This article was originally published by The Post and Courier.
Lisa Philbeck, a fifth grade teacher at B.D. Lee Elementary in Cherokee County, was in disbelief a few weeks ago when she pulled apart her students. They were fighting over water.
Her class was walking to the school cafeteria for lunch when two excited students began squirting each other with water from their water bottles. Philbeck didn’t mind too much; she saw it as playing. But when a third student walked in between the two others and got sprayed, the fun halted.
The third student knocked the water bottle out of the hands of one of the other students and readied to hit his classmates. Philbeck jumped in.
“I had to pull them apart, just because of water — a little bit of water got on his arm. I’m like, ‘What in the world?’ ” she said.
The brief fight wasn’t an isolated incident. Philbeck has witnessed a student threaten to throat-punch another over a piece of paper. She’s seen them take plastic sporks, bend down all but one of the fork tines, and jab each other. She’s watched them poke others with protractors and break one side of the math tool so it’s in the shape of a gun.
School violence can cover a wide range of disruptions to learning, from verbal altercations to physical assault to shootings. Tracking the full extent of the issue can be tricky, but data from student disciplinary write-ups indicates at least one aspect of school violence is on the rise. A Post and Courier analysis of hundreds of thousands of write-ups obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests found the number of weapons in schools has more than doubled since 2018. While weapons accounted for only a small subset of the disciplinary write-ups, which S.C. schools call referrals, the jump was substantial.
The analysis examined referrals between August and November from 2018 to 2021 in 24 school districts. In total, these districts constitute about 50 percent of South Carolina’s K-12 public student population. In 2021, 508 referrals referenced a weapon. Three years earlier in 2018, that number was 242.
This spike is part of a broader national trend in school threats and violence. While reports of weapons on campuses doesn’t necessarily mean more guns are in schools, the number of school shootings have surged during the 2021-22 school year. Just a few weeks ago South Carolina felt the effects of gun violence when a 12-year-old student shot and killed a classmate, also 12, at Tanglewood Middle School.
To prevent further violence, psychologists and other school violence experts say that the solution lies in listening to students and offering them support in both moments of crisis and calm.
‘How do we recover from this?’
In 2018, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., spurred David Riedman, then a master’s student at the Naval Postgraduate School, a public graduate university in California operated by the U.S. Navy, to team up with classmate Desmond O’Neill. The two, who were both studying homeland defense and security, hoped to develop a better threat assessment tool that would prevent school shootings.
But as they set out to test a mock-up of their tool using historical data on shootings, they hit a roadblock. Little comprehensive data on school shootings existed.
To fill that void, the pair created the K-12 School Shooting Database. Relying on news alerts and a network of followers on social media and elsewhere, the pair have been collecting comprehensive data since 2018, as well as archival data for the years before that back to 1970.
They recorded 118 incidents in 2018 and 119 in 2019. Yet in 2020, when many schools turned to virtual learning to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, shootings remained relatively high, Riedman told The Post and Courier. The database reported 114 shootings that year.
Since then, he said, the numbers have only grown. In 2021, they leaped to 249 incidents reported. Just four months into 2022, the database has already recorded 97 shootings.
Riedman recalled seeing reports of several shootings occurring even on the first day when schools returned to in-person classes.
Not all of these incidents necessarily involve a victim. The K-12 School Shooting Database defines a shooting as anytime a gun is brandished or fired, or when a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time of day or day of the week.
Riedman cautioned that it is too early to make firm conclusions about the rising numbers, but said shootings have certainly increased during the pandemic.
“It appears that either students are more armed than they were in the past, or these situations and disputes are escalating more rapidly than they did in the past,” Riedman said.
Riedman added that gun sales spiked during the pandemic. An estimated 16.6 million Americans bought guns in 2020, while an additional 8.4 million purchased firearms in 2021, according to a study published in February 2022 in the Annals of Internal Medicine journal.
“We know that most teenagers are able to get the firearms they use from their own homes or friends or relatives,” he said. “So just more shootings can be a proxy of increased firearm sales, as well.”
How should schools react to reports of more guns being available and weapons rising on campuses? Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said that because of the rise in threats and shootings, school resource officers need to be more attentive and prepared.
He emphasized the importance of de-escalation training and adolescent mental health courses for officers, and said only officers who have received such training should be assigned to work in schools. “We really want more officers to understand how to be the best support that they can in that situation and to recognize when they see a student acting out, it may not be because they have some kind of violent tendencies,” Canady added.
Not only did the pandemic isolate many students from their peers, but he said it also cut students off from a number of services and other help they may receive at school, from food to counseling. “Some of the folks that I trust the most firmly believe that we’ll be 10 years down the road, looking back at this track, still trying to figure out ‘How do we recover from this?’” Canady said. “And let’s face it, it’s not completely over yet.”
