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Pandemic, mental health issues, lead to rise in behavior problems at some N.H. schools

School lockers
Amanda Loder
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NHPR File Photo
A number of New Hampshire schools are reporting an uptick in behavior problems, including fights, skipped classes and vandalism.

By the time SJ Walker returned to Keene High School this past fall, she was used to the district’s COVID tagline: “We Got This!”

But when she walked through hallways, she saw chaos.

“Everyone was like, ‘Yeah, we got this under control,’” Walker remembers. “But it was just like, everyone was running in different directions, and into each other.”

Walker wore her headphones to block out the noise and avoid social interactions. She steered clear of hallway fights, but the disruptions were unavoidable: A small group of students skipped classes daily and roamed the halls. Some responded to dares on TikTok, vandalizing the bathrooms and peeing in soap dispensers. Others staged protests at the school and got suspended.

The situation got so bad that this spring, teachers started wearing orange reflector vests and monitoring the hallways during their free periods.

But the problems haven't ended. Recently, Walker and others did a sit-in to protest peer-to-peer cyberbullying and sexual harassment in the school.

On some days, she says, she feels like she’s in a prison.

“It’s just a big, pardon my language, s--- show, is the best way I can put it,” she says.

The behavioral issues at Keene High School are severe, but they’re not unique. As they near the end of another turbulent year, New Hampshire schools are grappling with an uptick in behavioral and mental health problems that threaten to shape education even after the pandemic recedes.

Students and staff told NHPR that the majority of students have transitioned back into the classroom successfully, but as schools struggle with behavior issues, the mental health crisis looms large.

Teen anxiety and depression are on the rise in New Hampshire and across the country, and experts say that’s inextricable from behavior problems. Schools have introduced new measures to help students, including Social and Emotional Learning programs, meditation skills, counseling and sensory breaks. But the chaos of the pandemic has taken a toll.

“None of us like uncertainty,” says Steve Schlozman, a child psychiatrist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. “Our brains don’t like it; our societies don’t do well with it.”

Schlozman says during the last few years, teens haven’t gotten the predictability they need from school or from home, and that’s disrupted their development.

“So much of their brain is changing — so many experiences that they're going through are so different from day-to-day, and even from minute-to-minute, that they need the external stuff to be as consistent as possible,” he says.

When that stability is gone, some social norms start to collapse.

At Somersworth High School, junior Maggie Lanoue says the majority of students are trying their best, but there's a breakdown in communication and respect. Kids film each other fighting in the hallways and post videos on social media. They insult teachers and don’t apologize when they get reprimanded.

“The students are just like, ‘Whatever, it doesn't matter,’” Lanoue says. “They have a 'don't care' attitude about everything.”

At Manchester West High School, principal Rick Dichard attributes the increase in altercations this year in part to social media. During much of the pandemic, most students at West High School were learning remotely. Their social interactions moved online, too — and that’s where most conflicts begin.

Students post gossip and threats on Snapchat. And then they go to school, where those conflicts escalate in person.

“There’s just too much; it’s overload,” Dichard says. “When your brain gets overloaded with all this stimulus, I just don’t think you have a way to process it all.”

Dichard says once staff talk to students about their disputes in person, they usually calm down and settle their differences peacefully.

But the unrest has him on high alert. He spends more time than ever watching footage from security cameras, trying to figure out who’s instigating trouble in the hallways or cafeteria.

IMG_1389_0.jpg
Sarah Gibson
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NHPR

Much of the disruptive behavior at West High School, like many high schools, occurs in the bathrooms. Students regularly vandalize the walls with profanities and accusations of their peers, sometimes inciting fights. They also go there to unwind when social tensions and anxiety are running high.

And the response from many schools — to require bathroom passes — has frustrated students, particularly those who for a year of remote learning didn’t have to request permission to use the restroom.

Mackenzie Verdiner, a sophomore at West High School, says the bathroom pass rule has started to feel like a symbol of the lack of trust between staff and students. Recently, she says, a staff member followed her into the bathroom to enforce the rule.

“She’s yelling at me while I am taking a pee, [asking] if I have a bathroom pass,” Verdiner recalls. “Why? I don’t have all the answers; I just know that it’s ridiculous."

Christopher Barry, an English teacher at Keene High School, likens the current climate at Keene High School to a plane accident: If you have one small issue happening on its own, it's manageable; but if you have a bunch piling up at once, it's a problem.

“That's what we have happening in our schools: five to ten small issues that are just all happening at the same time," he says.

Schools are left in a tricky spot, trying to establish consistent rules to rein in behavioral issues while also treating students as individuals, each with their own set of mental health needs. Many mental health providers and school administrators say this will be schools’ central challenge next academic year.

Barry, the teacher at Keene High School, sees reason for hope. He says the district’s tagline — “We Got This” — was important to help keep spirits up during the COVID crisis. But now, people are beginning to talk more openly about the mental health toll of the pandemic.

“It's finally okay to be like, ‘You know what? This is crazy,'” he says. “And I don’t ‘got’ this.”

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