In recent years, Tyler ISD has had some of the highest number of fighting incidents on campus when compared to 12 other school districts of similar size and location.

The state, campuses and school districts keep track of the number of fights on campus.

The state defines fighting/mutual combat as "two or more students or persons that choose to mutually engage in physical combat using blows or force to strive to overcome the other student(s) or person(s)."

During the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which state data is available, Tyler ISD had 305 incidents of fighting/mutual combat districtwide, resulting in 253 students receiving in-school suspension, according to Texas Education Agency data. This was second highest among the compared districts.

That same year, there were 782 incidents of fighting/mutual combat that resulted in 447 students receiving out-of-school suspensions.

This was the highest number of incidents in this category for the compared districts.

Eight incidents resulted in eight students receiving placement in the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program that year.

This was among the lowest for the compared school districts, with only four others below this, with three of them with no incidents, according to the data.

The school districts used for the comparison had student enrollment between 10,000 and 24,999 students during the 2011-12 school year.

They also were located in what the Texas Education Agency refers to as a central city.

This means that each school district during that school year was not considered major urban or major suburban, was located in a county with a population between 100,000 and 824,999, and had the largest district enrollment in the county or at least 75 percent of the largest district enrollment, according to the Texas Education Agency website.

The 13 districts considered for this comparison were, from largest to smallest: Denton, Midland, Beaumont, Tyler, Abilene, Bryan, Waco, Wichita Falls, San Angelo, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City, Brazosport, Georgetown and Burleson.

Denton had the largest enrollment at 24,738 students for the 2011-12 school year. Burleson had the smallest at 10,221 that school year. TISD ranked fourth largest with 18,336.

The districts also presented a mix demographically. TISD had almost 70 percent economically disadvantaged students that year. That ranked third highest among the 13 school districts.

Waco ISD had the most at 88 percent economically disadvantaged and Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City had the least at 27.6 percent.

Although the state does not provide this same type of data for individual campuses, TISD provided it for the past three school years.

In 2010-11, Robert E. Lee had 86 incidents of fighting/mutual combat, while John Tyler had 55. During the 2011-12 school year, Lee had 38 while John Tyler had 53. Last school year, 2012-13, Lee had 36 incidents and John Tyler 86.

Ken Vaughn, Tyler ISD's chief student and support services officer, said the spike in incidents at John Tyler was a result of staff members reporting "everything," even some more minor incidents.

 

VIRAL VIDEO

A fight last month on the Robert E. Lee High School campus brought the issue to the forefront.

In video from the fight, students can be seen hitting each other before adults and other students reportedly broke up the incident.

The fight, which occurred Oct. 16, started before school about 7:50 a.m. and involved four girls.

District spokeswoman Dawn Parnell said it began in the cafeteria, and the adult who was there asked for backup before intervening, which is procedure.

Once the fight was broken up, the students were sent outside, where they began fighting again in the breezeway. In total, the fight lasted about five minutes, Ms. Parnell said.

No weapons other than the girls' hands were involved, and Ms. Parnell said teachers and students helped to break up the fight.

The students involved sustained minor injuries and were treated and released by the school nurse, Vaughn said.

He declined to discuss the specific disciplinary actions, saying only "it was appropriate, according to the situation."

Although three Tyler ISD police officers are assigned to the Lee campus, they were not in the cafeteria at the time of the fight.

However, even before the officers arrive on campus in the morning, TISD has one police officer patrolling the south part of town and one in the north in case of incidents, officials said.

In addition, between 10 and 15 faculty and/or staff members are supposed to be on the Lee campus in the morning to monitor "hot spots" where students hang out, but they are not assigned to specific locations, Vaughn said.

Although the fight received a lot of publicity through social media and news outlets, it is not indicative of what's happening on the high school campuses, district officials said.

 

FIGHT FREE

Robert E. Lee Principal Gary Brown said physical altercations on campus happen sporadically. Lee, which has about 2,500 students, went for a long stretch of time this year, possibly six weeks, with no incidents, Brown said. And that is frequently the case.

"Most days we go by and have zero anything, no shove," he said.

But then a day will come along when they have multiple random incidents. Brown said he is pleased to know based on the reports he receives that all of the physical altercations he is aware of in the past 18 months were unrelated.

"That's a concern as an administrator … if we have things that are tied together, do we have people acting together in groups?" Brown said. "We do not have that situation (at) all."

Brown said he doesn't even use the term "fight" because an incident seldom rises to the level where two people are "squared off" and punching.

Still, Brown said the campus is proactive to work with students who are struggling or dealing with some challenges with other students.

"We do a thorough job of following up in every imaginable way … to make sure that if something does rise to that level that it doesn't go any further …" he said. "That's a critical piece."

John Tyler High School Principal Dr. Kenneth Gay said the campus has had no fighting incidents brought to his attention this school year. He said the campus has put systems and plans in place to keep students accountable, motivated and on task.

Some of these systems include a dress code that requires male students to wear collared shirts and tuck them in and male staff to wear ties Monday through Wednesday. The idea is to prepare students to be successful in college, the military or the workforce, he said.

