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.”