January 7, 2008

no good options

Last week, this week, both wild. We came back to school on Wednesday; by Friday, there was a fight in the lunchroom that ate my 7th period class. Maybe six kids just didn't make it back up; another two or three left in the middle of class, either called by a vice principal or too angry to stay in the room; two kids had an argument that led to one of them threatening to shoot the other; four kids were screaming so they couldn't be calmed down at all. Maybe eight kids got suspended in all.

While I'm generally pretty inclined to tell my students to suck it up and conform to school expectations (be quiet while I'm talking; get to class on time; yes you have to do homework), this isn't one of those times. Turns out they're in an untenable situation in which normal high school drama meets a community with a lot of casual violence. Two kids were dating, now they're not; one of them won't let it go, and it's making their friends take sides. Some of the friends think (correctly) that this is the type of petty bullshit that will be forgotten within six months, so they don't want to take sides. Except that the kids who have taken sides respond to that by saying that if people won't take sides, they're on their own if they get jumped. The security situation in the neighborhood is such that kids who don't have other people 'riding' for them are vulnerable to getting bruises and maybe worse if a rumor starts, or they argue with someone, or they're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. So keeping your friends is a safety issue. And how do you keep your friends? You ride for your friends, escalating this petty bullshit so there are more fights, less learning, more chances for someone to really get hurt.

It's striking to me how much this matches what I know of civil war violence (especially from the Political Schmientist, who is hereby invited to weigh in). Slightly less polarized, because most of these kids are not involved in any kind of national gang factions, but the same risk in trying to sit out the conflict. Historically, this city has had less presence from national gangs than most, partly because there was a strong Mafia presence (or so I'm told), partly because we've been busy tearing ourselves apart (like Baltimore in The Wire).1 That may be changing - I've heard a lot more national gang talk this year than last year at school, which is about as anecdotal as you get, but hey. In a chaotic environment in which people are used to having to take sides to protect themselves from violence, adding a national gang presence would be immediately polarizing - like adding an ideology. Instead of primarily local conflicts, there would be more sources of enmity and violence, with the same high penalty for non-involvement. Same petty bullshit, even more ways to get killed.

A good chunk of this originates in the extent to which my students and the other people in their neighborhood are marginalized and denied necessary resources by mainstream economic and governmental insititutions. As a tiny example: this NY Times article lists the average student load for counselors in public schools as about 311 students, and describes that as a very high load for a suburban New York school. At my public inner city school, where parents are by and large unable to get their children desperately needed therapy for learning disabilities, trauma, and mental health issues, there are four counselors for 1800 students. That's a student load of 450, almost 50% higher than the student load in affluent suburbs, in a situation where counselors need to provide far more services (not because kids are crazier, but because parents have fewer resources on their own). Multiply this many times, and you get the school system; throw in a criminal justice system that has alienated and angered the community, and the difficulty of getting jobs, and it's no wonder people have no love for the mainstream. In this environment, gangs flourish as state competitors, offering state services like security and support in bad times, and economic opportunity unavailable through mainstream sources. The neighborhood has a lot of state contact, but it's almost all negative - unsurprising, then, that alternatives become available, competitive, necessary, even when they are absolutely poisonous.

1. The Wire is probably the best TV show ever made, and I've only made it through Season 1. I haven't watched that much Sopranos, so I'll make that disclaimer up front, but here's the thing: the Wire has vast social commentary, minutely observed characterization, beautiful filming, some of the best acting I've ever seen, incredible moral complexity, throw-away lines that say more than an entire season of some other show. And it has that in every episode. I'd argue for The Wire over The Sopranos if only for the critical importance of understanding urban poverty. And if you want to know what inner city poverty is like, you could make a worse start than working your way through it. It's violent, it's depressing, it's complicated, it's about half in dialect, and it's worth every second. Now go back to what you were reading.


the fire boss said...

Yo there. This doesn't touch the larger scope of your article, but I wonder if the kids involved in taking sides could get access to ways of responding to the conflict that isn't violent. I'm thinking of mediating emotional conflict, talking things out, looking for opportunities to acknowledge conflicting positions without spontaneous retribution. Is there or could there be some kind of pro bono counseling work done by professionals?

Laurel said...

Theoretically, there is. I don't know how best to structure it - there was an appearance by Beanie Siegel at the school recently, but it focused on murder, not conflict resolution. (Not that those two are unrelated.) There's a counseling group working with all the 10th grade girls every Tuesday morning to talk shop. One problem is, any individual kid adopting those strategies faces a collective action problem: try to mediate, get misinterpreted, get jumped. This also ties into the whole 450 kids/counselor deal and the general lack of enough (and enough competent) support staff.