The lunch bell rings on a hot and scorching day; one of those Los Angeles heat waves in October. As soon as the students settle in, they run towards the window in the back of the room. Something is up. "Ms. Whang!" one of my students shouts. Two boys are getting up in each other’s faces outside of my classroom. The first swing. I run out the class and next door, yell for Mr. P, the math teacher and football coach. Anytime there is a fight, I call for him because he arrives immediately and mitigates the conflict. Together, we run towards the chaos and we de-escalate the fight that now has turned into a brawl. Damage control.
When I come back into the room, the look on the faces show nothing but cold apathy and irritation. A girl calls out, “I’m tired of this ghetto school.”
Catching fades each day is a part of the culture of our school in urban communities. To some, fights are a rites to passage of adulthood; where the ceremony takes place on campus. School is the very grounds students seek the challenge to become alpha’s; prove their worth; defend their seats; and protect themselves. Many students experience this on a daily and think that it does not bother them, yet studies indicate the compounding and adverse impacts violence has on our youth.
Our youth are still in development. Their frontal lobes still forming and growing, which is the section of the brain that gauges consequence and risk. In this critical age of becoming and forming, it is important that we guard our youth’s safety and monitor their exposure to crude content and experiences. The reality is that many of our youth experience traumatic events that lead to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I personally refrain from labeling people by their “disorder.” Yet the label reminds us that experiencing traumatic events while young causes serious impacts on cognitive development and emotional control. The fear that was evoked, in that single event or for many of our youth in consecutive cases, becomes a trigger that can be ignited in more low stakes moments throughout the day. When a person who experienced trauma is triggered, his or her body viscerally responds in flight of fight mode. Constant triggers exhaust the body and emotional capacity, leading to other side effects of high anxiety, depression, lack of focus, and uncontrollable anger.
A study was conducted by Los Angeles Unified School District that emphasized that our youth of color are disproportionately impacted by PTSD and trauma. 70% of the student population is comprised of students of color and more than 25% of LAUSD students experience a traumatic event before they turn 16. So here’s what it looks like to have symptoms of PTSD, according to the survey:
Feeling future (positive) events will not come true (57%)
Feeling irritable/fits of anger (43%)
Trouble sleeping (49%)
Trouble concentrating (43%)
Our students are battling their minds every day. The minimal access students have to mental health services only make matters worse. Nearly half of the students who need counseling and other programs that support their coping are not provided to them.
With all this data, it is easy to see how the cycle continues. It becomes easier to understand why our youth of color don’t like school and their narrative of school does not change. The very institution that is meant to foster learning and transformation is the prison that enables them to perpetuate actions that dig their hole even deeper. It is the battle ground. The rites of passage to becoming the alpha, in exchange for social mobility and opportunities for higher learning.
What Now: We need the youth to believe in our schools again
Districts across America are turning around and noticing the needs of our students. They have separate funding sources for restorative practices and intervention models that promote shifting student and community perception of schools. However, their efforts are made, but fights still occur and students still experience violence.
Change has to come from them. As adults, we can only intervene and take all preventive measures as advocates. The ones who are engaging and initiating the conflict are the ones who have the power to stop the violence. The bystanding youth have the agency to help resolve tension before it escalades.
We need to give our youth every reason to BELIEVE in our schools again. When a fight happens, we want our youth to be unsettled and be passionate about changing THEIR school. They need to take ownership of their school as their community and home; otherwise it will be just another building in the streets, where they catch fades.
This past Saturday, a student showed me a video of one of my students getting in a fight. She described the aftermath: his bloody face, swollen lips, and droopy eyes. We had a heart to heart moment; where I expressed my truest disappointment. It wasn’t the disappointment I felt towards my student who fought, but rather, the normality of violence in these youngin’s lives. They have so much ahead of them and our systematic road blocks are impediments.
It starts with us. The teachers, the artists, the community activists, the parents, the grown up and young adults these youth look up to. We need to speak life into our schools again and be honest of where we are at in this process of growth. Our young folks of color will be our next generation of leaders; many of us would undoubtedly agree with this. Though this truth is apparent to us; it is still becoming in them. We are all mentors in one way or another; role models even if we don’t want to be or are not ready to be. And the greatest impact will be in communicating to our young ones our hope for their future and their power to change what we could not. Let’s start with our schools.