Ames school officials acknowledge fights have been a problem this fall, especially at the high school
Fights among students and other incidents at Ames schools have been getting attention from parents and the community, and the district has acknowledged the school year has had a concerning start — especially at the high school.
On Monday, at Ames Middle School, a student allegedly damaged two classrooms and broke windows on the exterior of the building. Police responded, and until the all-clear was given, a shelter-in-place order was in effect at the school.
Jeff Hawkins, assistant superintendent for Ames' schools, told the Tribune that incident was unusual in what's otherwise "been a very typical start" to the school year there.
Hawkins did say the middle school has had more shelter-in-place incidents this fall than usual, but explained those can be called for a variety of reasons, including to protect students' privacy during a medical situation or to keep people away from a certain part of a building for safety issues such as a spill.
Ames school leaders have said, however, that problems at the high school this fall have been caused by students' behavior.
On Sept. 8, Ames High Principal Valerie Nyberg wrote to school families about "three incidents in student behavior" that had happened at the school the day before and resulted in "school-based and/or criminal-based consequences."
Nyberg wrote Sept. 28 to families that, after "several student behavior incidents this semester," there had been another fight at the school that day.
"It has been an atypical start to the school year and we are taking each incident seriously. ... Each incident impacts our entire school culture and ability to learn and it is our responsibility to address them," Nyberg wrote.
Interim Superintendent Paula Vincent also wrote to high school families that day, "to address the student fights and vandalism in our high school."
"While each incident is of concern, the frequency and repetition of misbehavior is especially troublesome. Families entrust our system to provide a safe and secure learning environment and that is a responsibility I take very seriously," Vincent wrote.
In that message, Vincent added steps that faculty and administrators were taking:
- Reviewing discipline rules and processes, as well as behavioral expectations and consequences for students, for consistency
- Improving "system structures" of students' daily routines, such as in schedules, hallway passing periods, the length of the school day and getting to and from school
- Training to "support student engagement behavior management," scheduled for this Monday
- Additional mental health resources
- Planning with individual students and families "to address specific learning challenges and needs."
Vincent told the Tribune that the majority of problems at the high school have been happening during passing periods or when students are not in classrooms.
Hawkins said "system structures" could include having longer class periods or having more staff in hallways during passing times.
He said the district has a contract with Central Iowa Psychological Services, but there's not a full-time staff member on site at the high school every day.
He said there are four school counselors on staff, but they're not expected to be prepared to provide mental health support.
"That doesn't mean they're not experienced with students who are struggling, but we wouldn't expect that they be directly providing therapy," said Hawkins, who noted the counselors can provide referrals.
Vincent said certified mental health counselors from the community are coming into the building, but she did not immediately know how many or how often.
How does the start of this year compare to others?
District officials could not immediately quantify how this year's incidents at the high school compare to previous years.
Director of Teaching and Learning Erin Miller estimated that, on an average day, there are about 1,400 students in the high school building, after taking into account students who are learning remotely, are home-schooled, or are absent.
Hawkins said of what's going on this fall that he's concerned when there's "disruptions or altercations between students once a week," and there have been times when there's been more than one fight a week.
The state Department of Education keeps track of disciplinary data from school districts, but it's not sorted by schools within each district.
Overall, in the 2018-19 school year — the last full in-person year unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic — there were 63 times in Ames that a student was removed from school because of physical aggression that did not result in injury, according to the state's data.
That was more than in either of the previous two years, but less than the 2015-16 total of 98.
Also in 2018-19, students were removed from school 21 times because of fighting that did not result in injury and 21 times for fighting that did result in injury.
For no-injury fights, that total was tied with the previous year's and less than either of the two years before that. For fights that caused injuries, that was the most since at least 2015-16 and more than double the previous year's total of eight.
Despite students not being in-person for school for a good chunk of 2019-20 because of the pandemic — which correlated with a drop in the number of removals overall and for fights and physical aggression without injury — the number of times students were removed for physical aggression that resulted in injury still increased to 14 from four the year before and was higher than any year since at least 2015-16, according to the state data.
Hawkins said that he thinks the pandemic has contributed to problems by causing disruptions to routines and increased stress among students.
Vincent said she feels the tense mood of the country "probably has contributed to some of our challenges. I can't put my finger on anything specific, other than feelings are just right there."
Miller said her feeling is that the pandemic has pushed students onto social media even more than before to try to stay connected with people, "and as we've seen even with adults, sometimes people will say things on social media that they wouldn't say face to face."
She said that's led to some issues "that originate on social media that kind of spill over into the school day, at a higher frequency than I would say that happened before."
Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at email@example.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.