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As student violence increases in Las Vegas-area schools, what can be done to stop it?

Clark County School District Police Department
Clark County School District Police Department/Facebook
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Violence by students against each other and against teachers in Clark County schools is so alarming, teachers are demanding action by the school board.

This school year, the district has reported 76 uses of force by school police. Fifty-one of those were use of pepper spray. This isn’t just happening in Clark County; it’s a nationwide phenomenon that many blame on the pandemic.

Last week, a teacher was allegedly attacked and sexually assaulted by a 16-year-old student at Eldorado High School. 

When it happens, school police and teachers are the ones responding. That raises a lot of questions: What can school police do, or how far can they go to quell violence? Moreso, what about teachers? Can they be sued for trying to stop a fight if they hurt a student?

WHAT’S BEING DONE

"We did realize our officers needed to be retrained in de-escalation," says CCSD police spokesman Lt. Bryan Zink. "They needed to slow down." The officers also participate in National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) training.

Zink said the department's new chief, Henry Blackeye, has expanded the number of officers with crisis intervention training, which is used in violence-related situations and fits the mission of de-escalation first.

He said CCSD police have responded to one shooting on campus, which was at a football game at the start of the school year, and the posted statistic of shootings (26) reflect shooting reports taken near schools.

The number of reported fights, 1,400 so far this school year, is about accurate, Zink says. "Slightly higher" than prior to the pandemic.

Many of those 1,400 fights on school campuses have been posted on social media, which many wonder if it encourages students to use more violent behavior.

While he said there was no known direct link between social media and the frequency of fights, "it brings a lot of people to an area to watch a fight which causes an unsafe environment for the kids," Zink says. "It can be humiliating" for the victims, but it's not a crime, he says.

The district will provide electronic panic-button devices to teachers as it moves to boost security in the wake of incidents that include a violent after-school attack that left a teacher injured and unconscious in her classroom.

In addition to providing teachers with panic devices equipped with Bluetooth connectivity, the Clark County School District will upgrade security cameras and ask police agencies to increase their presence at schools, officials said Tuesday.

The panic devices will be issued first at El Dorado High School, the site of last week’s attack, according to the Associated Press. A 16-year-old student faces attempted murder charges in the incident.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING

"We all know there are serious challenges our students are dealing with," says Rebecca Dirks Garcia with the Nevada PTA. "The reality still exists that our kids are experiencing incidents of safety and concerns of safety. That shouldn't be happening on school campuses."

One of the greatest challenges is the level of trust between students and staff, as well as police, Garcia says. "I think it's always been a challenge, but it's grown significantly" in recent years.

WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE

Zink told KNPR in March that CCSD police must consider student and teacher privacy when it comes to surveillance cameras, as well as the cost associated with cameras in every classroom.

"We need to protect our students' privacy," echoed Marie Neisess, president of the Clark County Education Association.

In the meantime, Zink said they ask parents to take a more active role in their children’s' lives. "Many parents don't know what their children do when they leave the home," he says. 

Parent engagement is "the core of what we believe in," said Garcia. "I think there's two challenges, though. One, we as a community need to agree with that message. We need to recognize that schools can't solve everything. Schools are intended to be educational institutions. And we are asking schools every year to do more and more, whether it's food service to mental health, and sometimes it is the best place to reach our kids. But we need to be mindful of what that burden is."

"Las Vegas has a lot of opportunities for kids to get involved in things that as a parent, I may not want my child to be involved in," she said.

Leaders have urged families to use SafeVoice, an app where anonymous reports can be made regarding violence, bullying, mental health issues and more.

What can teachers do in the moment?

Neisess, who is a teacher, shares the unclear answer. She said CCSD has policies in place, but it's handled differently school-to-school. "We're not supposed to put our hands on the students," she says, "but we don't have school police on campus, and I wasn't trained to de-escalate fights."

RESOURCES NEEDED

"Our social workers have 600 students or more," and are being pulled to substitute teach. "Not every school [in CCSD] has a counselor," says Marie Neisess, the president of the Clark County Education Association. 

She says it's important for students to have those resources.

School police "should be the last resort" in a violent situation, said Garcia. "Many people don't want to see school police at all, they want to see social workers," but when violence occurs, they say, "'Well, who's going to address that?'"

She says leaders need to focus on the root issue, like conflict resolution. "Those issues should have been taught at the elementary level."

“We have seen not an increase of calls, but an increase of the violence, a lack of empathy, and a lack of respect to our adult authority,” said Brigid Duffy, juvenile division director of the county District Attorney’s Office.

Daniel from Las Vegas called into the program: "They don't get paid enough. If teachers were paid twice what they're currently paid, they wouldn't get paid enough to get involved in a fight," he said.

He shared a story from his daughter's school, where students were pepper sprayed. "You're dealing with children who are hormonal and have high emotions and can't be talked down in the same way an adult can."

Ultimately, leaders of education agreed problems need to be addressed before they turn violent, and resources are needed for that.

"We've never been funded adequately. And right now we need our social workers and our counselors more than ever, and we don't have the funding to make sure that we have them here," Neisess said.

Bryan Zink, lieutenant and spokesman, Clark County School District Police Department; Marie Neisess, president, Clark County Education Association; Rebecca Dirks Garcia, president, Nevada PTA

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Kristen Kidman is the senior producer at KNPR’s State of Nevada and is proud to be from Las Vegas.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the online editor for Nevada Public Radio. She oversees and writes State of Nevada’s online and social media content.