Posted on February 27, 2023

She Fled the War in Ukraine but Failed to Find a Safe Haven in S.F. Middle School

Jill Tucker, San Francisco Chronicle, February 19, 2023

Everything Yana, a 13-year-old Ukrainian refugee, knew about public schools in the United States was what she had seen on television or in the movies, often idyllic settings where teenage conflict and angst ironed itself out by the end.

She never imagined herself in those American classrooms.

Then the bombs started falling after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Yana and her mom fled for their lives in March, leaving friends, family and the memories of a typical teenage life filled with choir practice, art classes and homework.

Carrying the trauma of war and few personal belongings, the pair eventually landed in San Francisco where she started the new semester in January despite speaking little English.


It didn’t take Yana long to realize that real life in her eighth-grade classes at Marina Middle School was nothing like the scenes that played out on her screen.

“I thought it was going to be better because it’s San Francisco,” she said in Ukrainian, with her aunt translating. “But after two days, I saw everything going on at the school.”

Students interrupted classes, jumped on desks, cursed at teachers. At first, Yana wondered what was going on, but then “nothing happened.” Students were not disciplined or prevented from repeat behavior.

“After one week, I understood that was normal,” said Yana {snip}

Not long after, Yana said, she became the target.

Her experience echoes what many parents and teachers have said is an escalating problem in the city’s middle schools, with bullying, violence and defiant students creating an untenable learning environment. While the situation has worried many students, staff and parents, for a girl already fleeing violence and chaos, it’s been particularly difficult.

Across the country, teachers say student violence overall has more than doubled since the pandemic began and that they are “increasingly the target of disruptive behavior in the classroom,” according to a survey released Thursday by education research firm EAB.


For Yana, the situation only got worse as the weeks went on, her fears escalating. She had escaped war, but not bullying and bad behavior by classmates.

Yana’s mother and aunt, Mariia Moroz, said the teen would come home from school and describe the chaotic scenes in her classrooms.

“She would tell us, and we were terrified,” Moroz said of the verbal abuse, hallway conflicts and classroom outbursts, adding that they told Yana to avoid eye contact and try to avoid the students acting out.

Within a month at Marina, Yana said, someone stole her cell phone in the cafeteria and then a group of students, who she believed was responsible, threatened her. Yana knew enough English to understand the gist.

“They started yelling and cursing and moving toward her,” her aunt said of the early February encounter. “A counselor came and intervened.”

The next day, Yana stopped going to school. School officials offered her a security action plan to make sure she felt safe. They also investigated the report of theft, officials said, although there was no evidence to identify who took the phone.


Yana’s aunt and mother have requested a transfer to another school, where the teen could start over without fear for her safety or an escort through the hallways, but so far, the district has denied that request and urged Yana to return with the support services offered.

So far, she hasn’t been back.