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Long Island News Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Brawls in the halls
The only thing kids can control in school is the social order. When that bubbles up into fighting, parents point fingers and ask, ‘Why?’

Ellyn Matos

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December 20, 2004, 8:08 PM EST

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.

No 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 said.

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.

Students can't 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 said.

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."

In the 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 trays.

"Girls fight with each other about the stupidest things," said Eileen Follano, 17, a Castleton student.

"Girls are very cliquish," said Colleen Cunningham, 17.

Stolen 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 status.

"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 known.

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.

"Everybody wants 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, 15.

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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