The student sitting at the front of the class doesn’t know she’s about to be attacked. But others in the room apparently do.
As another teenager approaches her from behind, several students in the class whip out their cellphones. They have no intention of dialing for help, however. Their aim is to record the encounter between the two teenage girls so that they can upload it to Instagram, YouTube, kik and other sites.
In the recordings, shot from multiple angles, the girls exchange words and, before long, a punch is thrown. A scuffle breaks out, with squeals and laughter from classmates in the background. When a teacher tries to intervene, his glasses are knocked off and he’s pushed aside.
This battle took place two months ago at Lovejoy High School, but similar recordings from all over metro Atlanta — indeed, all over the country — exist. Educators and parents worry that the recordings are not only encouraging fights, but are sometimes making them more brutal as students attempt to gain notoriety on social media. In some areas of the country, pre-planned, off-campus fights are even drawing a large number of spectators, with non-students sometimes taking part.
One Instagram page devoted to Clayton County student brawls — clayco.fights — had nearly 400 fight videos and more than 30,000 followers. It was taken down after the AJC reported on the page Wednesday afternoon. A Henry County page, which sprung up shortly after a similar page was deleted, has more than 3,000 followers. Last year, a distraught Cobb County parent alerted police and school officials to a site called Cobb Hook Session, which featured brawls between young people.
The fight pages are so troubling that some school districts are taking steps to address the problem by monitoring the internet. If students are caught on tape on school grounds, they could be suspended. If administrators become aware of fights off campus, they try to intervene with the help of teachers, parents, school administrators and counselors.
“It’s a big thing among the kids right now,” said Clarence Cox, head of security for Clayton County Public Schools. “We think it’s a status thing.”
The scuffles occur in classrooms, hallways, bathrooms and schoolyards. Some are staged. Many are violent free-for-alls. And, while the popularity of the recordings is on the rise, it’s not a new problem.
Fayette police encountered similar online fights eight years ago on My Space. One was a Blood-on-Crip fight — a gang recruitment video — involving nine Fayette County High School students, said Scott Israel, a juvenile detective with the Fayette County Police Department.
Social sites have been pretty good about removing fights when notified, said Israel. But not always.
“We sent off a subpoena in December 2007 to MySpace and are still waiting on the return,” he said.
Most parents are clueless about the online sites that show middle school and high school students brawling.
Page administrators approve who gets access to the page, like membership to an exclusive club. The gatekeepers of Clayco.fights, for example, warn followers not to snitch with a “Don’t Report” post on the homepage. What happens on clayco.fights, they say, is supposed to stay on clayco.fights.
“That’s horrific. It feels like the whole underground world of cockfighting or dogfighting,” said Jennifer Falk, who works with students in alternative schools and psychoeducational centers. She’s also the parent of two children who graduated from Duluth schools.
Even if the recording is staged, said Riverdale parent Tisheka Hubbard, “The play fights are very, very dangerous. Somebody could get hurt or killed.”
Students must figure out a way to resolve conflict, other than fighting, said Hubbard.
Just last week, a high school basketball star in Henry County was shot during a fight near Eagles Landing High School that drew about 20 spectators, some of whom recorded the fight. The place was a regular student hangout for sparring before police shut it down.
“Doctor said its a blessing I’m alive,” the wounded student said in a Twitter post. “God is real … just thankful to see another day.”
The recordings seem to be encouraging fighting.
Clayton schools superintendent Luvenia Jackson became aware of the problem about a year ago as more fights began “seeping into the school district.” In response, the district purchased monitoring technology.
“It’s not something peculiar to Clayton,” Jackson said. She said she has heard other superintendents talking about the problem at educational conferences.
“Most of those (fights) begin in the community and the school is where they end up coming together. Our administrators are becoming more aware of it and try to put preventive measures in place. We’re making sure there’s supervision and contacting parents to let them know what’s going on with their children.”
But, even when school districts are successful in getting the pages removed, new ones pop up, said Cox, Clayton’s school security chief.
“I call it chasing the rabbit,” Cox said. “You get an idea of what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and once they’ve figured out you’re on to them, they move on.”
Monitoring online activities increasingly difficult
Steve Teske, the chief judge of Clayton’s Juvenile Court, said he is disheartened but not surprised by the trend of what he calls online “fight clubs” — similar to the amateur fighting featured in the 1999 movie of the same name.
“The concept of fight clubs is not new. The only thing new is the form in which fight clubs are being published. Kids just enjoy all that [social] media,” said Teske, who has earned a national reputation for reducing juvenile crime.
Monitoring the online activities of a generation of schoolchildren weaned on technology is becoming increasingly difficult.
“In addition to fighting, we have seen a trend where students post inappropriate videos and other sexual content online,” said Sloan Roach, a spokesperson for Gwinnett County schools, Georgia’s largest school system.
Cobb County Police Sgt. Dana Pierce, who dealt with the Cobb hook site last year, said many kids who feel disconnected from their parents see these sites as “their moment of fame and glory.”
But Rosa Barbee, founder and president of community watchdog group Georgia Active Support and mother of an 11-year-old son, said parents must assume responsibility for their children.
“They’re wrestling just to get attention,” said Barbee. “Again, it’s parents’ responsibility to monitor their kids. Who pays for the cellphone?”
Paris Hudnall, a Riverdale mother, recently learned about the online fights from her two daughters. “Parents are the last to know because a lot of us don’t follow our kids on social media,” she said. “Monitoring your kids should be another part of parenting.”
While some adults are just now becoming aware of the fight sites, students are all too familiar.
Keyana Brown, 15, has viewed some of the online fights. She thinks today’s students, like students of the past, get a charge out of anything that breaks the routine. “What they get from it is the excitement of , like, seeing a fight, you know what I mean? School on a typical day is pretty boring.”
Combating online fights is a “slippery slope,” Cox said.
“There’s not a whole lot we can do with existing laws, unless we can show bullying or distribution of pornography,” Cox said. “But there’s hardly ever any threats.”
Teske say online student fight sites aren’t protected by free speech. There are laws against fighting — even when both people consent to fight.
“If it’s illegal, it’s not protected speech,” he said. “You can’t go into a theater and shout ‘fire’ and you can’t go into a crowd and say things to incite a riot.”
Charleia Price is familiar with the repercussions of school fights.
Her son had to learn to walk and talk again after sustaining a concussion when he was jumped by students in a bathroom at Riverdale Middle School two years ago. The family moved away, but returned this year. Price’s son attends another school in the district. .
But recently Price learned a fight between her son and another student had been posted on clayco.fights. Both kids were suspended.
The teenager said he agreed to the “play fight” to gain acceptance. He said he didn’t know it would end up online.
“I thought if I did that everybody would stop messing with me,” he said. “They think it’s funny and entertaining. It’s not really funny. It’s stupid. I didn’t need to do that.”