My student Belinda got into a fight last year. It wasn’t a prissy, slappy, name-calling fight, either. It was a reality television-worthy, punch- throwing, eye-bruising fight that didn’t end until Belinda’s opponent had ripped the weave out of her hair and waved it around in front of the student spectators.
The incident happened at lunchtime. Approximately 800 students were present when the two girls started screaming at each other. Within seconds of the first blow, a large circle gathered around them and chanted: “Fight, fight, fight!” The students in the back jumped up onto several lunch tables. The stomping actually broke one table in half.
I couldn’t believe it. I was somehow less surprised, however, to hear that during the fight, several students pulled out their smart phones and filmed the entire thing. It was on YouTube and Facebook before the end of the school day.
The following day, this fight was all the buzz in my classroom. Students were dying to tell me what happened. I don’t usually allow gossip in my classroom, but after hearing from the administration how many students were bystanders during this particular fight, I wanted to hear their perspective. I hated seeing how excited some of them were to talk about her hair being ripped out as though Belinda’s defeat were as awesome as the Vikings winning the Superbowl.
In their minds, it seemed, being spectators at this fight was like having their very own reality TV series play out in person. It couldn’t have been more awesome. They wanted to know when the next fight would be.
I knew I had to do something to help my students understand what it meant to cheer when someone was being hurt. They needed to know how they could do something different instead.
Since most of my classes are French language, I created a series of discussion questions that I put up on my board in French. We used the questions to tell short stories in class about Lulu La Malheureuse. (Unhappy/unlucky Lulu). We made an endearing character profile of an awkward, short-tempered girl. A couple of students knew right away I was setting them up. I had no problem admitting it and explained we were going to explore what might happen in a couple of different scenarios.
We created stories: 1) What is a really dumb thing Lulu did? 2) Lulu hurt her friend’s feelings. What did she say? How many people found out about it? 3) Lulu got really angry and pushed someone. Lulu got hurt, too. How many people cheered? 4) Lulu has a broken nose. What kind of help does she need? Was it funny that she got into a fight? 5) Does watching a fight make it last longer or end faster?
At the end of the day, we had also created a genuine sympathy for Lulu, and by extension, Belinda. We talked about how fighting might be a "necessary reality" for some who haven't learned how to advocate for themselves any other way.
Then we talked about what students could do differently when a fight breaks out. We generated a basic list of things to keep in mind: Get help. Clear yourself and your friends out of the area. Avoid trash talking and if you can, speak up against it. Tell someone if there is a video circulating of a fight so it can be removed.
Our safe school community depends on students finding the courage to speak up against those who celebrate violence and hate speech.
I can only hope that they will be less willing to cheer and more willing to speak up and intervene before the fight gets started in the future.
Campbell is a high school French teacher in Minnesota.