Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mama Bears Comment on a School Fight

On Tuesday, a sixth grader at Heritage Elementary School in Saline, Michigan, south of Ann Arbor, was rushed to the hospital after a fight on the playground.  He was unconscious and having convulsions.  It appears that he was pushed from behind and possibly kicked by two or three other students while other children watched.

This story hit the news this morning, and I've already had it emailed to me by more than one parent.  People are upset by the story, and they are also upset by the comments they see posted by readers of the story.  These comments can be divided into a few major categories:

Category 1: What is the world coming to?

This behavior is beocming [sic] an everyday event. What has happened to our children? They are violent and seem to have little respect for life. The bigger question is, why are grade schoolers beating another child to a point that a child is put into a hospital? What are they thinking? What are their parents doing? Who is teaching humanity?
Category 2: It's no different than it always was.

NEWSFLASH- Children fight on playgrounds! Please where did you people grow up. Saline grad here k-12, and a playground fight is not really news. I've seen a student knocked out before and plenty of fights. As children age it tapers off- more fights in younger grades but they don't knock each other out. There is no one to blame -its called growing up, and its the same in every public school.
Category 3:  It's the school's fault.

What has the school done to protect him? How come there was no teacher in sight? Maybe the first punishment was not strong enough to show the previous and current attackers that the school is serious about protecting students in school and that their acts would not be tolerated at all.  All these questions need to be answered by the School principle [sic], obviously he/she failed to have any adequate planning in protecting the kids at school. The previous punishment failed to send a clear message to all students about bullying other fellow students at school that it will not be tolerated under any circumstances. This should not be brushed easily aside, we need answers and responsible people to provide education and safety for our kids in Michigan schools. Unless this is properly addressed, it will most likely be repeated.

None of these commenters, as far as I can tell, have any more information about the incident than the sketchy details from the news article, but they all are making assumptions about what happened before, during and/or after this incident.  Some of the parents who are emailing me, furthermore, want to know what we are "doing about this" at our school, in a different town and a different district.  Why is this eliciting these reactions?

This story has all the makings of a triggering event -- one with which people have strong emotional associations.  It took place in a setting that almost everyone has experience with -- a school playground.  For we Ann Arborites, it took place not too far away.  It involves school violence which, on some level, we all also had experience with. 

Perhaps most importantly, this incident not only involves children, but it involves children in a setting where their parents are particularly powerless.  We can watch our kids at the mall or the grocery store or our own yard, but when we drop them off at school we have to trust that they are going to be OK.  When something happens that indicates that kids are not safe at school, we parents become like mama bears protecting their cubs.  Don't mess with us.

The categories of comments on the news article indicate where people's anxieties and biases -- about the world, their children and schools -- already were before they read the article.  If you firmly believed that school personnel were somewhat incompetent yesterday, then when you read about this today you saw evidence of that.  If you believed that the world is going to Hell in a handbasket, here's your proof.  And if you yourself were a fighter and turned out OK, or if you deal with the fact that you can't protect your kids at school by telling yourself you don't have to, you'll say that kids will be kids.

Who knows what the backstory on this incident is.  Did the child have an undiagnosed medical condition?  How long did the fight last?  Who was the aggressor, and what previous problems have they had?  I know from having my own school incidents covered in the press that there is always, no matter what, some side of the story that does not make the paper and which I think is very important to understanding the whole picture.  In the end, however, these comments aren't about the whole picture and they're barely about this incident.  They're about the people who write them, and we can tell a lot about the authors just by reading them.


Colleen said...

You are so very right. When my kids were in a particularly homey, nurturing elementary school, and I saw things like this, I would shake my head, and think how very glad I was that my kids were at their school.

Now that my last elementary age child is in a public school, I still shake my head, remind myself that our school does have pretty good supervision, a really good anti-bullying program, I have a pretty strong kid, and this sort of thing is uncommon, and I can't prevent all bad things in life.

Since the last is hard to deal with, I do my best to change my mental channel, and go knit, instead. I'd much rather knit than think about it.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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