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Squelching school fights

Added awareness, training and practice protect staff and students from violence
At Sells Middle School in the Dublin City School District in Ohio, school administrators are using the Complete Student Safety and Behavior System technical tool to track student tardiness and how it might relate to school fights.
At Sells Middle School in the Dublin City School District in Ohio, school administrators are using the Complete Student Safety and Behavior System technical tool to track student tardiness and how it might relate to school fights.

It was a lunch hour more than 10 years ago when Terri Lozier, now a principal in another district just outside Chicago, was sucked into the violence of a school fight. Then a teacher, she was supervising the cafeteria when one girl tried to strangle another.

“Two girls got really loud, and all of a sudden one of them had put her purse strap over the other’s head and was choking her,” says Lozier, principal of Streamwood High School in School District U-46, in Elgin, Ill. “I got in the middle of the fight, put my hand between the purse strap and (victim’s) neck, and got punched in the head five or six times.”

In those days, teachers were not trained to respond to fights, Lozier says. “Teachers were diving into fights thinking, ‘I can take these kids down,’ ” she says. “Kids were getting injured and so were the adults.”

In recent headlines, teachers have been hurt and students have been arrested. Last September, four high school teachers in the Caswell County Schools in North Carolina were sent to a hospital—one with a dislocated shoulder—after breaking up a fight between a group of students, four of whom were arrested.

“The school shootings are what’s captured people’s attention. But in reality, it’s the day-to-day security risks that concern school administrators.”

One week later in New Jersey, two teachers were injured and one teen arrested after a fight at a high school in the Vineland Public Schools. And in October, a fight between two high school girls in the Bangor Public Schools in Maine led to the arrest of one.

But incidents like these are routinely overshadowed by larger safety threats, say school security experts.

“The school shootings are what’s captured people’s attention,” says Ken Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland. “But in reality, it’s the day-to-day security risks that concern school administrators.”

The old ways of trying to stop fights are becoming ancient history. Still, John Heiderscheidt, safety and security coordinator for School District U-46, which includes Streamwood High School, says teachers are often the first responders to a fight. Specially trained school resource officers (or SROs), who are usually members of the local police department, patrol school buildings and also respond to safety crises.

But only about 10 percent of school buildings have SROs, says NASRO. And yet other schools employ aides to cover the hallways.

Those responsible for safety training in schools are unanimous as to what teachers should not do: Do not get in between two fighting students.

“It can escalate the situation,” says Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. “You’re viewed as a combatant. There are a lot of strong kids on campus and you can get seriously injured.”

A range of new policies and training techniques are changing the way schools try to prevent or respond to fighting. Several schools are spelling out the steps teachers need to take when a fight breaks out.

Teachers are also being asked to pay attention to behaviors that could lead to fights in the classrooms, hallways or cafeteria. And some districts are turning to outside programs that train teachers how to de-escalate a fight with words rather than force.

Besides a general policy about student safety and discipline, American Association of School Administrators Executive Director Dan Domenech recommends having a more specific policy about intervening in fights so teachers and staff know what they are supposed to do.

De-escalation in practice

De-escalation—a series of deliberate verbal instructions and logistical maneuvers—has become the tool of choice for reducing violence among students in many schools. The Milwaukee-based company, Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), offers de-escalation training in partnership with school safety consultants like National School Safety and Security Services.

CPI’s training approach includes a list of interventions such as:

  • Using specific verbal commands to stop a brewing or actual fight
  • Dispersing any crowd surrounding an altercation
  • Working in teams to separate combatants if necessary

But the first step in handling a fight is for educators to remain calm, says CPI Executive Director of Research Randy Boardman. “Don’t come running and screaming,” he says. Educators should use the first names of the students involved, followed by commands such as “Stop fighting now” or “Clear the hall and go to class right now,” he says.

Some educators and experts agree that students will, in fact, respond to instructions from adults, and that students often fight during school—rather than after-hours—because it’s safer: They know the fight is likely to be stopped, possibly even before it starts.

