Fighting for change: examining the combative culture at West High
A heightened number of in-school physical altercations has drawn the attention of both students and the administration. In response to these incidents, the WSS is investigating the perspectives of both students and administrators to determine both the causes and effects of fights at school.
January 7, 2020
It starts with a loud shriek.
Shortly after, the pounding of shoes racing down the linoleum hallway can be heard from inside the main floor classrooms. Teachers seal off their class from the outside noise in fear of the anarchic riot ensuing in the hallways, where the order is determined by the masses.
Eager students swarm to the scene as a circle of cell phones begin to record for later sharing. With the crowd’s encouragement, two students engage in one of the many fights that have occurred at West High this year.
While the school does not keep official data on fighting statistics, assistant principal Luke Devries stated there has been “an increase this year compared to last year.” This statement is especially troubling considering students are not even halfway through the 2019-2020 school year.
In an effort to better understand our school’s social dynamics and determine the causes of the growing number of fights this school year, West Side Story has gathered perspectives from both students and faculty to address West High’s combative culture.
The story below has been broken down into three distinct sections detailing the events before, during and after a fight.
Raised in violence
While there are students at West High who encourage physical violence, either as participants or bystanders, there are also plenty of students who have left fighting in their past.
Demetrick Byars ’20 is originally from the south side of Memphis, which he describes as “pretty hectic for violence and poverty for African-Americans.” Byars recalls fighting other children as early as first grade and feels there are certain times when an individual is justified in defending oneself.
“My personal stance on fighting and when it’s being justified is when you’re being bullied or if someone is constantly wanting to fight you and you have to defend yourself,” Byars said. “I don’t think it’s okay to fight if it’s a he-said, she-said situation or if a person is calling you this or that.”
Nathan Wankana ’21 transferred to West High from Liberty during the middle of the second trimester and immediately felt the impact of the fights at West High. Wankana, who is originally from Congo, feels fights at West High are much more rampant than at his previous schools.
“Literally my first week I witnessed a fight, a big fight broke out and it was crazy. It took a decent amount of time for teachers to break up the fight because there was one and then more people just started getting involved and stuff,” Wankana said. “It’s very different from what school is like in Africa. Here fights just happen, people get into stuff very easily.”
Byars and Wankana also noticed that most recent fights seem to be featuring more female students than male students, which was not the case two or three years ago.
“When it first started out I always heard it was just guys. It just went from guys to girls,” Wankana said.
Byars also noted that those involvednare often underclassmen, and believes that age and maturity could be motivating the altercations.
“It’s more of the younger students from junior high school bringing drama over,” Byars said.
Here to help
For students experiencing interpersonal issues or violent tendencies, Student & Family Advocates John Roarick and Jamie Schneider are available for conflict resolution. Roarick and Schneider work closely with assistant principal Luke Devries to give students plenty of strategies to cope with their issues in a non-violent manner.
“We give them opportunities or tell them to come to us if they know they’re going to fight and we are trying to make it better,” Roarick said. “They usually get caught up in the moment and don’t exercise that option.”
Roarick and Schneider meet with students daily to discuss a variety of topics ranging from attendance to homelessness and suicidal thoughts.
For many students involved in fights, Roarick is able to identify the underlying motives and, although their behavior is unwarranted, understands the reasons they act out during school.
“All of the kids that I’ve worked with that are in fights are having very, very bad days and they’re usually going through something in their personal life,” Roarick said. “Their worst moments are very public in front of others.”
One reason Roarick feels this school year has seen an uptick in fights is the closure of Theodore Roosevelt Education Center (TREC) at the end of last school year. TREC previously served as a place for students struggling at their home campuses with behavior or violence issues to transition back into high school.
The district was forced to close the building after facing nearly $5 million in damage repair costs that included repairing windows and roofing and replacing a dilapidated boiler.
“Kids could go [to TREC] if for some reason the building was too much for them and they needed extra support,” Roarick said. “Some of these kids after their first or second fight would have gone there but they don’t any more.”
Regardless of which students are in the building, Roarick and Schneider are determined to produce an environment where each and every student feels safe and protected.
“We’re hoping in all these fights that nobody feels that they were targeted … We don’t want any fights, but we never want to feel like there’s a perpetrator and a victim,” Roarick said. “These are fights that have two consensual fighters that have had the option to not fight but elected to fight.”
West High’s assistant principal Luke Devries interacts with dozens of students every day to mediate issues and resolve conflicts between students.
“For every fight you see we probably prevent 10 more fights,” Devries said. “Mr. Roarick and I do a lot of student-to-student mediation working with kids. [We teach] different ways to solve problems through ways that don’t involve physical violence.”
Over the years, Devries has found that most fights occur between students who used to be very close, and that minor disputes are often blown out of proportion by social media.