One positive the Post and Courier’s analysis found was the number of overall referrals didn’t noticeably increase in 2021.
The number of referrals last fall actually decreased by about 2 percent from the 111,700 there were in 2018 and by roughly 30 percent from the 152,300 there were in 2019. (Charleston County School District, the second-largest school district in the state, didn’t provide referral numbers for 2021. The total number of referrals they had in 2018 was approximately 26,300 and 28,200 in 2019. Similarly, Horry County School District, the third-largest district, didn’t provide referral numbers for 2018. They had about 23,000 referrals in 2019 and 24,900 in 2021.)
Referrals can stem from a range of issues, from showing up late to class to bullying or inciting a fight.
Lynn Collins has known violence has been increasing in schools for years through her work as executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists. As she sees it, a part of the problem is that people often only associate school violence with shootings. But she said seemingly smaller incidents, such as bullying or fighting between students, need to be addressed too to prevent violence.
“We have a tendency to be reactive instead of proactive,” Collins said.
She estimated about 20 percent of students and staff in schools had undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions before the pandemic. But then remote and hybrid learning spurred excessive screen time for children and compounded socialization issues. Top that with the added stress of living during a pandemic — enduring sickness and seeing waves of death from COVID-19 — and she said suddenly many more students and staff have returned to campuses with mental health challenges.
When a violent incident involving a weapon occurs at a school, many communities typically advocate for solutions such as more metal detectors to identify weapons, Collins said. But almost no research shows metal detectors curtail violence in schools, and sometimes the sensors can actually do harm by creating a false sense of security.
“A metal detector is not going to prevent bullying and sexual violence,” Collins added. The S.C. Association of School Psychologists has been advocating for more social-emotional learning programs, which touch upon skills such as self-management and interpersonal relationships, as well as trying to get more mental health professionals into schools.
School psychologists, counselors and social workers remain scarce in many places; South Carolina averaged one school psychologist for roughly every 1,400 students during the 2019-20 academic year, the National Association of School Psychologists reported. The national organization recommends one psychologist for every 500 students.
Collins advised against linking school violence to just mental health conditions, noting that a number of factors, including isolation or bullying can escalate situations into crises.
“Anybody in the school can get to the point where they are so escalated that they react in a potentially aggressive manner,” she added. “We’re all humans, anybody can react like that.”
With many students back in classrooms for in-person learning, Dr. Christine Mason sees this time ultimately as an opportunity to ask what we can do to make education better overall. Changes need to involve all school leaders though, not just a single classroom.
As an assistant clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine and the head of the Center for Educational Improvement, Mason explores holistic learning practices and believes learning shouldn’t be focused on just the brain.
“Many times the violence in schools is related to youth who have experienced extreme trauma in one way or another, so what we want to do is open up the heart, open up the compassion,” she said.
To recover from the last two years and cope with the pandemic as it continues, teachers should try to develop positive memories at school for students so they have a sense of purpose, Mason said. That involves teachers asking students their interests or allowing them to explore tangents while learning.
“Listening to youth and helping them get more involved in imagining their futures and designing their education — you can do so much working from that premise,” she added.
For Philbeck, the fifth grade teacher in Cherokee County, listening is at the heart of her approach. So far she has seen some positive results.
Both teacher and counselor
Philbeck sets the groundwork for a positive teacher-student relationship at the beginning of the school year. She plays games with the children, such as “Would you rather?” and reads them stories, creating a bond so they know they can come to her if an issue arises.
“They’re honest with everything they say,” Philbeck said. “And that’s simply because they know I’m not going to jump to conclusions.”
Philbeck’s school, which serves about 570 students, has two guidance counselors and they only have that many because they recently merged with another Cherokee school. To get help from one of them, Philbeck said she has to set up an appointment by going to their office and writing down what happened for the secretary, who then passes it along to the counselor.
As a result, Philback said she chooses to handle many situations herself. She asks students why they chose what they did, and pushes them to reflect if that was a good decision.
“You’re the counselor, the nurse that pulls the tooth, the nurse that puts the Band-Aid, the mama who lets them cry on your shoulder,” Philbeck said.
Her efforts to listen to her students and talk through some of their emotions has paid off. She said students’ behavior has improved since the fall. They’ve even stopped fighting so much during recess that she has allowed them to play with their basketball again.
Still, juggling teaching and mediating students takes a toll, and Philbeck is already eyeing the next school year. She said she only hopes that the incoming fifth graders, who will have already experienced a full year back in the classroom, will be much calmer.
Resources for supporting students
The National Association of School Psychologists offers educators a number of resources for crisis prevention and and mental health help:
PREPaRE Training Curriculum for crisis prevention and intervention
Facts and tips on school violence prevention
Recognizing and addressing trauma