19. Defusing Fights
Updated: May 1, 2020
“I would compare the spread of violence at turbulent schools to the transmission of a contagious virus," Ada Wright told us on the first training day of the summer term.
The term had got off to a great start. Behaviour and attendance at the Easter Holiday revision classes had been excellent. A new Head of Science had just been appointed. And on the training day that began the summer term, we had talks on defusing fights and the toxic class by one of the first headteachers in the UK to adopt Guided Discipline.
“Few Inspectors will have had your experience of overcoming such chronic disruption,” Ada told staff. “As you have shown, negative incidents can be halved in a term. You’re not just training pupils in unthinking obedience. You’re creating a virtuous circle of constructive school norms, within which pupils can develop more responsible work habits. They will already have begun to reflect more deeply and engage in more serious discourse, as you’ll have noticed.
The same public health strategies as those deployed in overcoming Ebola can curtail school violence. So far, you have learned to damp down everyday tensions. You have used rules, praise and sanctions to prevent conflict or deal with it after it turns violent. Today’s focus will be on the exchange of blows.
“First advice: never intervene in altercations alone. Groups of two or preferably three teachers should move in whenever crowds gather in the playground. Walk directly and calmly towards the aggressors as soon as you see them squaring up. The pupils on the edge of a fight have a key role to play in stoking animosity. The bigger the group, the more serious the issue. The excitement of a brawl spreads the contagion of violence and stokes the vicious cycle of destructive norms.
“As in all mammals, the threat of attack produces a hormonal cascade. You’ll all know about the fight/ flight response. Adolescent skirmishes have a three-part pattern. The first stage is a confrontation; the second an exchange of blows; the third a lull. This cycle will be repeated until the less aggressive teen withdraws. You should synchronise your approach with the first signs of flight, so you can turn these hormonal changes to your advantage.
“Keep calling the aggressors by name. Tell them both to back off. Once the students have started to grapple, you have to look to your own safety, though. Timing is crucial. The lull is the key. Approach the one who looks at the teacher first, as he or she is likely to be the less aggressive. The second adult should deal with the more belligerent pupil. Both students should be isolated, just as a doctor would isolate the carriers of Ebola. The third teacher has to disperse the crowd. The bigger the audience, the harder it is for the combatants to lose face. The audience will want to wait until the show is over. The third teacher has to keep calling crowd members by name to leave.”
Ada showed us a YouTube video to demonstrate the three stages of a fight, then called for volunteers to act out the procedures in role play. John Sugar, the Kick Boxing PE teacher, took the lead role. A couple of his colleagues conducted a slow-motion comedy fight, while I acted as the second teacher. Kylie Lawrence, the Head of PE, told the rest of the staff the fight was finished and they should immediately disperse. Ada had Easter eggs ready to give the PE Department.
They were at the centre of much good-natured banter during the morning break. And they took a leading role in defusing the following week’s potentially lethal playground confrontation.