As student violence surges, educators say mental health issues are 'absolutely through the roof' and draining teachers

As student violence surges, educators say mental health issues are 'absolutely through the roof' and draining teachers
First day of school for students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, scene of 2018 mass shooting that killed 17 Joe Raedle/Getty Images
  • Schools around the country are reporting an increase in student violence, some targeting teachers.
  • Educators told Insider it's likely linked to mental health issues that worsened over the pandemic.

At a Florida middle school, 87 students have gotten in physical fights since school began last month.

At an Illinois high school, 70 students have been suspended for violent altercations, the superintendent said.

At a New York high school, two students were cut during an altercation, causing parents to demand more safety agents.

At a Kentucky lower school, a counselor said she has assessed 26 students ages eight through 10 for suicide risk since May.

And it's only October.


"We just confiscated a gun from a 10-year-old," Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union in Florida, told Insider.

"First-graders slapped a teacher in the face, second-graders slapped a teacher in the face, middle schoolers corralled around a teacher and shoved her," she said. "Every single day I get a story from an educator."

On Friday, the nation's largest teachers union said social media has "helped create a culture of fear and violence with educators as targets," in a letter addressed to Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter that was shared with The Wall Street Journal.

Union leaders referenced the "devious lick" challenge that led students to vandalize and steal school property, as well as the "slap a teacher" challenge. TikTok removed hashtags and content related to devious lick in September.

School staff members across the country told Insider they are seeing surges in student outbursts, from vandalism and verbal altercations to gun violence and slashing.


Fusco said teachers have been trained on "how to handle a shooter when he comes in," but not on preventing violence long-term.

"All our districts care about is getting the curriculum, pounding on the academics," she told Insider. "There's nowhere near the level of training that can really make a vast difference in a student."

Now, school counselors are sounding the alarm on what they believe to be a main driver behind the violence: student mental health.

"The number of suicide threats in my own school has skyrocketed since COVID," Amy Riley, a school counselor at Mercer County Intermediate School in Kentucky, told state lawmakers on Tuesday. "Just this morning, I had to do a suicide risk assessment on a 9-year-old in my school before I came to this hearing today."

Riley told Insider that she's assessed 26 students ages eight through 10 for suicide risk since May, many of whom were then hospitalized or enrolled in therapy.


Before the pandemic, she said she would only have one or two suicide assessments a month. Now she sees two or three students every day.

Even still, Riley said she feels lucky, since many rural schools in Kentucky have just one counselor, and some have none at all. Including Riley, she said, Mercer County has a total of three.

"At least they were in school and we were able to talk to them and get them the help that they needed," she said. "What we are finding is that a lot of the symptoms of PTSD ... are being mirrored in our students who are going through this pandemic."

TaRael Kee, an assistant principal at Collinsville High School in Illinois, told Insider that there has been a "significant increase" in both student violence and student mental-health issues across the state.

Kee said they've doubled the number of school counselors since he started. Despite the additional hires, he said teachers are constantly struggling with students' emotional challenges, contributing to burnout and low morale.


"Some of our staff members are almost in a state of crisis themselves," he said.

To prevent students from resorting to violence as a result of poor mental health, Fusco said schools need more trained staff.

"What's most needed is bodies," she said. "People that are properly trained to take on this extra toll of the students with social-emotional situations."

"But if you don't have the funding for it, then you can't do it," she added. "And that's one of the biggest problems."