Las Vegas covid violence in schools The nation's fifth largest school district has seen a jump in violent incidents since returning from 15 months of virtual-only classes.

Las Vegas struggles with rising violence in schools

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In Las Vegas, Nev., a 16-year-old student is facing charges of attempted murder and sexual assault for attacking his teacher in her classroom. It doesn't appear to be an isolated incident of violence in the nation's fifth-largest school district. NPR's Kirk Siegler has been in Las Vegas. Kirk, you found that this attack is part of a sharp rise in violence since the pandemic. So what's going on there?

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Well, the statistics aren't perfect, but if you look at calls from Clark County schools to police dispatch, there have been more than 8,300 responding to violence so far this school year. And that's some 1,300 more calls than in the entire 2018-2019 school year.

MARTINEZ: And we know nationally, there's been some reporting of an uptick in harassment and violence against teachers. But is the situation worse in Las Vegas?

SIEGLER: It may be. One thing that everyone seems to point to is the fact that kids went into virtual learning for a full year and three months. You had a lot of social isolation on top of the fact that the pandemic hit the city's economy very hard with the tourism sector shutting down. There's been a lot of stress in the city. And the thing is, A, it's not just students attacking teachers or doing the fighting. It's parents, too.

MARTINEZ: Clearly, a lot of families just stressed out together.

SIEGLER: Yeah. And another recent attack that's been all over the local news happened at Desert Oasis High School. It's on the southern outskirts of the city, which is where we're going to go right now. This YouTube video captures a brawl in the high school quad. And you can see a dad right there in the middle taking swings.


SIEGLER: It's chaos. There's a principal, teachers trying to break it up. And there were several brawls that continued for days, with Desert Oasis having to be repeatedly locked down. Parents like Cherish Morgan were outside on the sidewalk, frantically texting their kids trapped inside.

CHERISH MORGAN: Listen. Our principal and our teachers should not be jumping on top of a parent to stop him from beating a student. There's no world where that is OK. There's just not.

SIEGLER: In the world of Vegas, violence has long been a problem. The mafia put this town on the map, after all. But since the pandemic, things have been especially tense with violent threats, harassment, theft, assaults and guns increasingly spilling into places many once thought safe.


SIEGLER: After the traumatic lockdowns, Cherish Morgan organized parents and students to pressure the Clark County School District to crack down on expulsions. They're also demanding more security and training for teachers.

MORGAN: I heard a commercial this morning on my way here that there are martial arts facilities in the area offering free classes to CCSD teachers.


She's serious. At least three studios here are now doing this. Many teachers say they just don't feel like school district leaders or the community have their backs.


SIEGLER: Across the city, another day at Bonanza High School has wrapped, and biology teacher Ariane Prichard is exhausted.

ARIANE PRICHARD: When you're constantly having to worry about your safety and your students' safety and what's going on in the hallways and what's going on in the community around, it's very difficult to focus just on teaching and focus on the students' needs in your classroom.

SIEGLER: She thought about quitting teaching altogether, but she knows the district is already short a thousand educators. Prichard's classes were 40 students deep at the start of the year. She's written more kids up for discipline than in any of her 14 years teaching. People here say things have gotten a little more manageable of late but only because more kids are truant.


UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Can you run a name and a VIN?

SIEGLER: Sergeant Ben Abarca says he's seeing more truancy on patrol in east Las Vegas. Some get into trouble in these streets or become victims themselves.

BEN ABARCA: You guys go to Chaparral? Why you not in class? All right. Go on campus.

SIEGLER: Abarca is with Clark County Schools PD. The district has its own police force. The force also has an officer shortage, just as the violence has risen in both the schools and the city.

ABARCA: It's a lot of people like to blame the pandemic, but the kids have been in school for over a year now. I think it's a community issue, and I think everybody has to do their own part, including us.

SIEGLER: Violent crime is up in major American cities. And in Vegas, Abarca is seeing a lot more shootings.

ABARCA: So we've had two here, right here. So that's - what? - about 20 feet from the school.

SIEGLER: In black shades, Abarca is a tall hulk of a man, a former Marine who served in Iraq. He's soft-spoken but can look imposing.

ABARCA: I've been spat on. I've had a female pick up a pen and try to stab me with it, like, two weeks ago. Get punched, kicked - just the respect isn't there like it used to be.

SIEGLER: Today, which he considers slow, there are some 20 active calls across the district, which has 300,000 students. They're popping up on his laptop as he drives.

ABARCA: A fight at a middle school, a fight at a high school, drugs at a middle school, threats to an elementary school.

SIEGLER: Abarca stops to interview a secretary who took that last threat, called in by a mom who was apparently mad that her daughter was disciplined.

UNIDENTIFIED SECRETARY: She said, that's why your schools all get - the schools all get shot up.

SIEGLER: The sergeant figures the parent probably has mental health issues. Nevada ranks last in the nation for mental health access. There were 18 suicides during the one year and three month schools here went all virtual. Jesus Jara is the CCSD superintendent.

JESUS JARA: Do I think it was too long? I say we were doing everything we can, everything we could at that time, not knowing, not having a playbook.

SIEGLER: Jara announced a slate of new safety measures after the 16-year-old student who attacked his teacher was charged with attempted murder. They include adding panic buttons in classrooms, more security cameras and tougher penalties for scofflaws, as well as more mental health services.

JARA: The violence and the acts is what we're seeing across the country. And it's not just in schools, right? I mean, we're seeing it around adults. So it's now, how do we refocus our children to make sure that they stay focused in the classroom?

SIEGLER: But as the district tries to address the rise in violence, Jara says they also face a $6 billion deficit in maintenance and infrastructure. A new ad hoc group of parents and students is calling on Nevada's governor to hold a special legislative session to address the crisis. One of the activists is 18-year-old student Gianna Archuleta.

GIANNA ARCHULETA: Morale is low. People don't want to be here. And it's honestly just incredibly sad to see because there are a lot of people here who could do a lot of good, but they don't want to be in this environment anymore because of what's happening.

SIEGLER: The district is using federal funds for recruitment and retention bonuses for its beleaguered staff. They say the violence tends to be perpetrated by only a small group of students, and things have quieted down some as the end of the school year approaches.


SIEGLER: At Valley High School, staff are trying to focus on the positives and scheduling fun things like this mariachi band for Cinco de Mayo.


SIEGLER: Principal Kim Perry-Carter says some of the most troubled kids who recently returned to school are out on that cafeteria floor dancing. Some sense of normal and stability is what they need, she says.

KIMBERLY PERRY-CARTER: You know, we have three social workers on our campus, phenomenal social workers. But those three social workers can't reach 2,800 students. And I will say, out of all 2,800 students, it's a small group of students that are causing problems.

SIEGLER: But staff are spread thin, she says, an urgent plea for help and one of the country's largest public school systems. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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