When Kids Fight in School, We Don’t Blame the Right Things

Montgomery County Parents watching the NBC 4 evening news on November 30th were met with an alarming warning.  Speaking above a chryon reading “Fight Fears,” anchor Pat Lawson Muse announced: “Only on 4 tonight, video that will make you think twice about your children’s safety at school.”  They cut to blurry, jostled cell phone footage showing high school students fighting in a hallway. “This is from inside Gaithersburg High School,” Lawson Muse elaborates.  “Students punching each other, pulling each others’ hair, wrestling each other to the ground.”

The story matched her worried tone.  Reporter Chris Gordon interviews an anonymous Gaithersburg High teacher; seen only from the back and wearing a hoodie, the teacher’s voice is distorted because they “fear[] violence.”  The teacher sent NBC 4 several videos of students fighting on school grounds, and we learn that many of them now “face disciplinary action.”  According to Gordon, “Some students seem to be out of control.”

Whether the students we see lack behavioral control is a question for a psychologist, though it is handy to remember they’re children and children have been fighting each other since before the advent of cell phone cameras.  One thing is clear, however: they do lack institutional control, the kind they would need to truly remedy their circumstances.

Simply put, kids fighting in the hallway don’t have a compelling reason to be in the classroom.  And it doesn’t appear much is being done to fix that.

Schools tend to reproduce––or at very least permit––class identities and inequities that already exist.  Commenting on Paul Willis’ 1975 book Learning to Labor, Stanley Aronowitz explains how kids, in spite of the best-laid plans of schooling, “through their own activity and ideological development, reproduce themselves as a working class.  The mechanism is their opposition to authority, their refusal to submit to the imperatives of a curriculum that encourages social mobility through acquisition of credentials” (xi).

On the whole, MCPS attends to the ‘acquisition of credentials’ remarkably well.  The real estate site Niche.com ranks MCPS in the top 6% nationally and first overall of twenty-four Maryland school districts.  The Washington Post ranked seven MCPS schools in the top 10 “most challenging schools” in Maryland in 2017, and the top 5 slots are all MCPS schools: Poolesville, Richard Montgomery, Winston Churchill, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, and Walt Whitman.

Gaithersburg High School, however, does not boast similar accolades.  It is unranked by US News.  But the US News report on Gaithersburg also points to non-academic categories that separate it from the top 5 schools above: it is considerably poorer, at 44% economically disadvantaged.  At 21% economically disadvantaged, Richard Montgomery comes closest, but take a moment to compare Gaithersburg’s 44% to Bethesda-Chevy Chase’s 12%, Poolesville’s 7%, Winston Churchill’s 5%, Walt Whitman’s 3%.

This is the context in which students “refus[e] to submit to the imperatives of a curriculum.”  Imagine going to the DMV and filling out optional forms even though you are told these will have no bearing on your ability to drive.  If, like DMV’s, schools under capitalism are in the business of merely conferring credentials, why should students care about earning them if their class identity vastly curtails any social cache the credentials might afford?

MCPS has promised to reacclimate the offending students using restorative rather than punitive justice, and––if appropriate time and resources are allocated––this response is laudable, given the context of modern schooling.  But it will not alter an educational system where participation is only relevant to those with class privilege.  Until we overturn a social order that allows those with wealth and status to accumulate more of it it simply by existing, MCPS schools cannot guarantee an equal opportunity for all.

by Ev Russell

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