Community must work to stop fighting
Like most people, I attended school.
And because I attended school, I’m fairly comfortable expressing opinions about the state of American education. My observations often begin with the words “When I was in school,” and include a humorous anecdote about one of my wackier teachers.
But here’s the rub: It’s been years since I set foot in a public school to do anything other than interview staff or teachers.
I hear stories about school from friends and relatives who teach, but I have no idea what it’s like to be in a classroom every day, interacting with a bunch of kids. Nor do I have any sense of how math is taught today, or what kinds of books students are expected to read, or whether taking AP classes is still considered a worthwhile pursuit.
Going to school is a common experience almost anybody can relate to. We’ve all taken tests and struggled with our homework and dealt with teachers both good and bad. But if there’s one thing I can’t relate to, it’s the fighting at Schenectady’s Mont Pleasant Middle School. Nothing in my rural, predominantly middle-class New Hampshire upbringing helps me make sense of it.
At my high school, fights were rumored to take place on a nearby pedestrian bridge, but nobody I hung out with was ever involved in a fight, or knew of anybody who was. There were plenty of students I didn’t like at my high school, and I made an effort to stay away from them. But I wasn’t afraid of them, and I don’t remember ever being physically threatened by them.
According to recent reports, roving groups of teens have gotten into fights, thrown rocks at cars and houses and even broken into a house to attack an occupant. The violence has occurred after school, and city police have been a constant presence outside the building when students are dismissed. But the problems have spilled over into the school day, with students ignoring administrators and refusing to follow instructions.
Whenever I read the stories about the problems at Mont Pleasant, I wonder what the kids are fighting about.
Is it possible that they just like to fight? And, if so, why?
“I don’t think they like to fight,” Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring told me. “I think some kids are fighting to gain status. They see fighting as a way to gain status.”
Other kids “are fighting because they feel pressure to do it,” he said. “Some instances have led me to believe we might have girls feeling their parents expect them to fight.”
There’s a sense that some kids are being dared or encouraged to fight other kids, he said.
In Gazette reporter Kathleen Moore’s Tuesday article about how some parents are seeking to
transfer their children to other middle schools in the city, she told the story of a seventh-grader who had been harassed repeatedly. In one incident, a boy told her that his sister wanted to fight during lunch; she reported the incident to the principal, who helped set up a safety plan. In other words, one girl wanted to fight, and one girl didn’t. When both students want to fight, well, then you have an even bigger problem.
Spring said the fighting is not limited to Mont Pleasant students. Students from other schools are involved, as well as older teens and possibly adults. While school officials are still trying to figure out what exactly is driving the fights, and who is involved, it seems increasingly clear it’s a community-wide problem.
The students who are fighting at Mont Pleasant sound like the type of people I would cross the street to avoid.
And I’ve generally found it difficult to generate much compassion for their parents, who would appear to be falling down on the job. But Spring said a few things that made me feel some sympathy for them.
“These parents are beleaguered,” he said. “They’re tired. They’re working multiple jobs. Trying to get a hold of them is difficult.”
Many of the district’s students come from impoverished and troubled homes, and they’re angry about it, he said.
Spring said the situation at Mont Pleasant has been getting better, but he acknowledged there’s a larger cultural problem that needs to be addressed and spoke of a need for “parents, kids and the school to think differently, to work together.”
Which makes sense.
Because when fighting is regarded as normal and everyday behavior, something needs to change.
And while removing the instigators from school and bringing in the police to crack down on after-school fights is a good start, it’s just the beginning of what will be a long process.
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