“A lot of conflicts start between kids who used to be friends or are friends. Conflicts over boys or girls, something with the opposite sex,” Devries said. “A lot of times it’s been building up on social media and there have been talks about fighting and they’ve kind of backed themselves into a corner with comments they’ve made on social media.”
Although Devries and the administration are often unaware of the social media antics between students, they have plenty of ears on the ground in the form of tip-offs from students close to the situation.
Devries encourages students with knowledge of fights or potential altercations to stop into his office or speak with Roarick before the incident occurs.
“As bystanders, if you hear a fight or hear about a conflict I’d encourage kids to report it,” Devries said. “We never out anybody who comes in and reports it. We have kids all the time that come to us and trust us.”
Through the aforementioned student-to-student mediations and helpful insights provided by students, Devries and the rest of the administration are able to be proactive towards potential fights and deescalate tense situations before they even occur.
“That kind of goes on behind the scenes that nobody sees but we certainly want students to know that we’re there and we can give them another option other than fighting,” Devries said. “We’re here to prevent [fights] instead of just acting afterwards.”
If punches and tackles are the heart of a fight, the unruly mob of onlookers would be its lifeblood. Those who look on as these incidents occur, often known as “bystanders,” are part of what escalate fights and are oftentimes the reason they break out in the first place.
Aniyah Flynn ’22 frequently finds herself near the scene of a fight. As someone who is acquainted with students involved in these altercations, she often hears the backstories and rationale behind why they break out.
“I think fights are a laugh because they’re just entertaining, a lot of these girls here fight people over a boy and that’s so stupid,” she said. “Like [my friends] say it’s not cute. Fighting is not cute.”
Flynn has also seen the effects that large crowds and social media buzz can have on the momentum of fights.
“It all depends on like if the crowd is like gassing them up like, ‘Ooh she’s gonna win, she’s gonna win,’” she said. “[…] There’s always that one person that posts [the fight] and you see it and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s very entertaining.’ And like, ‘Dang, where was that at?’”
As much as fights draw an audience, it is rare that students watching will step in to resolve the conflict. According to Flynn, students aren’t usually acquainted with those involved in the fight and thus won’t step in to help.
“If I know [who’s fighting], and like I know like, why they’re fighting them, then I’ll step in, but like if it was like some random girl, no, I’m not going to,” she said.
The frequency of fights at West also poses the question of why students choose to fight on-campus as opposed to off, and whether or not West is creating a ‘safe space’ for fights to break out.
“The teachers and administration want the kids to be in a safe environment, but like currently, it’s not a safe environment,” Flynn said. “But also like, if [students] were really angry at that person, then they wouldn’t care about the consequences that come with it, right?”
Reacting on instinct
Special education teacher Rick Hancox has witnessed plenty of fights in his seven years teaching at West High. Recently, however, Hancox feels the culture of peer pressure and instigation have risen, resulting in an increase in altercations this school year.
“What’s really disturbing is not the fight itself so much, but the attitude around the fight,” Hancox said. “The fact that social media now has become such a huge thing. I feel that more fights are happening at school now because of the attention that’s given to them by their peers.”
English teacher Kerri Barnhouse has been teaching at West High for 26 years and feels the crowds of onlookers and instigators have remained problematic. Barnhouse recalls a severe fight between two male students early in her teaching career that mirrors the picture seen in our hallways today.
“The thing that upset me the most, and I remember getting upset as I’ve probably ever been as a teacher, was the kids trying to run out of my room to go watch it,” Barnhouse said. “No one wanted to intervene, no one wanted to stop it, they just wanted to watch it. That has not changed.”
While the crowds surrounding the fights have remained animated and disturbing, Hancox has noticed a shift in both the location of and participants in fights this year compared to three or four years ago.
“If you go back to 2016-2017 when we had 2100 students, a lot of the fights used to be male, and they took place by the coffee shop. Now it’s female and in the commons.”
While the administration does not formally mandate staff members to break up fights, most faculty depend on instinct while observing altercations and deciding whether or not to intervene.
“It’s kind of a gut thing. I think we definitely want to make sure people are safe,” Barnhouse said. “I feel like the expectation is to intervene if you can if you have a relationship with the kid. Maybe we can verbally intervene [and] isolate it, maybe get kids into a classroom to try and keep it from escalating as much as possible.”
While there are procedures and expectations laid out for faculty, staff members have no direct responsibility to break up a fight that occurs right in front of them.
“There are procedures that staff are supposed to follow to do that, but it’s not required,” Hancox said. “If a staff does not feel safe in doing that, they’re not required to step in and do that unless somebody is getting really, truly hurt.”
