On a spring day toward the end of last school year, a sea of Albemarle High School students charged through the hallways at lunchtime. News of a fight in the cafeteria had sent the outdoor breezeway crowd scrambling inside to see, but when someone in the throng yelled “Gun, gun!” the stream became a panicked rush. “For around ten minutes, we just had a stampede going through the school, screaming,” said then-freshman Kayden Wright. “The administrators lost control of the bottom floor of the building. It was bad.” He paused, reflecting. “I think that was the epitome of what school was like last year.”
Wright described the environment to the School Board in remarks during the board’s July 14 meeting, where he begged them to prioritize school security. “Last year there were school shooting threats, violence, smoking, vaping, truancy, trespassing, and drug use, and the list continues,” he said. His focus was on protecting both students and staff. “Please don’t be complacent. How can you expect teachers or students to be successful in a learning environment if they are not safe?”
During 2021-22, the first full year of in-person instruction since the Covid-19 pandemic school closures, everyone knew that recovering “normalcy” would be a challenging and gradual process. Nearly a dozen current and former Albemarle High School (AHS) teachers and students described for the Gazette how decisions to loosen disciplinary and academic policies during that critical time made their jobs profoundly more difficult, creating an environment that was damaging to the school’s core mission.
“We as teachers felt responsible for students’ [learning loss] during the pandemic year, and when they came back we were trying to triage their trauma at the same time we were dealing with our own trauma, and we didn’t know how to do it,” said Cathy Coffman, math department chair and 22-year AHS veteran. “I think, in hindsight, that when we came back from Covid we shouldn’t have made all those changes—grading changes, not penalizing for being late to class, and others,” said Coffman. “Kids needed the structure, and we didn’t give it to them. That was our fault.”
AHS principal Darah Bonham, now in his fourth year, said that trying to enforce prior rules was unrealistic. “You have to understand the dynamic of where we were, coming back after fifteen months of [virtual and hybrid] school, where we’d had loose attendance standards and forgiving deadlines,” he said. “When [last year] started, we were literally just happy the kids were here. Trying to keep track of large numbers of attendance gaps and tardies was a very difficult task.”
To ease students back into the confines of a regular school day at AHS after a year of virtual learning, no penalties were imposed for being late to class or for leaving class without an excuse, and the limit on how many days of class could be missed while still receiving credit for a course was relaxed. As the rules and incentive systems shifted, students and teachers described the environment last year as “chaotic.”
“When the kids returned, they didn’t know how to behave, or how to get along with each other, or how to sit still for even 20 minutes,” said Coffman. “The administration didn’t know how to handle so much chaos. So, when it was decided that, for instance, we were not going to worry about penalizing tardies, well, then kids didn’t go to class.” With no mandatory attendance, students took to drifting around the school.
“When the year started, the bathrooms were bad, like really bad,” said Wright. School bathrooms became lawless zones that many students avoided, where drugs, sex, and violence coexisted with the filming and posting of provocative TikTok videos. “Someone actually stole an entire stall at one point,” said Wright.
As students made videos and posted them on social media, unrestricted cell phone use meant that any sort of (real or unreal) threat in the posts radiated through the student body in seconds, forcing the administration to issue several shelter-in-place lockdowns in as many weeks. “Some teachers [resigned] early in the school year because they couldn’t handle that kind of trauma after trauma,” said Coffman.
Later in the year, teachers were assigned to patrol certain areas of the school to keep them clear, but eventually, rather than enforcing rules on student behavior, administrators temporarily closed and locked the two largest school bathrooms for all students. Teachers said that dozens of students roamed the halls with impunity every day, but Bonham said his team was accounting for students out of class.
“I have administrators and Student Support Specialists, so that when we see kids who are not in class in the hallway, they have to go to class or they’ll go to somewhere like an in-school suspension for defiance, or we’ll contact home,” he said. “It’s a misrepresentation to say that there were kids just roaming the halls and nobody knew about it.
