Fights are unfortunately part of school. It is an inescapable truth that when you gather enough adolescents in a space there will be disagreements and some of those will turn into physical fights. You would assume that schools would plan for these inevitable events. But remarkably, little time and planning is dedicated to fights. Sure, they plan the discipline part out. If you ask a school administrator “how do you handle fights?” They will very likely rattle off their suspension policy. But when you ask them to elaborate on their plan for actually breaking up the fight, you may find that they don’t have one.
There seems to be three common responses to fights in the moment:
The organic response. This is when whoever is nearby, willing, and able jumps in to help break up the altercation.
The authority response. This is when the response is primarily fielded by some type of security or school resource officer.
The hybrid model. This is when certain teachers or staff members are preferred in dealing with violent situations.
All of these models have their pros and cons.
The organic response can be faster and foster a better since of community. It also assumes that every teacher is able and willing to break up a fight which in my experience is absolutely not the case. That assumption can make a fight last a lot longer than it has to.
The authority response is the safest response for staff and puts the ball in the court of figures who SHOULD be trained to deal with such a thing. In reality, involving security and law enforcement can often escalate situations and criminalize school altercations.
The hybrid model removes authority and provides options for teachers who are uncomfortable breaking up fights. However, it can take a long time to get those people in the moment. Additionally, who watches my class when I run out of the room to break up a fight in yours?
The truth is there is not a perfect way to break up fights. However, there are certainly ways to plan and mitigate their destructiveness. Here are some of actions that have worked well for me:
Plan in advance which student you will have run for help in every class. Obviously this is a student you aren’t worried about getting in a fight themselves. LET THEM KNOW THAT THIS IS THEIR JOB. Often times they do it before I even tell them to and by the time the fight is under way another adult is already in the room.
Know in advance which rooms are available for cool down. Fights often devolve into dragging students away from each other until they are out of contact. The longer they are in the hallway yelling, the worse it gets. Know which rooms are empty or suitable for having an angry student calm down.
Teach your teachers how to safely restrain and remove students. There are some teachers who will never break up a fight, but there are some that don’t do it simply because they don’t know what to do. Empower them with safe techniques to use if they have to intervene themselves.
Foster a positive culture around student intervention. Many fights in my class have been mitigated by friends pulling their own friend out of a tailspin. This is extremely helpful since usually I can only get one person. This culture has to be fostered. In the beginning of the year, they were pulling out their phones and yelling “World Star!”….or worse jumping in the fight themselves, but later in the year, they can be your biggest allies in reasoning with an upset student involved in a physical altercation.
Ideally, you want a culture and system that prevents fights altogether. However, we know that fights will eventually occur, so it is largely on school leaders to plan in advance and reduce their overall impact.