American Schools Struggle to Keep Online Fights From Turning Physical
Just over a year ago, Beldon Batiste, then 15, stumbled across one of the largest fights he had ever seen.
It was the last day of school at Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School in New Orleans. After classes let out, Beldon took a short walk with his grandmother and aunt to run some errands. About an hour later, as they returned to the family’s house in the 7th Ward, the trio found their path blocked by a throng of teenagers who were facing off on the street and sidewalk.
“In front of our house, it looked like Mardi Gras — there were over 50 or 60 kids,” said his aunt, Tatiana Batiste, 35. Four young women were dragging and beating up a younger girl while other kids recorded it on the phones. More teens kept arriving.
The massive fight, it turned out, stemmed from a long-simmering rivalry between groups of girls, and had been largely instigated and planned through a steady stream of posts on social media apps like Twitter, Instagram, Kik, and Snapchat. After two girls with an explosive history had exchanged barbs, one dared the other to meet the next day near a statue that stands about a block from the Batiste house, according to multiple sources. Since the girls are leaders within different groups, their friends, eager to back them up, quickly spread word of the proposed skirmish by copying, sharing, and retweeting posts and sending text messages.
Beldon, a slim honors student, knew nothing about the fight. But he recognized some of the teens from Clark, and told his aunt he was going to ask them to move away from his grandmother’s door. He didn’t get very far. His aunt watched him take three steps before he was jumped by three young men. He got up from the ground shaken and bloody from a severe laceration to his lip that took 10 stitches to close.
In New Orleans, violence is already at profoundly high levels: 54 percent of children ages 10 to 16 have had a close friend or relative murdered and nearly 40 percent have witnessed domestic violence. And in the past few years, the increased use of social media has added a new wrinkle to the problem as virtual disputes between students turn physical.
Several school leaders, coaches, and social workers across New Orleans say fistfights instigated by social media slights have become extraordinarily common, although there are no hard numbers tracking the trend. A “huge proportion” of fights have roots in social media, said Osha Sempel, a social worker who saw the phenomenon when she worked at Cohen College Prep, a high school, and sees similar patterns with the middle schoolers she works with at a Cohen sister school, Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep.
Last year, some New Orleans disciplinarians and social workers were puzzled by the number of fights that started as soon as students got off the buses in the morning. Then it became clear: when teens feud on social media at night, they arrive at school ready to fight.
Mondays can be particularly contentious. Jennifer Pagan, who works as a mediator at West Jefferson High School in a New Orleans suburb, said that “kids get on the sofa on Friday and spend the weekend on Snapchat or Kik—their weapons of mass destruction.”
That is familiar to longtime youth advocate Willie Muhammad, a teacher at Eleanor McMain Secondary School in New Orleans and a co-founder of New Orleans PeaceKeepers, which maintains a “Squash the Beef” hotline that people can call for help mediating conflicts throughout the city. “School becomes the battleground,” he said. “If someone makes an ugly remark online and an argument ensues, one kid will tell another, ‘Okay, when we get to school tomorrow, I’m going to handle it.”
That means that school officials must be aware of what happens on social media, said Jamar Fisher, 26, dean of students at Crocker’s middle school. “You have to have an eye into it,” Fisher said, noting that even five years ago, there was far less need to talk with students about social media use. “Now, we have to consider it, take it seriously, and talk to the students over and over about it,” he said.
Mediation, Not Detention
Increasingly, schools that want to diffuse youth flare-ups sparked on social media are turning to “restorative justice” programs that emphasize dialogue and making amends in lieu of traditional, punitive strategies like detention, suspension, and expulsion.
In New Orleans, the city’s Health Department is trying to revive a program that first brought restorative justice into the public schools. Because 90 percent of New Orleans students attend schools run by independent charter operators, unified efforts at youth-violence reduction in New Orleans are most likely to emanate from City Hall.
In neighboring Jefferson Parish, where there are fewer charter schools, the district attorney and school district aim to make more wholesale changes by expanding district-wide restorative-justice programs, partly to reduce the number of fights started via social media.
In the past, some Jefferson students who fought were arrested. All faced automatic three-day suspensions. Now, in lieu of suspension, students have a chance to go through a “restorative justice circle,” a carefully moderated conversation that determines who was harmed by the fight and how that harm (and the overall dispute) can be resolved. Participants sign contracts pledging, for instance, that they will not grimace at each other — students call it “mean mugging” — or post mean comments or photos about others online. Students are only suspended if they don’t adhere to their contracts or refuse to participate.
It’s taken time for everyone to adjust to the new approach. “When we hire new teachers, they are used to a punitive system. They need training,” said Willette Menard, dean of students at West Jefferson High, most often referred to as West Jeff.
But administrators at the school say an increasing number of students are stepping forward to report virtual disputes before they turn physical.
On a springtime morning, as Menard stood in a school hallway with a walkie-talkie, a young woman walked up and quietly said to her, “Ms. Menard, can I report something to you?” Menard nodded and the two made plans to talk later. Even outside school hours, she makes time for students. Whether she’s at the gas station or at the grocery store, students will approach, saying, “Ms. Menard, did you know?” Most often, those revelations are about social media conflicts, she said.
