January 7, 2020

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.”

It’s very different from what school is like in Africa. Here fights just happen, people get into stuff very easily.”

— Nathan Wankana '21

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.”

Always available

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.”

For every fight you see we probably prevent 10 more fights.”

— Luke Devries, assistant principal

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.”

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