PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — The past several weeks in the Peoria area have been marked by multiple school fights, but a local professor said problems often begin off-campus.

According to a May 2021 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 25% of high schoolers and more than 20% of kids ages five to 12 reported the pandemic negatively affected their mental health.

Dr. Charles Bell, assistant professor of criminal justice sciences at Illinois State University, said many fights don’t begin in the classroom, but rather in the community or over social media,

“Some of these fights are contextual. They may have started outside of the school in many cases, and then they matriculate into the school setting because of interactions over social media,” he said.

By the time arguments spill over into school, Bell said students don’t have many options at that point.

“It’s like a lose, lose lose situation for other students, because even if you walk away, you get attacked. If you fight, you get suspended,” he said. “And what I’ve heard a lot of times from students that I’ve interviewed, is that I told the school and they did nothing, so I had no choice but to fight back and defend myself.”

Ann Bohls, behavioral health clinician at UnityPlace, said the pandemic has had a negative impact on kids’ social skills.

“At one time kids were very active, very social with one another, and because they’ve had to be so separated, the ability is socialized to work out conflicts, isn’t as it used to be,” she said. “We need to really focus on how to teach kids how to engage and do conflict management.”

She said learning skills like mindfulness and conflict resolution will help.

“The important thing is for us to communicate and keep in touch with ourselves. It’s important for parents, teachers, everyone to talk to one another about their stress to be supportive of one another,” said Bohls.

Bell recommended school administrators to get to know their students personally and build relationships with them.

“I think a lot of times if schools did a better job of understanding their students, of understanding what they’re going through outside of school, we could interrupt many of these altercations before they spilled over onto school grounds,” he said.