In addition, the campus provides incentive parties for students with good attendance and no behavioral issues, selects two students of the month for each grade level, and recognizes a teacher in each department.

"Instead of focusing on negative behavior, we're rewarding good behavior," Gay said.

Still, things can happen, and if a negative incident were to occur, the campus would deal with it immediately, look at the root cause, and put a plan in place so that it doesn't happen again, he said.

"Any school you go to has issues," Gay said. "I'm just thankful at this time that we have buy-in from the students as well as the staff as well as the community. A lot of people are proud of John Tyler right now."

 

MIDDLE SCHOOL

Vaughn said the majority of the incidents classified as fighting/mutual combat occur at the middle school level.

"In the junior high is the first time you have a mix from the different schools," he said.

That is a time when students are figuring out their place on campus, and sometimes that leads to confrontations.

The way in which the district responds to these confrontations requires a balance of providing discipline but also maintaining a strong educational environment.

Ms. Parnell said it is imperative that the district removes students from the classroom if they are disruptive, because other students need to be able to focus.

Vaughn said some school districts have a policy in place that if a student gets into one fight, they are placed in alternative school. TISD has not gone that far. Administrators review incidents on a case-by-case basis and provide the response that is appropriate for the situation, Vaughn said.

"We want our campuses to be safe," he said. "We want our kids to be safe … We have to change that dynamic and the culture on that campus and that's a huge piece."

The goal is to get the students back in class and change their behavior as soon as possible. Sometimes that is accomplished through teaching them the right way to respond, other times through punitive measures, he said.

As far as TISD compares to the other districts, Ms. Parnell said they can't speak to other districts' philosophies or standards, but only their own.

"We want to have those students who are there ready to learn and in the classroom and for them to have a quality (education)," she said.

If that means removing students who are disruptive, they will. But any suspension or alternative school placement will mean a statistic reported to the district and the state. And that's something Vaughn is OK with because the more information he receives, the better able he is to address the needs on campuses.

Some of the factors that have contributed to the improvements in student behavior and campus climate include a school district police department, an emphasis on administrators being present and visible on campus and intentional relationship building between adults and students.

In addition, community organizations such as Walk-the-Hall Moms and WATCH D.O.G.S., which are dads, put male and female role models on campus for the students to see. The Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support program also has had a good effect.

The more adults forming positive relationships with students on campus, the better, district officials said.

"We don't want fights going on on campus …" Vaughn said. "If one fight occurs, we're not happy with that at all. Have we made improvements in that area? Absolutely."

 

CAMPUS CLIMATE

Parents and students have mixed opinions about the realities of fighting on campus. Some perceive an increase in the incidents over time while others believe they have decreased and it's not a huge problem.

Lee senior Cesar Hernandez, 17, said fights are more common because people gather in groups a lot on campus. He said they typically start with verbal sparring and escalate from there.

Hernandez said in his estimation it's a small percentage of students on campus who are involved in the fights while a large percentage of students are following the rules.

"It doesn't affect me," he said. "I basically just ignore the fights."

John Tyler junior Ferguson Battles, 17, said in his experience fights seem to happen on an irregular basis, maybe once a month or so.

Battles himself was involved in one his freshman year when he and a peer started pushing each other and ended up in a punching match before a principal broke them up.

Battles and the other student were suspended for three days. Battles said his father was upset with him afterward and he used the incident as a teaching tool.

"It was a learning thing for me to, to like watch what I get into and I was kind of disappointed in myself because that was really avoidable," he said.

Since that time, he hasn't been involved in any fights on campus and said he feels safe on campus.

Still there's a different level today to the fights, at least in the minds of some parents.

John Tyler parent Terra Holmes said when she was a student at Lee in the mid-1980s, there were fights, but the weapons were basically students' fists or their mouths in the form of words. Now, that's not always the case, she said.

"Now fights start out as fist fights, but they escalate into something different …" said Ms. Holmes, 42, an insurance specialist. "Nowadays, when you think it's over, there's always that possibility of retaliation. … These kids sit and plot and plan now."

Although her son hasn't mentioned any fighting incidents on his campus this year, she said there's always that concern as a parent that it could happen.

John Tyler PTA President Stephen Hubbard said he is on the campus almost daily and has yet to see one fight. He said fighting is a non-issue for the campus adding that they are more focused on the academic programs, enrollment growth and preparing students for life post high school.

"We don't have a fighting issue," Hubbard said.

Lee PTA Co-President Leslie Strader said much the same thing for her campus. She said her daughter, who is a junior, has never told her about a fight on campus or any incidents that have worried her.

"I think the people who talk about the fights and worry about the fights and think about the fights aren't on campus," she said. "I think they maybe hear one thing and make a generalization."

She said Brown, the school principal, has implemented a lot of little changes on campus that have made a big difference in the environment. These include spreading administrators and counselors around campus so they have a greater presence and removing some physical structures to make certain parts of campus more visible.

"The PTA as an organization, we are all about supporting the positive reinforcement of the students that the administration is already doing," she said. "We want to reward and praise our kids for doing positive things instead of spotlighting the negative things.

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