Managing the mob
Armed with walkie-talkies and a keen eye for mischief, West High’s supervisory paraeducators (paras) are often tasked with pulling students apart whenever a fight breaks out.
The paras spend most of their time in and around the main commons near the lunchroom, which has been the prime location for a majority of this year’s fights.
Second-year para Josh Kidman has witnessed and broken up multiple fights this year and finds that, for most students, fighting is less about hurting one’s adversary than it is about maintaining a reputation within the school.
“Most people don’t actually want to get in a fight, which is pretty normal. They’re ready and expecting it to be broken up most of the time,” Kidman said. “I think some of it is a little bit of a charade. They don’t want to back down. The whole lunchroom is watching and they don’t want to be seen as the one who backed off.”
Devries echoes Kidman’s sentiment that oftentimes fights are simply a facade, with little intention to cause physical harm to one another and a greater focus on living up to the expectations set by themselves and bystanders.
“I think in a sense … some of it’s performative. I think they do it in the cafeteria because of kids or they start a fight a few feet away from me,” Devries said. “They can back up what they’re saying on social media by fighting but we’ve had fights this year [where] no punches were thrown.”
In addition to social standing, Kidman feels the crowd of onlookers in the lunchroom can often create a riot mentality, encouraging the behavior and making it harder to separate students.
“[There’s] a lot of yelling, running in that direction looking to see something happen. It makes our job harder and it makes it a bigger deal,” Kidman said. “If you don’t buy into it and the whole lunchroom doesn’t rush over to see a fight … it certainly doesn’t build it up anymore.”
Being a leader among one’s peers is something Kidman feels would vastly improve the attitude towards fighting at West High and help end the mob mentality that occurs when a fight breaks out.
“There’s one way to make the decision to buy into it and make it worse and there’s another decision to be a leader and tell people to move along or take your friends and move them along,” Kidman said. “You don’t need to be involved in it, you don’t need to be pulling people off. That’s our job.”
For Wankana, one fight was enough to deter him from reentering the realm of physical violence at school. Wankana experienced an altercation with another student while in junior high and feels strongly that that particular instance redirected his educational course.
“I used to be a very different student back in junior high. Skip class, don’t do homework and do that,” Wankana said. “More of just hanging out with a different group of people changed me from who I was to who I am now.”
Although the suspension from school certainly impacted Wankana, the social reactions he experienced as a result of the fight are what ultimately forced Wankana to change his behavior.
“I thought people saw me different, and people would think that I was pretty violent because of the fight,” Wankana said. “I accepted the punishment, it was my fault that I got into the fight. I learned from that and into high school it changed me completely.”
Byars was an active participant in fights throughout elementary and junior high, but ceased using physical violence after an incident during his freshman year at West High, which occurred between another male student near the coffee shop on the main floor.
In this particular instance, Byars did not intend to fight the other student but was encouraged by his peers through social media and constant peer pressure.
“Before the fight there were…people instigating and having us meet up,” Byars said. “A lot of people took a position for the simple fact that they were instigating it and stuff like that.”
After receiving a one-week suspension from school, Byars came to realize the consequences of his actions and the future ramifications he would be faced with if he were to continue fighting at school. Byars also recognized the value in holding one’s ground and not buying into the riot mentality created by spectators.
“I realized at that point that I got in a fight because of what other people told me and not what I heard out of his mouth,” Byars said. “[I also realized] that just because of me reacting off of what other people said that I was actually risking my freedom and not just my education.”
The race question
Though bystanders no doubt add fuel to the fire of a fight, some students believe a major reason conflicts continue to break out falls on the way they may be racially profiled by administration. Darlyn Gossiho ’22 has seen firsthand the way teachers and counselors assume certain minority groups to have been involved in a conflict.
“After a fight usually, like seven out of 10 times there’s probably going to be like a white person asking all the black people what happened or this and that,” Gossiho said. “I don’t like that because it feels like we’re ghetto or something. I don’t want to be seen as a ghetto girl. I want to be seen just as the girl that saw the fight.”
These types of presuppositions can make students feel as though they’ve been stripped of their individual identity.
“Most of the people that do fight here in the schools are black, African American. That doesn’t mean like all the black people and all the Latino people know what happens in the fight,” Gossiho said. “Because people see those like different races fight they just generalize it with the whole race.”
Both Flynn and Gossiho agree that the best way for adults at West to temper the fight culture and restore peace would be simply getting to know and understand students and what internal conflicts are causing them to react violently.
“I feel like teachers just need to talk to students more. Not even just about fights but everyday life,” Gossiho said. “They should figure out the underlying problem.”
Breaking the ice
Implicit bias is a problem all faculty have been working to eliminate, and something Kidman recognizes within himself and the rest of the supervisory paras.
