A rash of on-campus fist fights has led Fulton County Schools to renew its efforts at eliminating students recording scuffles then circulating them on social media.
There were 11 fights at Langston Hughes High in southern Fulton County last week, leading to multiple videos of the brawls spreading across Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram.
The students involved have been punished according to the code of conduct, and the district has assigned more school resource officers to the campus. The school system also has employed “conflict resolution mediation” to attempt to “deescalate interpersonal tensions.”
Now, district officials are giving extra attention to the students behind the camera.
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Those who record video of a fight will be suspended for up to 10 days, while students who share or forward those videos will receive three additional days of suspension, Langston Hughes’ principal Charles Chester wrote in a letter to parents.
The strictest punishment is for students who post the video to social media. They will receive 10 days of suspension and a referral for a tribunal hearing with a recommendation for a long-term suspension, the letter said. That longer suspension could last the remainder of the school year.
But schools throughout Fulton and metro Atlanta have dealt with the issue for years.
Nearly five years ago, an Instagram page devoted to Clayton County student brawls named clayco.fights was a repository for nearly 400 fight videos and had more than 30,000 followers. It was taken down after the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the page.
A Cobb County police sergeant said some children who feel disconnected from their parents see these sites as “their moment of fame and glory.” In the early 2000s, police in Fayette County were chasing down gang recruitment fight videos on MySpace.
Chester said the rules in Fulton aren’t new either.
“They’ve always been enforced,” he said. “They are not necessarily as known by parents and students.”
The principal told the AJC Wednesday that schools are a microcosm of society, with all of its good and bad.
“People don’t understand that some of the issues that come into our school don’t start in our school,” he said. “… If it can be present outside the school, there’s a possibility it (can) be present inside the school.”
Zaakirah Walker is a 2016 graduate of Langston Hughes High School who is now studying at the University of West Georgia.
“Yes there was a problem with fighting when I was there,” he said.
As for the renewed effort to punish students who record and post fights, Walker said that seems “a bit much.”
“Suspending students for two weeks for recording a fight they didn’t even participate in seems a bit harsh,” Walker said. “I do agree with punishing the ones who post on social media because that is wrong and embarrassing for the persons involved.”
Aside from parents and staff, there’s another group of people who are worried: First Amendment attorneys.
Gerry Weber, an Atlanta attorney specializing in constitutional and media law, said this would be new territory.
He said students documenting of these incidents “is an important part of ensuring that this violence doesn’t occur in the future.”
Decatur education attorney Craig Goodmark agrees, adding that it can be tough for school officials to determine the intent of students posting videos of violence in school.
“There’s a difference between documenting it and glorifying it,” he said. “The issues that you’ll run up against is whether that speech is inciting violence, because you don’t have the right and students definitely don’t have the right to incite violence.”
He said the school system is in a balancing act, trying to provide a safe learning environment for students while also ensuring their right to free speech.
“If you cut [the videos] off altogether, you have just locked down information and kept the public from knowing about something that’s of great public concern,” Goodmark said.
Gyimah Whitaker, superintendent of Fulton’s south county schools, said Wednesday they had not considered the First Amendment issues.
“We have not had any concerns around the distribution of videos [being] any type of amendment violation,” she said.
AJC staff member Jennifer Brett contributed to this article.
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