A recent rise in student behavior issues and a call from Amherst County Public Schools’ chief official to enact measures to address students’ mental health needs was heavily discussed during the county school board’s Oct. 14 meeting.
Superintendent Rob Arnold said the division’s main obligation is to keep students safe physically and emotionally and education cannot happen if children are not well on a physical and emotional level. Amherst schools are seeing increases in students misbehaving, a widespread issue in schools across America, he said.
“We are seeing more acting out from students, we are seeing more aggressive behavior,” Arnold said. “… If you understand human development, you know that inappropriate behavior from children is a way of communicating the emotions they don’t have the words to describe or even having comfort level to confide in someone else about those problems.”
He said division officials feel the real problem is the deterioration of mental and emotional health of students during the pandemic.
“This deterioration is a direct result of students experiencing trauma, uncertainty, lack of routine and fear during the last 18 months,” said Arnold, adding school officials do not tolerate bad behavior. “We must confront and deal with the root of these behaviors if we’re truly to address the concerns of our community.
“I understand that mental and emotional health has been met with resistance by part of our community and even part of this board as we’ve had many discussions about things like social and emotional learning over the past year. But we find ourselves in a place where we don’t feel like we can proceed in meeting the emotional need of all of our students.”
Arnold said the behavior issues are “a real crisis” and are affecting many students who have not had previous behavior issues. From August 2019 to October 2019, he said counselors in the schools had 1,927 emotional and mental health-related encounters with students. This school year, which began in mid-August, those numbers have jumped to just more than 3,140, he said.
In 2019, the division had seven threat assessments, or cases where students may do harm to themselves or others, and this year that figure is at 29, Arnold said. The school system had nine child protective services reports the week before the meeting, the largest it’s ever had, he added.
“Over 10% of our students are receiving or waiting on mental health treatment and these numbers, I remind you, are only for eligible for Medicaid-eligible students,” Arnold told the board. “So that’s only 55% to 60% of our students.”
He said educators need to fix the root of the issue and be proactive in approaches in meeting students’ needs before the bad behavior occurs. He asked board permission to move forward with practices in classrooms to meet mental and emotional needs of students so they feel safe and welcome to work through their problems.
Vice Chair Abby Thompson said she has pushed back on social and emotional learning, not because she doesn’t value work ACPS is doing for students’ mental health needs, but only out of a concern to involve the community in vetting what is taught.
“So I want to see us move carefully in that direction and not just adopt a program that someone brings to us and we just take it and give it to all our kids,” Thompson said. “I believe we have the talent in this division to create a program that can teach our students these types of emotional strategies. … I want us as a board to address that carefully and not just give cart blanche to say ‘hey, you go out there and teach our kids whatever you want to teach.”
She said much social and emotional learning pushed by the Virginia Department of Education is good but she has an issues with some of it. She mentioned “some components of critical race theory” and said as a board member she wants it vetted.
“So when you come and say we as a board have hindered you, I’m insulted by that,” Thompson said to Arnold. “We are doing our due diligence to make sure the people in this community have a say in what their children are taught.”
Thompson said “the world of our children has been turned upside down.”
“They’re being taught in our schools to protest, they are being taught in our schools that everything they have known is wrong,” Thompson said. “How to do you expect our children to act? They’re going to act like children. We need to give them a foundation to stand on. I call that tough love. I think we need to set discipline and stick to it.”
Arnold said he wasn’t talking about curriculum but rather classroom strategies “to help our teachers get through this,” including de-escalation techniques.
“I need the support to be able to say ‘this is what we need to do in the classrooms every day so we can get our arms around this’ because otherwise we’re just going to be dealing in with the back end of the problem,” Arnold said.
Assistant Superintendent William Wells said in the 2020-21 school year, which involved a large number of students learning remotely, only seven referrals were given. With the vast majority of students back in the buildings, he said many at home last year are having difficulty adjusting to being held accountable, which leads to many of the behavior issues. He said he tells all educators to write referrals but to make sure each is justified.
Several board members said they want a course of action the division comes with that is apart from the VDOE or a program called Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Arnold said he would bring a plan forward at the board’s November meeting.
“We’re just talking about supporting our children and keeping them in a safe environment,” Arnold said, adding the division is not adopting a specific outside program such as CASEL.
Board member Amanda Wright said she wants the locally driven measures should represent what Amherst County residents want.
“We operate in a state that the downward pressure from Richmond is felt and the concerns are valid that we have with some of these programs, and I would like to see parental involvement and I would like to see what it is we want to do as a school [division] and not dismiss valid concerns,” Wright said.
Wells said the last thing anyone wants is for a suicide or shooting to occur because educators did not take care of students’ needs.
“Let’s focus on how we can support the mental health of our students so they can be successful in school and in life in general,” Wells said.
Arnold said the conversation is difficult and uncomfortable but necessary in such trying times.
“This is the work we’ve all seen is needed to be done. Our teachers can’t teach if we don’t have our students behaving appropriately,” Arnold said. “Everything that we stand for as an academic institution can’t happen until we get our arms around this.”