Behind the video: Investigating the frequency of school fights

Behind the video: Investigating the frequency of school fights

CHARLESTON COUNTY, SC (WCSC) - "There's always been fights in schools," Lt. Kathi Love, Student Resource Officer supervisor with North Charleston Police said. "It's just now we have social media that we're getting it instantaneously."

School fights caught on camera sparked attention this year prompting questions over how frequently fights are erupting at local schools.

As a result, Live 5 News initiated an investigation, requesting data to analyze from the S.C. Department of Education for the past three school years.

To date, the department has provided data for the 2015-2016 school year for local districts, the most recent year available.

That data reveals Northwoods Middle School in North Charleston reported 128 fights for the 2015-2016 school year, the highest number of fighting incidents across Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Georgetown and Williamsburg school districts.

Love, who has worked with student safety since 2001, is not surprised by the numbers.

"Middle school is always the hardest," Love said. "They're trying to find themselves, they're trying to be part of a group, they're trying to be cool. The school's not tolerating so they're putting it on paper and disciplining."

Live 5 News requested an interview with Northwoods principal but was told the current administration has changed as of the 2016-2016 school year.

According to Charleston County School District spokesperson Andy Pruitt, the leadership change had nothing to do with the number of incidents at Northwoods.

According to Pruitt, the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, Charleston Police Department, North Charleston Police Department, and Mount Pleasant Police Department do provide a full-time school resource officer for the district's public middle and high schools.

CCSD's fight procedure also entails calling for additional support, Pruitt said, and includes verbal commands for students to stop while keeping uninvolved students safe.

Pruitt said it's not advised for a teacher or staff member to try and stop a fight alone; a response team would attempt to stop the fight while the SRO is also called to respond.

The challenge in comparing schools? Different school districts could report fights differently.

"This year we have made a major effort to work on consistency among administrators with coding and consequences for behavior, however we still have work to do in this area," Pruitt said in an email.  "Our training over the summer will be focused on working through scenarios to assist administrators to determine which code is most appropriate for an event."

Meanwhile, state data reveals Colleton County Middle School reported 110 fights while Gregg Middle School in Dorchester County Two reported 80. While Colleton County didn't answer questions for clarification on district policies, DD2 spokesperson Pat Raynor said district officials will be reviewing Gregg Middle's state-reported numbers.

According to Raynor, coding issues and external variables like hosting students from Givhans Alternative School may have led to increased number of inputted fight incidents.

"We make every attempt to stop a fight before it occurs," a statement from Dorchester District Two officials said.  "If a fight occurs, our goal is to ensure the safety of our students and our staff.  There are times when verbal direction will stop a fight; however, there are times a fight requires physical interaction by an administrator, safety officer, or staff to stop the fight and ensure safety.  District administrators have received Crisis Prevention Institute Training that teaches techniques in the safe management of disruptive and assaultive behavior."

According to the district, "every physical interaction among students is not considered a fight.

"The school's administrators will determine how the event is coded, and such data is reviewed regularly to see if increased supervision is warranted," the district said.

At Williamsburg County School District, where 81 fights were reported at both Kingstree High School and Kingstree Middle Magnet, incidents are reported to school administration before students are referred to the Discipline Hearing Committee.

First time offenders typically are placed with counseling and behavioral intervention, according to district spokesperson Bonnie King.

Williamsburg County School District's Student Services Department also maintains a count on each school and advises each administrator of possible causes of fights.

According to King, the district is also seeing an uptick in incidents as the use of social media increases.

As West Ashley High School Principal Lee Runyon knows, cell phone video of a fight is enough to attract negative attention.

"Ashley Ridge High School is a fantastic school," Runyon, who has worked in school administration for more than twenty years, said. "Unfortunately they had a video instant of a fight that went viral. West Ashley High School is the same and the list goes on and on…"

Runyon said the school hasn't seen an increased number of fights yet, district-wide, there's been an increased effort at documentation.

"Kids are going to fight in school and we want to do our best to be proactive and keep that happening and supervise our students and intervene when we can," Runyon said. "We're getting better at gathering the numbers. We're still searching as educators for all the answers."

However, interpretation data proves difficult as fights could be classified in more than one way.

For example, West Ashley High reported four fights for 2015-2016, twelve simple assaults and 35 counts of disturbing schools.

According to Charleston County school district, disturbing schools includes "any behavior that disturbs the learning environment for a significant number of students for an extended period of time…and requires the intervention of a number of staff."

The differences in coding can be subtle, according to Alan Walters, Director of Student Safety and Risk Management at Georgetown County School District.

"A level two offense can be fighting and a level three offense which is criminal can be assault and battery," Walters said. "What makes that distinction? That's when you've really got to drill down into the details and figure out how that decision was made."

Walters is part of the S.C. Safe Schools Taskforce, set up by Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman to refine the discipline policies across the districts.

"It's somewhat subjective and that's one reason we worked with the state task force…to find a way to take some of that subjectivity out of it," Walters said.

The state taskforce is hoping to streamline discipline and data, with new regulations for the discipline approved by the General Assembly and going into effect as of May 10, 2017.

"Our new common sense student conduct guidelines ensure that parents, students, teachers, and law enforcement all have a clear and concise understanding of the different levels of student discipline and proper procedures for ensuring a safe and respectful classroom environment," State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said in a statement. "I am looking forward to working with our school communities on immediate

Meanwhile, some local officials remain dubious of the role data plays in a complicated issue involving students.

"Numbers are numbers," Love said. "I want to know the person. I think we have to stop looking at the numbers. We have to look at why these kids are doing it and let's fix this problem."

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