Last school year, New Bedford Public Schools saw a sharp increase in the number of physical fights among students. The high school disciplined more students for fighting than any other school in Massachusetts, with 195 students needing to be removed from the learning environment, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Students say online rumors and arguments started many of the conflicts, while experts caution this trend could indicate students’ emotional trauma or mental health issues, potentially resulting from the pandemic.

Though New Bedford High is one of the larger schools in the state, the number of students disciplined outpaced other large high schools: Brockton High ranked second in this category with about 50 fewer; Haverhill High, with 90 fewer, ranked third.

As a district, New Bedford Public Schools reported more students disciplined for fighting than bigger districts like Boston, Worcester, Lynn and Lowell. The only district in the state with more infractions was Springfield, a school system double the size of New Bedford.

Despite repeated requests, school administrators, including high school principal Bernadette Coelho, were not made available for an interview.

However, interviews with students and teachers indicate that an aggressive internet culture and delayed behavioral development among younger high schoolers (who largely missed their first two years of the in-person high school experience) contributed to the frequency of fights in school.

"It was kids coming out of COVID and not knowing how to act," said E.T., a New Bedford High School student, here identified by initials to avoid personal repercussions. Over the pandemic, many students turned to Instagram for social connection, E.T. said, where arguments were easily set off in comment sections. When schools returned to in-person learning, those online arguments spilled into the buildings, leading to physical altercations.

"I heard what you said about me on Instagram, let's fight," E.T. summarized.

Luis Bonilla, a math teacher who left the district for personal reasons after last year, said he saw "more fights than I've experienced in 17 years of teaching." He recalls personally breaking up fights about once per month during his lunch duty, and would also frequently call security when fights occurred in the hallways.

"Kids forgot how to behave after COVID," Bonilla said. "It's easy to get frustrated when you're behind academically."

Another high school student, O.V., knew a few people involved in the fights, but mostly noticed them "because teachers would get injured. They'd be out the next day."

These students said that comment sections attached to student-run accounts on Instagram and other social media platforms drove a combative culture. Many of the accounts intended to be humorous: one functions like a parody of yearbook superlatives, awarding titles for the "nicest girl" or the "best couple" — but it also makes fun of people for addiction, smoking, and perceived promiscuity.

Another account collected candid photos of students from anonymous submissions and posted them to hundreds of followers. Even on lighthearted posts, students became easily embarrassed in the comments.

Both of the accounts described above, and several others, are still active.

Experts link fights to cyberbullying and personal trauma

Marco Chacon, a doctoral candidate at UC San Diego, conducted research that found both cyberbullying and in-school bullying were significantly associated with fighting.

"That is a lot," Chacon, who previously taught in New York, Chicago and Kansas City for 10 years, said of the 195 infractions at New Bedford High. His study, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence with a co-author, discovered that students who were involved in a fight were 2.5 times more likely to have been bullied and also more than twice as likely to have been cyberbullied.

He said that the descriptions of online rumors, mocking and arguments in New Bedford fit the trends suggested by his research: that fighting is a product of other associated behaviors.

"Threats of physical harm are very visible, but it’s something that’s less visible that’s more common," he said.

Yet at New Bedford High School, the same official report that showed so many fights also reported no instances of bullying. Zero.

"That would not reflect the national trends that we saw," Chacon said.

"It was very common [to see] some level of bullying," he said, but added that "it would be easy to be unaware of it.”

For the students interviewed, the online culture dominated their experience during the pandemic and, to a great extent, shaped their return to in-person learning. Rumors, mocking and arguments — which are all forms of bullying — were part of that culture. But the official report submitted to the state does not reflect their experiences.

Chacon said that adults in the school buildings often aren't aware of all that goes on. For example, he said that when students and teachers are asked to estimate bullying and cyberbullying, teachers usually say it happens less often than students do.

When teachers build relationships with students and learn intervention and de-escalation techniques, they can improve safety and learning, Chacon said. In addition, having a favorable ratio of school counselors ensures that teachers have support. The American School Counselor Association suggests one counselor for every 250 students.

More troubling, students involved in fights were far more likely to be victims of sexual violence, exhibit depressive symptoms, and report alcohol use, according to Chacon's research.

In short, in-school fighting indicates that there are a high number of risk factors in a student's life, and should set off "a need for investigation and alarm," Chacon said. "Are there these other negative experiences and vulnerabilities?"

How schools are responding

Though the fights seem to have abated this year, a number of new policies surveil and monitor students.

The administration has closed a large number of school bathrooms during the day, and teachers take turns sitting in desks outside the remaining few to check students in and out. According to the students, this policy has as much to do with curtailing vaping as it does with school fights, and overall it makes them feel safer.

"I feel a lot more safe this year," said E.T.

Students must also carry personal school IDs with them, another new measure that these students supported. O.V. said that some students used to leave the building to get fast food, but now an alarm blares whenever they try to exit. Limiting and tracking movement, O.V. said, ensures that "we're not letting weird random people in."

As for direct support of student's mental health, Coelho, the high school principal, said in a previous statement to The Light that "our school adjustment counselors are… instrumental in helping to resolve the peer-to-peer conflicts with mediations."

This was part of what Coelho has described as "restorative justice," or an approach to discipline that seeks to repair harm and help students to learn from their mistakes.

In New Bedford, there are now 77 school counselors, which makes a ratio of one counselor for every 162 students, a number better than the average in every state in the country. 

Chacon, the researcher and former teacher, says that a number of specific strategies could also help, including staffing the appropriate number of mental health professionals, explicitly instructing teachers on de-escalation strategies, and planning curriculum and class activities that build social cohesion through intentional grouping.

Hard-line discipline, like suspensions, are not effective, he said.

"People who are suspended are more likely to have worse behavior in the future," said Chacon, explaining that suspension and expulsion can worsen attendance, drag on school performance, and create a cycle of frustration and violence.

As for the students, they wanted to be included in the decisions that affected their daily lives. "Maybe I could help you come up with solutions," said O.V.

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@newbedfordlight.org

Correction: An earlier version of this report contained inaccurate information about the number of fights in New Bedford High School and other Massachusetts schools last year. Records compiled by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education listed the number of students who were disciplined for fighting, not the number of actual fights.

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