“We had a general rule about cell phones, which is that they must be put away during instructional time,” Bonham said, “but it became much more of an issue than we would have anticipated. Young adolescents being connected to everybody at any point in time during the day, and then coming back into a school setting where that had to one hundred percent flip—that was a difficult task.”
Even in the face of disruptions, administrators did not tighten disciplinary policies during the year, and staff had limited options for controlling behavior. “It starts with having thousands of kids in an area where we don’t have any authority presence,” said Chad Townsend, a health and P.E. teacher who’s been at AHS since 2005 and has also taught special education and ESOL students. “The kids haven’t been held accountable for their actions.”
Hosting nearly 2,000 students, AHS is the county’s biggest high school—drawing largely from the dense urban ring surrounding the city of Charlottesville—and the most diverse, recently evolving to a majority-minority student population. Built in 1953, the school has been chronically overcrowded in recent years and currently has 200 more students enrolled than its official capacity of 1,785, necessitating the use of 16 trailer classrooms set up behind the building.
Teachers said that fights between students at AHS were a regular event last year, with brawls occurring multiple times per week, some between two or three individuals and others involving large groups—even one during a Career Fair in the courtyard in front of potential employers. At times, the staff tried to step in.
“The fighting was completely out of control,” said Townsend. “I broke up a fight last year [where two students were beating up a third], and ended up with 14 stitches in my hand. One of those students had already been involved in another fight at the school, yet he was still in the building. That’s a problem.” Townsend was not the only staff member to be injured last year; a female teacher was knocked unconscious while trying to intervene in a fight.
Bonham said that claims of frequent fights in school are “inaccurate.” “There were certainly a couple of instances where there were a couple of fights [last year], be it either they were filmed, or we had one in particular where a teacher was involved,” he said. “But the notion—and you could ask any of our administrators—that the place was unruly with fights every week is not the case.”
He pointed to state Department of Education tallies, which are based on reports filed by the school’s own admin team, that listed 390 behavioral incidents at AHS last year, but just 17 events in categories defined as fighting or assault. “Every single physical altercation I can attest to was dealt with in the administration with consequences,” said Bonham, such as in-school or out of school suspensions, suspension alternatives, and mediation and restorative practices.
By comparison, Monticello High School, half the size of AHS, reported 241 incidents including 26 fights. Western Albemarle High School reported 86 incidents and one fight. “We call it ‘the fight,’” said Western principal Jennifer Sublette. “We did have an uptick in vandalism that I hadn’t seen before, and to me that’s a sign of kids not feeling a sense of belonging in school, of pride in their place. It’s an important indicator of school climate and student engagement.”
The declining school environment at AHS was accompanied by the erosion of basic civility, particularly in the way students treated adults. Teachers said their simple requests for students to get to class or turn down their music were often met with aggressive verbal pushback and foul language.
“I think a lot of the [school environment] problems had to do with the pandemic, but not all of it by any means,” said Townsend. “When you write a disciplinary referral and there are minimal repercussions, and the kid is back in your class the very next day cursing you out, it’s incredibly frustrating.”
Bonham said he and his staff “never allow” students to talk back to a staff member. “I can’t measure if kids were sassier or talked back more [last year] based on any data,” said Bonham, “but I would say that students are more likely to follow rules and do what’s asked of them when they know the adult. And essentially half the school had no connection whatsoever with the teachers, and that’s a huge factor.”
Some teachers have pointed to new grading policies as another element that fostered class disorder. In a letter sent to the School Board in March and co-signed by eight other AHS faculty members, math teacher Bill Munkacsy decried the set of significant changes mandated by the school division in 2020-21: homework is not graded, the minimum grade that can be given on an assignment is a 50% (even if no work is turned in), students can retake graded assignments and tests at will, and there is no deadline for turning in work.
“Almost none of our students are doing homework now that they have no incentive,” read the letter. “Because we cannot give a grade lower than 50%, a student can earn a “D” [passing] while only doing 20% of the graded material for a class.”
