‘These are students in crisis’: Vermont educators grapple with a spike in student misbehavior

For many Vermont students, the start of the fall semester six weeks ago represented the first time in roughly a year and a half that they had attended fully in-person classes. Educators now report that they are grappling with a rise in misbehavior, which they say is an indicator of a mental and behavioral health crisis among many students. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Since starting school roughly six weeks ago, students at Bristol Elementary School have broken the school’s piano, destroyed computers and dented cars in the parking lot. 

In the Missisquoi Valley School District, more staff members may be added to handle an uptick in hazing, harassment and bullying investigations.  

And at a recent Addison Central School Board meeting, a substitute teacher warned that conditions at schools in the district had become “chaotic” and “unsafe.”

“I fear that you’re going to have a huge problem on your hands if something doesn’t change,” the teacher, Fawnda Buttolph, told the board Monday. 

"The kids are in charge and they know it,” she said. 

Across Vermont, teachers and school staff face a surge in student misbehavior, school officials say, with teachers at some schools even voicing fears about the safety of staff and students. 

Jay Nichols
Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals Association, in 2019. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

School officials and mental health professionals describe the behavioral problems as an indicator of a mental and behavioral health crisis among many students — one that can be at least partly traced in the Covid-19 pandemic and the remote learning it entailed. 

“This is a larger trend that we’re seeing across the state,” Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said in an interview. The magnitude of the problem, he said, has “no comparison” to last year. 

High school teachers are reporting more students cutting class, Nichols said, while students in younger grades have faced discipline for “physical violence.” At one school he declined to identify, a kindergarten student knocked a teacher’s tooth out, he said; at other schools, students have broken furniture, or run away during school hours.  

“Principals across the state are saying that teachers are more stressed than they’ve ever been, and that the students are more disregulated,” he said. “Which leads to behavior issues.” 

Officials emphasized that the incidents in question involve only a small fraction of schools’ students.

But some episodes are having an outsized impact.  

Safety concerns in Bristol

At Bristol Elementary School, a group of teachers compiled and shared a list of episodes that have taken place there since the beginning of the school year. 

Thousands of dollars’ worth of school facilities and equipment — including computers, furniture and a piano — had been damaged or destroyed, the teachers said, while school staff “have been bitten, spit on, kicked, punched, urinated on, hit by thrown objects, etc.”

Above and below: A classroom at Bristol Elementary School after it was recently damaged. In a statement to the Mount Abraham Unified School District Oct. 12, teachers raised concerns that disruptive student behavior was causing the school to become unsafe and 'volatile.' Photos courtesy Mount Abraham Education Association

In a statement Tuesday to the Mount Abraham Union School Board, Andrea Murnane, a second-grade teacher, asked board members to strengthen safety protocols and add mental health support programs at the Bristol school. 

“In this school year, students are unsafe, the staff is unsafe, learning environments and learning tools have been damaged, classes are displaced from their room to alternative — and inadequate — workplaces, learning for all grade levels has been disrupted, student work is ripped from the hallway walls and a general sense of helplessness and fear has permeated our school,” Murnane wrote in her statement, which was first reported by the Addison County Independent. 

Patrick Reen, superintendent of the Mount Abraham Union School District, said that despite the “pretty extreme” behaviors, only a small number of students were responsible.

“What we’re seeing play out in our schools, as evidenced with the events at Bristol, is really reflective of the fact that our students who were struggling most before the pandemic are the ones that were impacted most significantly by the pandemic,” he said. 

“These are students in crisis who need our help,” he said. 

Jeanne Collins, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said school officials have been “surprised by the level of behavioral needs that our students have.”

There’s been an uptick in cyberbullying and inappropriate comments at school, Collins said. One school in the district had to limit visits to the school library because students were “destroying it,” she said. 

“We’re seeing a real regression of behaviors that are much more significant than what we saw before Covid,” she said. 

No longer on their own

In March 2020, all schools across the state went fully remote. For the 2020-21 school year, most schools adopted a hybrid model, meaning that thousands of students across Vermont attended in-person class only part-time, and often saw only the members of their cohort.

So, for many Vermont students, the start of the fall semester six weeks ago represented the first time in roughly a year and a half that they had attended fully in-person classes. 

That transition meant that students could no longer keep to their own schedules, a change that was likely stressful for children who had grown used to their own routine, said Matthew Habedank, a program manager at Northwestern Counseling and Support Services. 

“That sort of, ‘I’m not on my own time schedule and I’m not on my own timeframe,’ I think, impacts a lot of kids pretty significantly,” Habedank, who focuses on children’s behavior and works with a number of Vermont schools, said in an interview. 

Superintendent Catherine Gallagher has seen that in the Lamoille North School District, where schools have contended with vandalism to bathrooms — a nationwide trend linked to the social media app TikTokand more instances of students “challenging adult authority.”

After a year where kids could “sign on and off at will” during remote learning, some are “really having a difficult time reengaging,” she said. 

The root cause of different students’ behavioral concerns is likely “all over the board,” Habedank said. But he noted that Covid-19 had deepened stresses throughout households: Many parents worried about keeping their jobs amid the economic fallout of the pandemic, and the pressures of whole families working and learning from home only compounded the situation. 

All of that is exacerbated by a statewide staffing shortage. Administrators across Vermont are struggling to fill many positions at schools, from bus drivers to substitute teachers to mental health professionals.

"Whatever needs the kids were bringing to the table are being really compounded by the fact that there’s not enough people to meet all the needs anyway,” Habedank said. 

‘Forgotten how to behave’

Although Vermont collects data on student disciplinary actions, figures for the current semester will not be available for months, said Heather Bouchey, deputy secretary of the Agency of Education, in an interview. 

Heather Bouchey
Heather Bouchey, who is now deputy secretary of the Agency of Education, in 2018. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Bouchey said she has heard only “more anecdotal” evidence of student behavioral challenges. 

But even before the school year began, the state had been designing an online platform with a free set of curriculums for students’ “social and emotional learning,” Bouchey said, with the goal of giving teachers and parents more resources to address children’s emotional needs. The platform is expected to go live in the next few weeks. 

“I wouldn’t say that we would be necessarily surprised to see an increase in challenging behaviors from a statewide perspective,” Bouchey said. “Primarily because we’re navigating a pandemic still.” 

School officials say they are working to invest more in mental health services for children as best they can. In Lamoille North and Missisquoi Valley, officials said the schools have managed to increase the number of mental health providers on campuses.

Many officials said their schools are trying to avoid punishing students for misbehavior and are instead using restorative methods. In Lamoille North, for example, vandals were assigned to work with facilities staff to repair the damage they had caused, Gallagher said. 

And some schools, like those in Rutland Northeast School District, are working to review basic practices with students: classroom etiquette, moving from one classroom to another, standing in line.

“I don’t even know how to explain it,” Rutland Northeast Superintendent Collins said. “It’s almost like people have forgotten how to behave in school.” 

Correction: Due to an editing error, an instance of Heather Bouchey's last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.

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