The COVID-19 pandemic affected Brattleboro Union High School, bottom left, in myriad ways.

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BRATTLEBORO — As a long school year filled with fights, bathroom floodings and threats winds to an end, many Brattleboro Union High School students are left wondering: “Why was this school year so crazy?”

After almost two years of pandemic-interrupted learning, Brattleboro Union High School fully reopened on Sept. 1, 2021, to a particularly violent school week. It could not be confirmed by school officials that fights and physical altercations rose into the double-digits during this early part of the school year.

High schoolers later endured a shooting threat and more student conflicts through October, not to mention an onslaught of “hallway wanderers” and “bathroom bandits,” who trashed the communal restrooms schoolwide.

Pressure from the pandemic appears to have affected many school benchmarks, some in unexpected ways, from truancy and dropping out, to fights and suspensions. With input from school officials and students, Vermont News & Media took a closer look at how the pandemic still is playing a role in the high school community.

Many fights

Unprecedented: That was the amount of conflict in the opening months of school, as Principal Steve Perrin put it in an October email.

“Despite the hard work of the teaching and counseling staff, we’ve seen an increase in conflicts from fall 2019, both verbal and physical,” he said. “We have also seen an increase in inappropriate texts and images online, as well.”

The start of the 2021-2022 school year was especially rough for students entering the ninth grade.

“This particular freshman year had a hard time because of COVID,” Vice Principal Chris Day said during a recent interview. He noted that freshmen were more likely to have behavioral problems than upper-classmen in a grade-to-grade comparison.

High dropout rate this year

Perhaps one of the more noticeable statistics has been this year’s dropout rate. So far, during the 2021-22 school year, 52 students have dropped out of the high school. Of the dropouts, 11 students went to Vermont Adult Learning; two enrolled in the Northlands Job Corps Center; three withdrew; 36 had 10-day truancy in which attempts to contact parents failed; and another 36 had either an education support plan or an individualized education plan that connects them with councilors, social workers, the engagement coordinator, assistant principals and the dean of students regularly.

School officials said there is not a significant relationship between discipline and the dropout rate.

“This is a tough one. We’ve had more dropouts than we have had before. It’s also statistically true that if you struggle your ninth-grade year, it becomes that much harder to graduate, so we are putting programs into place to make the transition from eighth to ninth grade smoother,” Day said. “One thing we’re doing this year is incorporating eighth graders into advisory, so they can start getting to know people beforehand.”

Suspensions down

Despite the schoolwide increase in behavioral problems, suspension numbers have decreased. From the 2012-2013 school year to 2017-2018, the number of students suspended annually averaged 183 students per year.

Before the pandemic split a year in half, the 2018-2019 school year saw the suspension of 193 students.

However, this year, only 167 students were suspended.

Adjusted bar for middle schoolers, freshmen

As with many schools nationwide, the bar for school punishment has been adjusted to accommodate students’ emotional well-being through and after the pandemic.

“Absolutely, but we treat them with softer gloves. … They were cheated out of their middle school experience. So, for them to come back to high school basically from elementary school was a long bridge,” Day said.

Nancy Johnston, the school improvement coordinator, added that the middle school experience gives students an opportunity to meet new peers, and “also to learn how to behave in a situation where you’re not in the same classroom all day.”

Restorative justice program

This year, 150 high school students were referred to the school’s restorative justice program. In addition to the 17 students referred to the program from Brattleboro Area Middle School, 13 percent of students were referred for fighting; 50 percent were admitted for using racial slurs, bullying or harassing; 17 percent from teacher-related conflicts; and 20 percent from other conflicts.

The school’s restorative justice program has been in place for 15 years.

“It teaches kids a different way of approaching conflict,” Johnston noted.

Day said it’s a nonpunitive way to resolve conflict between students, or between students and teachers, including disagreements that began online.

