In Vermont schools, a school year like no other scrambles disciplinary practices

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

Chris Hennessey, superintendent of the Barre Unified Union School District, talks about the upcoming school year in the Spaulding High School library on Wednesday, July 13. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

Editor's Note: This story is a collaboration between VTDigger and the Underground Workshop, a network of student journalists from across Vermont. Student journalists Leonie Schwetlick, Cooper O'Connell and Ben Bourgeois contributed to this story.

 For more information on the Underground Workshop, please contact its editor, Ben Heintz, at [email protected]

As students returned to school in the fall of 2021, after two years of pandemic-induced disruptions, teachers and administrators quickly noted that kids’ behavior had changed. 

Since then, school administrators have reported upticks in threats, vandalism, truancy and deterioration in kids’ ability to follow directions and sit through classes.

For schools already struggling to bring on enough staff, that presented an unprecedented challenge: How should school officials respond to the rising misbehavior?

“In the years of Covid, we’ve seen kind of a double whammy,” said Chris Hennessey, superintendent of the Barre Unified Union School District. “Kiddos’ behavior is escalating because of stuff that's happening outside of school and all the trauma that's going on, combined with staffing shortages.”

“Systems can get overwhelmed pretty quickly,” he added.

After two years of full or partial remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, many hoped the 2021-22 school year would represent a return to normal. 

Ninth-graders arrive for the first day of school at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg on Aug. 25, 2021. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

But, while learning from home, younger students had simply never experienced a traditional school setting, while older students missed out on crucial years of social and emotional development, administrators say. 

And students have also contended with the anxiety of the pandemic and its concurrent societal upheavals. 

“I think there's a lot of students who are struggling right now,” said Eva Frazier, who graduated in June from Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg. “There's a lot of students still dealing with the consequences of the pandemic and loss of socialization, loss of family income, etc.”

‘A little bit more lackadaisical’

Administrators emphasized that most students are doing fine, and only a minority of students are showing behavioral challenges.

But teachers, principals and superintendents have described the past school year as one of the most — if not the most — difficult of their careers.

“We've got a capacity to deal with a certain amount of things,” said Brian Hill, superintendent of the Mill River Unified Union School District, which covers Clarendon, Wallingford, Shrewsbury and Tinmouth. “There's only so much time in a day that an assistant principal can spend meeting with students around discipline issues.” 

That has left students in confusing situations. 

In interviews, students at three schools described environments where the expectations for students’ behavior had changed during the pandemic.

Students walk by school bus
Students arrive at U-32 for the first day of school on Sept. 8, 2021. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

At U-32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier, one student said that over the past year, rules about wearing masks were enforced strictly — even as other rules were loosened. 

“I feel that masking has become the most prevalent issue,” said Aiden Lawrence, a rising senior at U-32. "Over even schoolwork.”

Another rising senior, Cam Mooreway, said enforcement of many rules, including masking rules, had grown lenient since the beginning of the year.

“I think just in general, it's been a little bit more lackadaisical,” Mooreway said.

At Champlain Valley Union High School, "there's definitely been a growing awareness around social justice issues and equity in school,” said Frazier, the former student. “I think that's reduced, sometimes, the tolerance for bad behavior in terms of harassment etc.”

But, she added, teachers had lowered their expectations for classwork.

"Teachers are definitely less strict on schoolwork in most classes,” she said. “I think they understand students are going through a lot.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Bella Broich, who will enter her second year at Bellows Free Academy St. Albans in the fall.

“We have less homework, along with them not being as strict about it,” Broich said. But, she noted, teachers were cracking down on students using cellphones during class.

Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans on June 21, 2021. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“They also take our phone more often,” she said. 

Many administrators gave similar assessments, saying teachers wished to be patient with students who are struggling. But in some cases, they said, schools have imposed discipline that is stricter than in past years.  

‘It’s not what anybody wants to do’

For years, Vermont schools have tried to phase out traditional discipline — detention, suspension, visits to the principal’s office — in favor of “restorative practices.”

Those practices, intended as a way to address misbehavior without discipline, can include classroom discussions, mediated dialogue between a perpetrator and victim, and alternatives to punishment, such as cleaning up a mess or helping a wronged student.   

Restorative policies “build healthy school climates by creating space for people to understand one another and develop relationships; when things go wrong, restorative approaches create space to address needs, repair relationships, and heal,” a consultant wrote in a 2017 report for the Vermont Agency of Education. 

As data has accumulated showing that minority and marginalized students are more likely to face discipline, Vermont lawmakers have also worked to limit suspensions and expulsions.

But, as behaviors deteriorated over the 2021-22 school year, staffing shortages left schools with fewer resources than ever to address them — meaning that restorative practices were at times left by the wayside.

Struggling students are “going to need some more adult support,” said Ryan Heraty, superintendent of Lamoille South Unified Union School District, which covers Elmore, Morristown and Stowe. “And this year, we've been put in a position consistently where that support just is not available.”

Advocates have reported that “exclusionary discipline” — suspensions, expulsions and other removals from classrooms — has increased amid staffing shortages during the pandemic.

Some administrators have said those staffing shortages forced them to resort to more traditional discipline. 

Chris Hennessey, superintendent of the Barre Unified Union School District on Wednesday, July 13. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

“We're really trying to stay away from the old-school, traditional, detention-suspension stuff,” Hennessey said. “But there happened to be some cases where we have had to take that more traditional approach.”

“It's not what anybody wants to do,” he added.

State officials have not yet published data about school discipline during the past academic year. But advocates say some suspensions happen informally and are not even reported

Expectations for student behaviors last year were also affected by “the level of exhaustion and feeling of burnout amongst educators,” said Amy Wheeler-Sutton, co-director at the Vermont Building Effective Strategies for Teaching (BEST), a group that provides training and resources to school staff about students’ social and emotional well-being.

“For educators who are burnt out and not very well themselves, it is much easier to send (a) student away,”  Wheeler-Sutton said, “rather than try to process and change something within their environment to improve the behavior.”

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Peter D'Auria

About Peter

Peter D’Auria covers education for VTDigger. Prior to moving to Vermont, he worked for The Jersey Journal, The Chilkat Valley News and Willamette Week. He is originally from Portland, Oregon.

Email: [email protected]

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