pulling or scratching.

Disruption can mean minor classroom interruptions or sustained loud talk, yelling or screaming. It could mean making noise with materials, horseplay or roughhousing.

Student defiance and aggression were problems prior to the pandemic, but administrators and educators — including the state teachers union — have said the pandemic made that behavior more frequent.

Teachers responding to a Nebraska State Education Association survey in November 2021 reported a significant increase in student behavior problems. One teacher reported that unsafe and disruptive behavior at her school was “out of control.” Another said their district had a “physical aggression crisis.”

The data obtained by The World-Herald shows that some districts saw an uptick in referrals for problem behaviors after COVID-19. However, others recorded fewer referrals than before the pandemic.

“Schools are really a microcosm of society, always have been,” said Mark Shepard, superintendent of the Fremont Public Schools, one of the districts The World-Herald reviewed. “And, when you look at some of the societal issues we’re dealing with, we see that in the schools as well, whether it’s in defiant behavior, whether it’s maybe some of the disregard for authority that leads to those defiant behaviors at times.”

Along with Fremont, The World-Herald reviewed data from the North Platte Public Schools, Hastings Public Schools, Papillion La Vista Community Schools, Bellevue Public Schools and Douglas County West Community Schools.

Those districts used a software program called School Wide Information System, or SWIS, to log disciplinary referrals occurring daily in schools. Not every Nebraska district uses that system. The Omaha Public Schools and Millard Public Schools do not.

The World-Herald asked for five years of SWIS data from each district, allowing a comparison to before the pandemic. In some cases, the schools had only recently adopted the SWIS system, so they didn’t have data going back that far. Others provided a full five years of data.

Teachers and administrators submit referrals to SWIS for a long list of behaviors. The list can vary from school to school and include everything from cheating and foul language to weapons and inappropriate display of affection.

School officials say the data, while good, is just one indicator of what’s going on in a school. Behaviors can sometimes be defined and categorized differently from school to school. Teachers have different tolerances for student behavior, they say. Some schools may record the data more diligently than others. Some teachers may decide it’s not productive to issue a referral and instead will deal with the student’s behavior themselves.

“It’s really just one piece of the puzzle,” said Tammy Voisin, director of special services for the Papillion La Vista Community Schools.

However, the behaviors reported in the six districts are remarkably consistent from one school to the next, regardless of whether a district was urban, suburban or rural.

Here are some examples:

In the Douglas County West Community Schools, 56% of referrals at the district’s elementary school in 2021-22 were for physical aggression and defiance.

In North Platte’s Lincoln Elementary School, a pre-K-5 school with 315 students last year, 47% of all problem behaviors recorded in the SWIS system in 2021-22 involved defiance, insubordination and noncompliance. Five students accounted for 29% of referrals. One student had 126 referrals.

At Hawthorne Elementary School in the Hastings Public Schools in 2021-22, the most-reported events were physical aggression and defiance, accounting for 64% of all referrals. Three students accounted for 48% of referrals.

In the Fremont Public Schools, three Grant Elementary School students logged 38, 71 and 144 referrals — more than half the school’s total for 2021-22. The pre-K-4 school enrolled 146 kids last year. The top behaviors leading to referrals were physical aggression, defiance and disruption. Three-quarters of the incidents occurred in the classroom.

At most schools, the majority of incidents occurred in the classroom, where kids spend most of their time. The other location that saw high numbers of incidents was the playground.

Like at other schools, teachers at Grant logged referrals for other behaviors, but at nowhere near the frequency of the top behaviors. For instance, fighting, lying, vandalism and plagiarism together accounted for just 2.5% of reports.

In the Papillion La Vista Community Schools, data was available for most but not all elementary schools. Where it was available, the top problem behavior recorded by teachers was defiance, followed by disrespect, and then physical aggression.

It is hard to draw a conclusion from the data when it comes to the pandemic’s impact on behavior problems.

According to one national survey of educators, offenses such as tardiness and classroom disruptions were among the most frequently cited behavior problems that have increased in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey data from 846 schools was collected last May and released by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Of all public schools surveyed, 56% said classroom disruptions from student misconduct increased as a result of the pandemic and its lingering effects, while 32% said it remained about the same.

Forty-eight percent said student verbal abuse and acts of disrespect for teachers and staff increased. About a third said it remained the same.

In Nebraska, the uptick in behaviors is certainly borne out in the data from some schools. About half the schools in Papillion La Vista saw more referrals last year compared to 2018-19.

For instance, at Papillion La Vista’s Anderson Grove Elementary School, referrals per 100 students more than doubled from 2018-19 to 2021-22.

The same was true for Golden Hills Elementary School.

But at Patriot Elementary School, referrals were down about 17%. And Rumsey Station Elementary School saw hardly a change.

Voisin, who works with six behavior coaches in Papillion La Vista, said the bulk of referrals can be attributed to a small number of students.

“I probably know the names of all of the students,” she said.

She said there is a trend for younger children to exhibit these behaviors, but “all of our kids are good kids who don’t want to disrupt.”

Most kids who are physically aggressive are remorseful when they calm down, she said.

“A lot of them cry and say ‘I don’t know why I get so mad,’” she said.

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[email protected], 402-444-1077

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy. Joe Dejka

Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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