In working to deescalate fights and determining motives for the outbreak, faculty often depend on students for information. While their actions may appear biased by assuming someone’s knowledge on the situation based on their race, the more information that can be extracted from bystanders close to the altercation allows for the administration to better handle and deescalate the situation.
“Ultimately, we’re trying to keep the kids safe and try and get to the bottom of what did happen,” Kidman said. “If you were standing around a fight or saw it and can provide me with a little bit of information that I didn’t see or didn’t catch I would certainly ask you some questions.”
With nearly 1500 students in the building, it can be tough to form a personal connection with every student, and oftentimes the students involved in physical altercations are the most reluctant to open up to adults.
“The students that are having consistent behavior issues usually don’t allow for that trust quite as easily and it gets a little harder and maybe a little more callous when I have to reprimand them,” Kidman said.
In addition to their disciplinary responsibilities, Kidman and the rest of the supervisory paras are working on creating positive relationships with students to help improve their image of adults in the building.
“Nobody’s going to listen to you if you’re always the guy that’s just yelling at people,” Kidman said. “The way I find success in my job is by building relationships. Other than that I’m just a person walking in the halls telling people to go to class.”
For students involved in fights at school, there are certain disciplinary actions mandated by the district and followed out by West High administration. The West High student handbook states that “students who engage in physical fighting or physical fighting related behaviors will be suspended out of school.”
The district’s zero-tolerance policy resulting in 3-5 day suspensions is meant to keep the student body safe as well as prevent any future altercations between students involved.
“If a student is going to go back and engage in another physical altercation while they’re still here because they’re upset sometimes they just need that break from school,” Devries said. “The main reason is we’re trying to keep kids safe and we need that time to deescalate the situation. It usually does take a couple days because fights usually result as a build-up of conflict.”
After a fight, the administration separates the students and gives each participant a chance to tell their side of the story. Following the suspension, the students are also encouraged to partake in mediations to resolve any remaining issues.
“If both kids can agree to sit down and talk about what happened then we always try and get them in the same room,” Devries said. “When we have face-to-face conversations it’s always better than whatever discussions that are going on on social media that can help to stir it up.”
Devries and Roarick are also aware that a single mediation does not heal all wounds, and that drama and peer pressure continue weeks after a fight has taken place.
“We know that when we have a conversation, it’s not the end of it. We know that there’s going to be continued drama and conversations with their friends and their peers,” Devries said. “Myself and John [check in] all the time really until we know everybody has moved on from it.”
While the combative culture at West High may seem inevitable to students, the West High administration has begun implementing a new program to deter students from engaging in physical violence and promote active bystander intervention.
West High’s Mentors in Violence Protection (MVP) program is still in its earliest stages of realization, but has already begun recruiting around 150 potential candidates to be trained as mentors for the upcoming school year.
Assistant principal Molly Abraham was moved to pursue the project after reading results from the district climate survey and witnessing fights at school.
“Our recent fights are pretty public. Kids might videotape it in the moment, but I think it’s actually kind of scary if you step back and think about it,” Abraham said.
West High’s “MVP team”, which currently consists of Abraham and seven other faculty members, will work in coordination with City and Liberty to help roll out the program for all high schools in the district for the 2020-2021 school year.
The team is currently seeking a teacher for next year’s MVP classes and hopes to get upperclassmen mentoring incoming freshmen early next year through an extended AFT period twice a month.
In seeking mentors, the administration urged teachers to nominate students with a wide variety of backgrounds in order to connect with as many incoming freshmen as possible.
“We asked teachers to nominate kids who they thought could be potential leaders and we said that we wanted a diverse representation,” Abraham said.
Jenny Wagner works as an At-Risk Interventionist at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School, where the MVP program has been in place since 2016. Wagner stresses the student-led component of the program which enables genuine conversations between students that are often less impactful when heard from administration.
“Really having that authentic student voice of an upperclassman mentoring to the freshmen is so powerful,” Wagner said. “Us adults sometimes just need to get out of the way.”
While students can receive silver cord hours for their involvement in the program, Wagner emphasized the importance of training mentors with a genuine interest in changing the school culture.
“Just make sure that students who are signing up to be the mentors have a sincere desire to have a conversation about domestic violence,” Wagner said.
“Certainly if you see a physical thing we want kids to get somebody or if they hear of something that’s going to happen,” Abraham said. “Violence is a bit of a misnomer to me because I think that makes people think you’re hitting people. Really we focus a lot on verbal, emotional and technological violence too.”
With West High under reconstruction both physically and structurally, changing the school culture is becoming the new top priority for students and faculty alike.
“It can’t be incumbent upon a few kids or a few administration to try and change this culture of fighting,” Barnhouse said. “I do feel like we all have to be part of it.”