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Build up

October 7, 2022

In a school environment, conflict is inevitable. With human interaction comes disagreements, which may result in fighting. There are 1535 students at West High this year. With such a large population in one building, there is no guarantee that all students will get along. However, the reasons behind fights occurring among peers are distinct for each person involved.

Christine Dougan, one of two full-time Student Family Advocates at West, emphasizes how there can be vastly different explanations for the same fight.

“We all end up in these sorts of situations for a variety of reasons, and no two experiences are the same,” Dougan said. “Multiple realities can be true about the same situation. If there’s two people engaging in an argument, whether that be physical or verbal, they both have their own authentic truths.”

Multiple realities can be true about the same situation. If there’s two people engaging in an argument, whether that be physical or verbal, they both have their own authentic truths.”

— Christine Dougan, Student Family Advocate

Every individual’s decision to fight stems from their own life experiences, but Gen Z shares experiences, such as living through a pandemic as a teenager, that impact their response to challenges. 

English teacher John Cooper witnessed many of the effects of COVID-19 on teenagers through the changes in overall student behavior following the shock of life during a pandemic.

“[Teachers] saw kids get up and walk out of the room crying a lot last year,” Cooper said. “We saw people who would choose friend groups that they would just attach themselves to because they needed emotional support. Then, we saw kids who would just lock up — they wouldn’t do homework; they wouldn’t do anything.”

This trend was not surprising to Laura Gray, the ICCSD Executive Director of Diversity and Cultural Responsiveness.

“I do know that people [have] a considerable amount of anxiety since COVID-19, and it shows up differently for different people,” Gray said. “People who are internalizing the nervousness and anxiety, or the depression that we’ve seen statistically amongst a lot of our youth, have been having suicidal ideation. And, students who externalize it show up with these big, explosive personalities and are ready to fight.”

A March 2022 scientific brief by the World Health Organization supports Gray’s observations. According to the report, the worldwide prevalence of depression and anxiety increased by 25% in the first year of the pandemic. The brief also states that the pandemic had a greater influence on young people’s mental health compared to adults, causing them to be more at risk of suicidal and self-harming behaviors. Dougan describes how she sees the pandemic affecting young people in particular.

“Feeling isolated, which many of us were for months and months, can make us feel a lot of things, especially for young people who maybe have never processed that sort of collective trauma,” Dougan said. “Not having the toolkit and coping skills to move beyond that can lead us to act out in a variety of ways, one of which could be verbal or physical aggression.”

According to a July 2020 article published in The Journal of Pediatrics, not only has the social isolation caused by COVID-19 had direct effects on teenagers’ mental health, but the pandemic has worsened other adverse childhood experiences, such as food insecurity and school closures. These experiences have also contributed to greater mental health concerns.

Along with the heightened level of struggles youth are facing due to the pandemic, Cooper believes teenage emotions and hormone levels have always played a big role in why high school students choose to fight.

“Kids are chock-full of hormones, and sometimes it’s really difficult to think with your front brain,” Cooper said. “It’s not about the individual themselves. It’s about their abilities — it’s about their ability to think rationally in a tense or tough situation. That is a learned behavior. They’re kids, and they’ve got all these emotions, all these feelings, all this adrenaline pumping.”

The emotions that teenagers feel aren’t limited to school boundaries. Payton Busch, a seventh grade science teacher at Northwest Junior High, has seen many instances of fighting in school take place as a result of a simple misconception before the school day even begins.

“More times than not, it’s maybe just a misunderstanding on something that just boils over,” Busch said. “We’ve got to kind of peacock in front of our peers and show like ‘I’m bigger and stronger’ and try to impress everybody.”

Vumilia Maleunda ’24 describes a factor she believes causes fights to erupt on school grounds.

“I think fights start at school because folks just get into drama,” Maleunda said. “There are people out here who like drama and some other ones who don’t, and if you’re into it, you just get into it with anybody.”

Social media is a common denominator in many of these conflicts. West High Assistant Principal Elizabeth Bruening shares how she has seen social media influence the occurrence of violence.

“It’s easier to say things in a message than it is to someone’s face, and so people are not going to be as cautious about what they say [on social media],” Bruening said. “Because they’re not being careful with their words, even if they didn’t necessarily mean something in a bad way, it comes across that way. Then somebody on the receiving end of that is mad, and when they do see each other, there’s conflict.”

West High Principal Mitch Gross views social media as problematic, especially in a school setting.

“I would say the majority of fights start from a social media conflict,” Gross said. “If I had my way, I wish there was no social media at school at all, because it probably consumes at least a quarter of my day and all administrators’ days. If someone says something on Snapchat, and then it’s gone, and then they bring it to us, we have no way to prove it … Then, people are going back and forth about it and that blows up in the hallway.”

After a fight breaks out, social media continues to be used. Franny Jordan ’26 describes how quickly the nitty-gritty of a fight can spread from a couple of people to entire high school populations.

“People would take videos of fights, and they’d be all over [social media],” Jordan said. “I know this firsthand because I’ve seen them on my [Snapchat] story. My friends would send them in group chats … I’d see the same fight like 16 times.”

Not only does social media aid in sharing videos of nearby fights, but it also makes it possible for conflict across the country to be shared with a wider audience with a simple tap of a finger. 

Many events in the years since COVID-19 first struck the U.S. have reportedly been triggered by racism, such as George Floyd’s killing and the Buffalo Supermarket shooting. With social media, anyone in the world can see these encounters taking place and can be heavily affected by them. Due to observing this violence, some may experience racial trauma, the mental harm caused by racial discrimination. As a person of color, Gray describes how the underlying reason for members of the BIPOC community fighting could likely be racial trauma.

“Especially since George Floyd’s death, I feel like it’s just been this huge platform of feelings of disrespect, feelings of wanting change, feelings of crying out, and so it’s really a culture in pain,” Gray said. “Underneath [the anger], there’s pain and longing for respect, longing for connection, longing for difference. Then, their patience is being tested in real life, and that’s where I think a lot of the clashes are happening.”

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