At Grace King High School, another site that’s part of the Jefferson Parish pilot program, social worker Aaron Ambeau said that teens often need — and want — adult guidance to resolve disputes. “As we know, an adolescent brain is like a car with a working gas pedal and no steering wheel. It can get out of control,” he said.
Like their counterparts at West Jeff, many Grace King students have embraced the new restorative process. “In one year, we’ve gone from ‘Here’s this new thing we’re going to do,’ to students asking for circles,” said Ambeau, who has helped derail a few different plans, posted online, to fight after school at a nearby gas station, and has worked with countless students to repair friendships after careless social media posts.
Ambeau has begun to require that students bring him screenshots to document the online comments that fueled an off-line fight. “I teach them how to use the technology to protect themselves,” he said.
Proactive efforts to reduce teen drama online are particularly important since it’s often too late for adults to intervene successfully once a fight is underway. On the day of the big Clark School fight that bloodied Beldon Batiste’s lip, neighbor Andrea Strickland saw the first teens arrive, walking toward each other from opposite directions.
One girl began barking orders at the others and the animosity was evident, she said. “It was just like West Side Story or a Michael Jackson video where the kids come and are ready to fight,” said Strickland, who walked toward the group, saying, “Ladies and gentleman, we are not going to fight in this area.”
The teens did move, around the corner to North Miro Street, where the Batistes live. Strickland followed from a distance, dialing 911 to describe the gathering to dispatchers. “In five or 10 minutes, the number of kids doubled,” she said. “And all of the kids were crazy, hot. They were disrespecting, cussing, and fussing.”
When the teens jumped Beldon, Tatiana Batiste sprang into action, running up and straddling her nephew to pull them off.
Then she saw Beldon’s lip, torn badly and hanging loose from his face. He was hit by what he believes was a metal cell-phone case with four “brass knuckles” along its edge, wielded by a teen he had argued with several times over the past school year. The injury was so pronounced that the first New Orleans police officer on the scene noted it in his report. “The students had become engaged in what could only be described as a melee, with several victims punching and kicking each other,” he wrote. “However, [the officer’s] first attention was drawn to a young African American male bleeding profusely from the mouth.”
School Staffers ‘Have No Control, But It’s Their Kids’
Part of the issue educators face in combatting social media fights is that they are impossible to predict. Even school staffers who understand the constantly changing world of teen social media apps typically can’t spend all day tracking students online.
School leaders often feel conflicted when they face situations stemming from social media, especially those that occur off-campus and outside of school hours, said Tom Zolot, program coordinator for the nonprofit Center for Restorative Approaches in New Orleans. “It’s a conundrum,” he said. “They have no control. But it’s their kids.”
Also, Zolot said, when the activity does occur at school, it’s often difficult to figure out who should be punished. Some social media users are anonymous. And if 35 teens retweet a video of a recent fight or plans for an upcoming fight, should they all be punished? Zolot believes that restorative justice is more effective, since it prioritizes making things right over establishing blame.
Researchers have found that online drama — increasingly aggressive back-and-forth posts prompted by everyday misunderstandings — is far more common among teenagers than cyberbullying. Less than 7 percent of students report being cyberbullied, according to a supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey. But a 2014-15 Pew Research Center survey found that 68 percent of teens who use social media had encountered drama online. About 1 in 4 teens told Pew that they had clashed with a friend about something that was posted online or sent by text.
“I post about boys, teenager stuff. I ain’t messy like some people,” said a ninth-grade girl at West Jeff as she made faces at her best friend. Both have participated in three restorative circles led by Pagan over the past several months; other friends have also broken off into related circles of their own.
Fisher, the dean at Crocker school, finds himself in a constant conversation with his students about how to interpret what they see on social media. “A lot of them don’t know how to deal with basic disagreements or they don’t know how to talk with each other,” he said. “They also don’t understand what’s rude or disrespectful, because so much of what’s posted is rude and disrespectful. It seems normal.”
Sometimes, children simply need help navigating friendship, said Pagan, remembering the two 11-year-old boys who came to blows because one liked to “block” the other on his phone when they argued. After mediation, “his friend unblocked him right there,” she said. One kid turned to the other, “I need you man,” he said. The two shook hands, then hugged.
The more work schools do to ensure teenagers use technology to promote strong relationships instead of combative ones, the less likely it is that students like Beldon Batiste will get caught in the crossfire.
‘He Looked Like a Monster
Today, Beldon’s grandmother, Adrie Batiste, 63, shudders to think of the injury Beldon sustained more than a year ago. “His face looked like a monster. He couldn’t fit a spoon or anything into his mouth,” she said.
When Beldon looked online after the fight, he felt even more miserable. “After they split my lip, they posted it on Instagram and made my self-esteem worse,” he said. He says the classmate arrested for punching him wrote a now-deleted Instagram post boasting about the split lip. “He acted like it was an accomplishment.”
Yet Beldon isn’t interested in seeing his adversary serve time in jail. Even seeing the teen put on an orange vest to pick up litter wouldn’t be as satisfying as having a genuine conversation to discuss what happened and how to make it right, he said.
Increasingly, educators across the New Orleans area are trying to help kids have those conversations before someone gets hurt— not when it’s too late.
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