Munkacsy addressed the School Board in person at a May meeting. “This year has been utter chaos,” he said. “Students are not completing their work in a reasonable timeframe, and it is very difficult to maintain class momentum when so many students are behind. We’re now at the end of the year, the only enforceable deadline is upon us, and it’s extremely stressful for students and staff alike—we’re lost in a sea of no structure and no expectations. I implore you to consider the effects of taking away our ability to enforce reasonable expectations on our students through grading.”
The School Board never publicly discussed the problems at AHS or how they might be remedied, the letter-writers received no response from school division leadership, and Munkacsy and five other math teachers resigned or retired. Meanwhile, standardized test scores for AHS students dropped between three and five points in English, Math, and Science from 2021 to 2022. Almost 20% of AHS students were “chronically absent” as defined by the state (missing 18 or more days of school in the school year)—including 30% of Black and Hispanic students.
When asked about the school environment at AHS last year, School Board member Kate Acuff (who represents the school’s district) redirected inquiries to Principal Bonham, and said her understanding was that “things were off to a good start this year.”
Thirty-two out of about 180 AHS teachers resigned or retired last year, some among the most experienced in their discipline, many to continue their careers at area private schools. Departments like math and Spanish suffered double their normal levels of attrition, and teachers left the school at twice the rate they had during the previous (pandemic) year.
“Unfortunately, our kids did not get the best instruction they deserved this year, because every one of us [in our department] lost our planning period [due to resignations],” said Spanish teacher John Glass at a School Board meeting in May. “I’m sure you all know the situation in our hallways, in our classrooms, is not ideal, and our students and teachers are struggling. I need to know that we are supported and that you have our backs.”
Faculty say that the constant attention to discipline and security issues meant that administrators could not properly attend to their staff’s needs. “Teachers are leaving because they don’t feel valued and heard,” said Coffman. “They’re supposed to be evaluated [for job performance], but nobody walked into their classroom [to observe them]. The administrators are so busy with all the discipline that they don’t have time to really work with teachers and help them get better, support them, and tell them they’re doing a good job.”
Bonham acknowledged that it was “more of a difficult task to get into the classrooms and work with teachers as much as we wanted, just because of all the other things [going on].”
This year, some of the relaxed policies are being newly enforced. The tardy and attendance policies—the latter of which threatens to withhold course credit for 10 or more absences—are back in use. The cell phone policy now requires a teacher to first warn the student, then to contact their parent for a discussion, and finally to write up a disciplinary referral after the third violation, though the process has been slowed due in part to a new, laggy paperless system for referrals.
“It’s really about structure,” said Bonham. “[Last year] we didn’t start the year saying ‘This is our policy, this is what we’re doing.’ We were trying to get students acclimated to education again and giving them a lot of grace [in terms of rules and policy], and sometimes that’s not helpful, as we have learned. All those pieces in isolation made sense, but when you combine them together after a pandemic, trying to get back to normal social expectations, that created the need for more structure, and that’s where we had to make some changes going into this year.”
As with any big change, follow-through issues persist. “I’ve written numerous referrals for cell phone and tardy policy violations this year, but because of the volume of referrals, the administration isn’t able to address them in a timely fashion,” said Townsend. Several large fights erupted during the first few weeks of school, at least one generating an extended police presence the following day on the AHS campus. “It’s still not under control,” he said.
Still, teachers are cautiously optimistic. “I think we learned our lesson the hard way last year, and the county is making changes in discipline policies that are helping students make better choices,” said Coffman, though she still hopes that some of the new grading policies will be pared back as well. “There is more structure and enforcement of the rules—getting to class on time, not wandering in the halls—and the cell phone policy has really helped. The administration has also made a concentrated effort to get into teachers’ classrooms to offer more support and encouragement. Last year was hard for everyone—teachers and administration alike.”
Students, too, are seeing improvement. “Things have been going better with a few exceptions,” said Wright. “Transportation has been a mess and there have been a few fights, but hopefully ACPS [Albemarle County Public Schools] is on the right track.”
Lisa Martin can be reached at [email protected].