“It’s a deliberate process where I would talk to you first, and I talk to Nancy, and we both agree with what the ground rules are. Then we come in, and we have that hard conversation under a supervised and structured manner. If it’s done well, it goes very well, as in you two have kind of cleared the air; you said what you need to say, and now you’re able to exist in the building together again,” Day said. “It encourages kids to have those more challenging conversations in person.”

‘Hallway wanderers’

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This school year also saw the proliferation of the “hallway wanderers,” notorious for aimlessly roaming throughout the school during class periods.

“On Zoom, if I opted not to be on a call, it wasn’t harming anybody else. But now, when students choose not to go to class, they can be in the halls. They can be a little bit disruptive. And so, they’re impacting the larger community,” Johnston said.

There’s an engagement problem, Day said.

“It’s easy to check out. When those kids who didn’t want to engage came back and had to engage, they found other ways to not engage,” he said.

Still clouds of vaping, dustups

Currently, not much has improved. Hallways are, for the most part, fighting grounds for some students. Bathrooms reek of cannabis and vape clouds, and are littered with open milk cartons, McDonald’s detritus, cake, Kool-Aid and more.

Anecdotally, students and staff attest to vaping and substance use as a major problem at the high school this year. All the bathrooms are smoke and vape spots, they said.

“I have no data to back it up, but vaping is bad: It’s really bad now,” Day said.

‘Bathroom bandits’

Another bathroom problem: Students also dealt with schoolwide bathroom closures caused by the deliberate flooding of toilets with paper. These so-called “bathroom bandits” robbed school restrooms of soap dispensers, which continued well into February and March. As a precautionary measure, janitors uninstalled bathroom mirrors and have yet to return them because of the ongoing fear of theft.

Guidance challenges

Meghan Pacheco, a guidance counselor for 10th and 12th graders this year, said there are new struggles that counselors face because of the pandemic. Before COVID, students could just drop in for a visit with a guidance counselor.

“When there was that proximity distance, it became up to my reaching out to students to engage them: ‘Have you done this?’ ‘How’s this going?’ ‘What’s up with this?’ And so, it just created a distance in that connection, as well, and shifted how a student accesses us for support or information,” Pacheco said.

She said she thinks students are now starting to rebound slowly.

“My 10th graders, who were ninth graders last year, are now beginning to realize the role councilors play in different settings,” she said.

Pacheco also connected the lack of student-adult influence to the increase in behavioral problems.

“I think students had to come up with other coping strategies, and as we shifted back into in-person, five-day-a-week schooling, they had strategies that weren’t potentially school appropriate or conducive to being in this building from 8:45 to 3:30,” said Pacheco. “We’re slowly shaking that out and trying to really work on making connections again, so that we can shift those coping strategies.”

A toll taken

For current seniors who can recall a typical year of high school, two years of isolation and interrupted learning have taken their toll. The implications are still felt to this day, students said.

“I feel like people are really, really depressed. I’ve seen an influx of people just hating their lives,” said Kia Adams, a graduating senior.

Other seniors, like Oskar Lehnartz, agree that two years of isolation greatly affected the ability of students to be part of the larger school community.

“When I was a freshman, I felt like I knew my place, to say it bluntly. Some kids act like fifth graders, but they love hotboxing the bathrooms,” Lehnartz said.

Community-building events

In the last months, BUHS hosted several successful community-building events to foster engagement among students. Events such as Unified Basketball and Special Olympics bocce drew large audiences in early April. Diversity Day and the prom also had huge turnout on May 6 and 7.

Students also were treated to an outdoor assembly when Brattleboro alum and Nobel Prize winner Jody Williams spoke on Natowich Field on May 17.

The guidance department is trying to be intentional about the way it supports students now and in the future, with the aim being reconnection.

“We cannot support students the same way we did in 2017, because we would have to ignore the experiences students have had over the last three years. Our priority needs to be reconnecting students and other BUHS students and students and faculty members,” said Pacheco.

Alexander Belogour is a graduating Brattleboro senior from Southern Vermont. He plans on attending UMass-Amherst next spring.