Boardman admits that not all fighters will stop on command. “We do teach some physical components for holding and controlling someone who is fighting,” he says. “That is a last resort if there’s an imminent danger to others or yourself. Only at that point would you use these skills.”

CPI provides on-site, 12-hour training for administrators and teachers that has them practice the various responses with each scenario. “You have to rehearse,” Boardman says. “If you don’t practice, you won’t be ready to respond.”

Four-step procedures

CPI worked in District U-46, where fights were recurring every week in all five district high schools, says Heiderscheidt, a former police officer and school resource officer. At the time, the district’s dean’s assistants—employees who patrol school hallways—would jump into fights to ‘take a kid down.’ The assistants explained that’s how prior school administrators had told them to handle fights.

During the 2009-10 school year, Heiderscheidt turned to CPI. He had CPI train almost 25 dean’s assistants and administrators. In 2012, he took a four-day CPI course, in which he learned to train other district staff and teachers in responding to fights.

Among the techniques:

  • Waiting, if possible, for a team of adults to arrive or for a fight to wane before physically intervening
  • Deflecting blows before they land, by learning how to quickly react and hold up a strong arm to stop a student from hitting another person
  • Telling the students they’ve made a good choice when they stopped fighting and thanking them for doing so
  • Taking the combatants to separate areas as soon as possible.

Heiderscheidt also has implemented some strict districtwide policies: Do not jump into a fight alone, and instead try to disperse students who are watching. Staff also are told to press a call button (found in every classroom) that summons help from the central office.

Lozier, principal of Streamwood High, says these policies have helped her better manage responses to fights. “Now when a situation comes up and it looks like an adult has escalated it, I’m able to reprimand that teacher,” she says. “Likewise I can reprimand teachers if they don’t hit the call button.”

Lozier also says knowing physical maneuvers such as deflection makes a big difference when staff members intervene. When one girl at the school tried to hit another with a lock, a dean’s assistant saw her arm come back and “used a deflection technique to spin her around.” If the dean’s assistant had not stopped her, Lozier says, the aggressor would have been expelled and the other student potentially injured.

The results for the U-46 high schools have been encouraging. Out-of-school suspensions for fighting at the district’s high school fell from 575 in 2008-09 to 366 in 2012-13.

“We can prepare our teachers to manage these situations better,” Heiderscheidt says. “When we do this better, the environments of our schools are going to improve.”

Assistant Principal Joseph Santa-Emma at the John Sells Middle School in Ohio’s Dublin City Public Schools, recalls the days of stopping daily fights a few years ago.

“In the lunch line, one student thinks another pushed him out of the way. In the locker room, someone punches someone else and pushes him against a locker. In the hallway, someone punches another student in the face.”

Here is the district’s a four-step procedure for dealing with fights:

  • The closest teacher or administrator intervenes and attempts to separate the fighting students.
  • That teacher yells for adult assistance and if none is immediately available, dispatches a student to the central office.
  • Once several educators are on the scene, they escort the students separately to the central office.
  • Someone in the central office then uses a walkie-talkie to notify Santa-Emma, who discusses the dispute with students and takes any necessary disciplinary action.

Anticipate fights before they start

For starters, teachers can do more to prevent fights by better observing students outside of class and identifying conflicts before they erupt into a scuffle, school safety experts say.

Make it clear to teachers, even in writing, that they have to watch for trouble brewing in hallways and the lunchroom, says Trump of the National School Safety and Security Services.

Three times during the school day, it is particularly important that administrators and teachers watch for signs of trouble: 1. when students arrive in the morning, 2. in hallways between classes and 3. at dismissal, he says.

These policies should have detailed, written assignments for where teachers need to be at these critical times, he adds.

“What happens too often is that adults look but they don’t see,” Trump says. “They might be engaging in their own side conversations. The key is to notice the behaviors before they reach the point of a fight. Are you hearing the volume go up? Are groups starting to muster? Are two kids escalating their conversation? Then you can move into verbal de-escalation.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer.