School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center

Threats of Student Violence and Misbehavior Are Rising, Many School Leaders Report

By Holly Kurtz — January 12, 2022 3 min read
School boy (11-13) sitting on chair in corridor outside principal's office, side view
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As the pandemic drags on toward the end of its second year, many educators say they are facing an uptick in student misbehavior that appears to be associated with challenges related to the return to in-person learning after extended periods of remote or hybrid instruction.

Nearly half of all school and district leaders (44 percent) say they are receiving more threats of violence by students now than they did in the fall of 2019, according to the most recent EdWeek Research Center monthly survey.

More generally, two out of three teachers, principals, and district leaders say students are misbehaving more these days than they did in the fall of 2019.

The findings of the survey—which was administered Dec. 15-29 to 286 district leaders, 199 principals, and 725 teachers—echo anecdotal reports this fall that pointed to an increase in student threats and discipline problems. Some of that behavior was inspired by online challenges, spread via social media sites such as TikTok, to slap teachers and vandalize restrooms.

In addition, many students have struggled with the transition back to in-person schooling after spending much of the past year and a half learning from home.

EdWeek Research Center survey results suggest these struggles may be leading them to act out: Educators in districts where all or some of the instruction was provided online last school year are more likely to report that student threats and misbehavior have risen since 2019.

In districts in which nearly all the learning was remote or hybrid in 2020-21, 51 percent of principals and district leaders reported rising rates of student threats of violence. That rate was 30 percent for school and district leaders where most of the learning was in person the previous school year.

A similar connection exists for student misbehavior. In districts that were offering mostly remote or hybrid instruction last school year, 71 percent of survey respondents said students are misbehaving more this school year, compared with 52 percent from districts that had offered mostly in-person instruction the previous year.

The transition back to more typical in-person instruction may have been more challenging in larger districts of 10,000 or more students. In those districts, just 16 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders who participated in last month’s survey said that most of the instruction was provided in-person in 2020-21. In smaller districts with fewer than 2,500 students, 36 percent of leaders said most of last year’s learning was in-person.

Sixty-six percent of principals and district leaders in these larger districts report an uptick in student threats of violence, compared with 34 percent of their peers in districts with enrollments under 2,500. Similarly, 73 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders in larger districts say student misbehavior is on the rise, compared with 60 percent in smaller districts.

In-person instruction was also more prevalent last school year in rural areas and towns: Thirty-five percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders in these locales reported that most of their 2020-21 instruction was in-person. The rate was 11 percent for urban educators and 19 percent for those working in suburban schools.

This may help explain why 56 percent of suburban principals and district leaders and 54 percent of their urban peers reported an increase in student threats, compared with 35 percent of administrators in rural areas or small towns.

Compared with their counterparts in rural areas and towns, urban and suburban teachers, principals, and district leaders were also more likely to say student misbehavior is on the rise. Rising rates of student misbehavior are reported by 73 percent of suburban administrators, 69 percent for urban, and 61 percent for those from rural areas or small towns.

This school year, a high-profile school shooting in Michigan and other incidents put a greater focus among many school and district leaders on how to assess and react to threats of violence.

Widely accepted best practices for threat assessment have been adapted from U.S. Secret Service guidance developed in the years since the 1999 Columbine school massacre, according to the Associated Press. The agency’s National Threat Assessment Center recommends multi-disciplinary teams of school administrators, and security and mental health professionals be established to assess whether a student would be helped by counseling, should be reported to police, sent back to class or something in between.

Education Week tracks the number of school shootings across the country here.

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