School violence haunts Las Vegas teachers

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LAS VEGAS — Teachers in Clark County, Nev., say they have never felt less safe.

In February, a teenage girl pummeled another student at Vegas Valley High while the classroom mutely looked on. In April, county police reported a spate of violent incidents against staff members, including one incident in which a 15-year-old girl threatened a teacher with a pair of scissors and another in which a 14-year-old girl wielding an eight-inch kitchen knife forced a high school teacher outside his classroom.

That month, 16-year-old Jonathan Eluterio Martinez, a student at Eldorado High School, allegedly choked his teacher with a computer cord, then beat and raped her, after she’d pulled him aside to discuss his grades. Martinez was charged as an adult with multiple felonies including attempted murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.

Educators in Las Vegas and the surrounding suburbs have noticed a marked change in students since schools reopened last year. They face more disruptions and angry outbursts compared to previous years, with a few turning violent, leaving many teachers shaken, they say.

As of April 20, the Clark County Police dispatch center received 3,260 calls reporting harassment and threats and 232 reporting sexual assault. These figures have already eclipsed the number of calls for 2018-2019 (the last cycle when students attended in-person classes for the entire year), which totaled 2,340 calls reporting harassment and threats and 159 reporting sexual assault, a 46 percent rise.

“The sexual violence is astonishing,” said Alexis Salt, who teaches middle school and high school English at Indian Springs. “We knew something was going to happen because the fights [at school] have been getting progressively more violent.”

While there is no comprehensive data on school violence at a national level for the current school year, school districts across the country are reporting an uptick in bad behavior, fighting and violent incidents based on anecdotal reports. Sixty percent of people working in schools, including educators and bus drivers, have experienced physical or verbal aggression from students during the pandemic, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association. Additionally, there’s been a significant increase in the number of students showing up to campuses with guns: 249 incidents were reported in 2021 as compared to 112 in 2019.

Back to school has brought guns, fighting and acting out

Some educators say the pandemic engendered or exacerbated social problems, taking a toll on students attending class from home. Others in Clark County blame the local administration’s hurried return to in-person education. A surge in Nevada suicides forced CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara to open schools in August 2021, but teachers said that the district has provided little-to-no additional mental health resources. Instead the administration prioritized testing and school grades, they said.

The Clark County School District said in an email that it provides many options for students and staff seeking mental health resources, including teletherapy, support groups for troubled youths and a program that assists multilingual students, staff and parents in finding suitable mental health care.

“Safety is a top priority for CCSD,” said Tod Story, CCSD chief communications officer. “We have our own police department with over 175 police officers focused on providing safety on campus for safety and students.”

As children reentered school in Clark County, the fifth-largest district in the country with 320,000 students, a trend soon became clear.

“This has been a school year like no other,” said CCSD police department Lieutenant Bryan Zink. “We’ve been going crazy.”

Zink said that in addition to the uptick in violence, his department has seen a rise in students bringing firearms to school and a spike in calls to both the dispatch center and the district’s anonymous tip line, which takes calls from concerned parents and students regarding bullying or school shooting rumors.

Not every call into the dispatch center results in arrest or disciplinary action, but educators in Clark County schools said that the reported incidents only scratch the surface of what they experience day-to-day managing classrooms.

“Students are a lot quicker to resort to angry feelings than before,” said Erin Dressler, who teaches music at Bertha Ronzone Elementary School. Dressler, along with other educators, has noticed an increase in parents’ bad behavior as well. “We’ve had fights with adults, and I’ve never seen that at my school before. It feels like people are always on edge. I’ve received some of the nastiest parent emails in my 12-year career.”

A survey of 500 CCSD educators by the Education Support Employees Association found that 27 percent of teachers have felt threatened by a student and that 30 percent of teachers had to report a violent act to their administrator.

“There are a lot of things that don’t make the news,” said Vicki Kreidel, an elementary school teacher and president of the Nevada State Education Association of Southern Nevada.

Perspective: Violence over schools is nothing new in America

Some parents, like Dricka Holden, have given up on the school system altogether. Holden pulled her 16-year-old twin daughters out of school after one of them was involved in a fight at Foothill High School in March. Holden had already kept her daughters at home for multiple days because they’d heard about violent threats on campus. “They were afraid to go to school,” she said. Now Holden will home-school the girls.

Students, too, are feeling the effects of growing violence at school.

“CCSD has failed to keep us as students safe,” Gianna Archuleta, an 18-year-old, told Jara and trustees at an April 28 board meeting. “CCSD has failed to protect the very people that they’re meant to serve.”

To address the growing violence in Clark County schools, Jara has introduced a “panic button” on educators’ phone systems, which connects them directly to the school front office. The move was met with derision by many educators, who would like to see more substantive changes within the district. Nearly 600 teachers have signed a petition asking Nevada’s governor, Steve Sisolak, to do something about the problem. (Sisolak’s office did not respond to a request for comment.) Some educators have proposed that the district provide more mental health professionals, additional security and discipline for unruly students, including stricter suspension enforcement for bad behavior.

The school year has taken a toll on educators, some of whom are considering retiring from teaching. The district has already lost around 1,700 teachers this school year, a 78 percent increase in separations compared to an average school year, according to data compiled by education data firm Data Insight Partners.

“I have thought about walking away from teaching,” said Cimarron Memorial High School teacher Karlena Kulseth, who said she has struggled to manage angry outbursts in her ninth- and 10th-grade classes. “I’m thinking about leaving and I have three degrees invested in this career.”

Zoe Bernard is a reporter covering culture based in the Southwest.