Why This Teenage Ukrainian Refugee Prefers a War Zone to American Public Schools

Diego Grez, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Even though I graduated from high school over 20 years ago, I still have a few vivid memories from my school years. I was bullied like I think most people experienced at some point for various reasons; being too smart, not being smart enough, being poor, being fat, being a nerd.

While school years have never been easy as it’s your first social experiment learning to interact with others different than yourself and navigate emotional landmines, it is undoubtedly more challenging to be a kid in school these days than 20 years ago. This new generation has to contend with the poison of social media, and competing ideologies, all while some were rocked by the obvious damaging policies put in place during the COVID pandemic.

However, the experience of a Ukrainian refugee should put a shock into our system as parents, lawmakers, and citizens. Our schools are literally turning into war zones, and nobody seems to care.

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Our New Normal

Like many young Ukrainians, Yana fled last year and settled with her Aunt and mother in San Francisco. This 13-year-old girl began 8th grade this year, and her experience was less than ideal, to put it lightly.

Within the first week, Yana realized that American schools could be just as dangerous as the war zone she fled. As she told a local newspaper, “I thought it was going to be better because it’s San Francisco. But after two days, I saw everything going on at the school.” 

What did young Yana witness? She saw students repeatedly interrupt classes, cause massive disturbances, and blatantly disrespect teachers. 

As Yana put it, she realized that this was all “normal” for the school as “nothing happened” to the students who would act out. But, as if that wasn’t enough to burst this poor girl’s bubble on her thoughts of America and San Francisco, she had her cell phone stolen, was viciously bullied for being a refugee, and threatened.

When the school district refused to transfer her to another school where she may feel safer, her Aunt and mother pulled her from the school entirely. In her own words, she’d rather return to Ukraine than go back to an American public school.

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Trending Violence

The middle school that Yana was attending has had issues with violence among its student population since before her arrival. Students have recorded videos of themselves beating up other students, and three female students assaulted a special-education student, all without suspensions or disciplinary actions taken by the school.

There has been incredible teacher and counselor turnover at the school due to this sort of activity, with many reporting that, on average, anywhere from five to 15 students at a time loiter in the hallways during classes. I hate to be the old fuddy-duddy here, but I will go ahead and drop this oldie but goodie… back in my day, you couldn’t be in the school hallway during class without a pass.

In addition, teachers have reported getting screamed at by students and food fights happening regularly. But this sort of activity isn’t unique to this one school or even to the state of California.

On the other side of the country, my home state of Virginia has had some disturbing violent events in public schools. Recently a video emerged of a 7th-grade boy getting choked on a school bus in Virginia. 

We can’t forget the Newport News, Virginia school where a six-year-old shot his teacher. In addition, it’s been revealed that a 5th grader recently texted his classmates that he plans to “pop some bullets” into his peers and teachers in that same school.

Finally, the recent suicide of 14-year-old Adriana Kuch shocked the country for about a day. She killed herself days after a video emerged of her being horrendously beaten in the hallways of her school.

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The Blame Game

The rise in juvenile violence in our country is blamed mainly on one of this country’s favorite scapegoats, the COVID-19 pandemic. The argument is that the two-year shutdown of the nation’s schools stunted the emotional development of an entire generation of American children.

Indeed, the shutdown of public schools and society, in general, didn’t do anybody any favors, including America’s youth. Still, you can’t put the blame solely on the pandemic and the poor public health policies that ensued.

A fair amount of blame needs to be placed on the legal system in many of these states. For example, in New York, a policy has made it so that you can’t charge youth with major crimes if they are under 18.

So what has this told youth in that state? That you can get away with everything just shy of murder, and in some cases, more than likely, you can get away with that too.

Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C. are all working to adopt this same policy because adopting failed policies is what our legislators do best.

Speaking of terrible policies, many also blame the schools themselves. After all, aren’t they supposed to be in charge of our children when they are in their care?

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Flimsy Justice

In the past decade, a new trend has been pushed into the education world vernacular called “restorative justice.” This concept is based on mediation and agreement rather than punishing students who act out.

Like most terrible ideas, this one is born out of a desire to make schools more ‘equitable,’ stating that statistically, more black students are suspended or expelled than white students. 

Professor Thalia Gonzalez explains, “That’s the problem with punitive discipline such as suspension and expulsion. You get removed and then you just come back.” Gonzalez says, “There’s nothing done to reintegrate into the community and rebuild the climate, the connectedness, the sense of safety…”

Interesting argument, I would counter with that is the nature of consequences. When you act out and damage the class climate, destroy the ‘connectedness,’ whatever that means, and are the cause of the lack of safety, you must suffer the consequences and own your part. 

But you still can’t pin the blame for our children acting like hooligans solely on the shoulders of school administrators. While policies, legislators, and schools indeed share in their culpability – the blame rests squarely on those ultimately responsible for these kids.


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Look in the Mirror

The truth is our children’s behavior is primarily our responsibility as parents. Unfortunately, for too long, public school has been viewed as a substitute for parenting versus a place where children are meant to learn.

For too long, we’ve expected the government to help us parent. But, even scarier, there is a strong push for the government to do even more as if the government has ever made anything better.

The statistic that black children are suspended and expelled more than white children is notable, but the analysis is off. The idea that this is due to some form of systemic racism misses perhaps another glaring statistic.

In 2021 the percentage of black children in America living in a single-parent household was a staggering 64%. Compare that to Asian children (16%), white children (24%), and Hispanic children (42%). Could it be that children do better with both parents in the home?

Technology also plays a part and our allowance of it into our children’s lives. In 2017 two in five kids under eight had their own tablets. A Stanford study done last year found that the age at which most American kids receive their first cell phone is between ten and 12.

Go to any family restaurant in America. I guarantee most kids, from toddlers to teenagers, are on their phones or tablets. Look at the parents; I bet they are also on their phones.

We have opted for easy outs such as phones and tablets to ‘parent’ for us versus, you know, parenting. God forbid our kids color with their crayons on their kid’s menus or just be bored. 

Learning to live in a state of boredom is an important life skill because most adult life is filled with boredom. So, our kids are violent, ill-prepared for society, uneducated, and rotten because of us.

Perhaps we should be learning parenting skills from our Ukrainian friends instead of listening to pie-in-the-sky experts who preach nonsense such as ‘gentle parenting.’ 


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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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