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Brawls in the halls
thing kids can control in school is the social order. When that
bubbles up into fighting, parents point fingers and ask,
BY NEDRA RHONE
December 20, 2004, 8:08 PM
The student from Castleton Academy,
the alternative high school in Oceanside, knew about what was
supposed to happen.
"There's going to be a fight after school
today," he said, standing with eight friends in front of Mario's
Pizza during lunch period.
one knew the reason for the fight, only that it was between two
girls and that at 2:30 p.m. they would be there to watch, to goad
and to declare a winner. "It's probably over a guy," another student
If that seems like an insignificant reason to fight, it
is only because the social world of high school operates under
different rules from those promoted by adults.
decide where they go to school. They are forced to take certain
classes. And the rules, for the most part, are set by grown-ups,
said Murray Milner Jr., a senior fellow at University of Virginia's
Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and author of "Freaks,
Geeks and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of
Consumption." They have no power to determine crucial elements of
their lives, so they take power the only way they can, creating
their own social system and maintaining their place in it, he
Even if it takes a fight.
"Status systems in
high school restrict and limit mobility into high status groups,"
Milner said. "How do you move up? It's by putting people down. There
is surprisingly little fighting given that context."
last decade, national studies such as one from the U.S. Departments
of Education and Justice indicate violent incidents in schools have
declined by 50 percent. But when fights happen, adults scramble to
figure out why.
They suspend students, increase security,
summon counselors and point fingers in blame. While students
acknowledge they sometimes fight about silly things, they said
adults should recognize that if students are part of the problem,
they also may help come up with a solution.
On a recent
afternoon at Mario's Pizza, students from Oceanside High School and
Castleton Academy debated the issue over pizza-stained
"Girls fight with each other about the stupidest
things," said Eileen Follano, 17, a Castleton student.
are very cliquish," said Colleen Cunningham, 17.
boyfriends, backstabbing and rumors are high on the list of
fight-starters for girls. Public embarrassment or physical
challenges, like bumping shoulders, are most likely to incite a
fight between guys. In either case it comes down to protecting their
"There is the whole idea that you have to prove
yourself," said Dave Suchmann, 17, a student at Oceanside High. It's
all about hierarchy, said students, and everyone wants to be
Fights like the ones in Long Beach that spread over
two days and led to the suspension of 12 students, or the one in
Wyandanch that resulted in 13 students arrested and 30 suspended,
are usually the culmination of individual disputes. Teachers may not
know what is going on until it is too late. "One of the reasons I
think the fighting breaks out is that there isn't early
intervention," Milner said.
Not all fights can be prevented,
though. "For some people, it is because you looked at me wrong or
you said something I didn't like," said Norda Henry, 14, one of the
students disciplined in the Wyandanch brawl.
what someone else has," said Ellyn Matos, 14, a freshman at
Amityville High School where students recalled the several days last
year, now referred to as "fight week," when a basketball player
risked a scholarship by fighting over a hat.
That was the
week Sabrina McCann, 17, an Amityville senior, got punched. The
fight had something to do with a former boyfriend, she said, but
more upsetting was that she was suspended for three days, for safety
reasons, and the girl who hit her was not. "I think the whole
suspending thing is not that great," she said. For some students
missing school is a bonus.
Saturday detention might be more
effective, said Jáire Dónald, 17 also of Amityville High. Or
cleaning up the cafeteria, Matos said. Or requiring suspended
students to make up days during the summer, said Aaron Turner,
Last week, district officials approved an official peer
mediation program to be run by special education teacher Jason
McGowan and one other staff member. Students said that offers the
most promise as a deterrent to fighting.
McGowan said about
20 juniors and seniors will serve as mediators, meeting once per
week or per month, for training and guest speakers. McGowan also
will attend mediation training. "Peer mediation, I think is the best
way," said Christopher Brown, 18, an Amityville senior. "It has to
be somebody that kids respect."
Such methods when seriously
implemented are probably effective, said Robert Greenberg,
superintendent of Long Beach Schools. "I think the important thing
is that kids think you are taking them seriously, their concerns and
recommendations are being viewed as valid and they are being heard,"
he said. But, "They still have to know that we are the adults ...
they have to understand that school is not a total democracy."
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