Spike in behavior incidents has many Utah schools trying new approaches to keep students safe

Aug 31, 2023, 12:18 PM | Updated: 12:41 pm

SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah – Utah educators face a worrisome trend at the start of this school year: the number of behavior incidents in many schools has been off the charts. The Utah State Board of Education released an Incident Report for 2022, which shows a “notable” increase in a number of categories from before the COVID-19 pandemic to last the school year.

Disruptions and truancies made up the majority of the offenses. But every category, from fights to assaults, threats and bullying jumped to levels higher than before the pandemic.

Utah State Board of Education

That trend is one of the reasons student body officers at Jordan High School grilled burgers and spread chips on the buffet table at their back-to-school spirit event. Student organizers hope efforts like these do more than generate enthusiasm.

“This year at Jordan, we’re going to try our hardest to make every student feel safe and have their experience be awesome,” said student body president Hope Wagner.

Things feel less safe and awesome when she hears about fights and other things occurring in the school.

“When it comes up, I get a little nervous,” she said.

Those worries are widely felt throughout the Canyons School District.

“A concerning trend is aggressive behavior among our students,” said district spokesperson Jeff Haney.

What’s going on with the state of students?

The Utah State Board of Education’s prevention specialist points to better data collection. She said until now, incidents have been underreported.

“And that, we believe, is the reason we’ve seen a spike in, or an upward trend this year,” Amy Steele-Smith said.

Some of the state’s largest school districts disagree.

“We’ve heard from our teachers and support staff that it’s as bad as it has ever been,” said Haney.

In the Canyons School District, the number of serious infractions referred to the district for a disciplinary hearing from before the pandemic to now doubled.

In the Granite School District, leaders see the same problem.

“Behaviors have certainly been more challenging and in some instances, frankly, more violent,” said chief of staff Ben Horsley.

Safe schools violations jumped during the same time period in the Granite School District. So did assaults. And though the numbers are small, handgun violations more than doubled, from eight to 19.

Adding to the incidents: social media TikTok challenges which encouraged students to vandalize school bathrooms, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

Granger High School principal Tyler Howe saw the destruction at his school.

“Frankly, it’s been a little heartbreaking on my end as an administrator to have to have some serious consequences with kids and parents and police officers when, in their perception, it was a practical joke,” said Howe.

State education leaders say it is important to note that the vast majority of students report feeling safe at school. In fact, the state’s Student Health and Risk Prevention survey for 2021 showed that 89.4% of Utah students report feeling safe.

But exit surveys for seniors in the Canyons School District show their numbers have dropped to 53%.

School administrators know they have to address the behavior issues, and some are going back to basics.

Canyons School District will roll out a new curriculum that reteaches foundational lessons on respect and good conduct in all elementary and middle schools.

“Some of those assumptions we have about kids showing up and knowing what they’re supposed to do, we’ve had to be more explicit about teaching and re-teaching that,” said Brian McGill, director of student wellness services.

Hope Wagner, student body president at Jordan High School. (Josh Szymanik/KSL TV)

In their high schools, they believe students themselves are one of their best resources. They’re starting a program where “influencers” like student body officers will be trained to engage their fellow students and model best practices.

“To show the students what the behavior should be like and things like that,” said student body officer Wagner.

In the Granite School District, their new gun-sniffing dog, Bolt, has finished his training and has already detected weapons in schools. The district is also piloting a weapons detection system at Hunter High. Leaders say initial intelligence from law enforcement suggests kids know the system is in place and it has been a deterrent because they have not found any weapons.

Schools feel the urgency and they are trying these and other new measures to get the incident numbers under control.

“If we drop the ball on this, if don’t engage with our families, if we don’t work hard to create this safe environment, the impacts are going to be far-reaching,” Horsley said.

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Spike in behavior incidents has many Utah schools trying new approaches to keep students safe