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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

School Climate & Safety Opinion

Students Are Physically Fighting. What Can Teachers Do?

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 24, 2023 6 min read
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In many schools, a physical fight between students is not that uncommon.

What guidelines can teachers follow when considering how to respond to the altercations?

Over the years, I have physically intervened countless times by trying to separate students. However, now that I’m older and having experienced a severely herniated disc (not fight-related), my interventions are primarily verbal—both directed at the fight participants and at encouraging onlookers to go to class—while my younger colleagues become more directly involved.

Here are some helpful ideas for teachers to consider:

‘Preventative Actions’

Philip J. Lazarus is the co-author of Creating Safe and Supportive Schools and Fostering Students’ Mental Health and senior editor of Fostering the Emotional Well-Being of our Youth: A School-Based Approach He has served as the president of the National Association of School Psychologists and the director of the school psychology training program at Florida International University:

As a second-year teacher in the mid-1970s, my future spouse, Jane, taught a classroom of high school students with challenging behaviors. This was prior to 94-142, now called IDEA—Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—and many of these students would now be labeled EBD—those with emotional or behavioral disorders. These were students who had a host of such problems. For example, one boy was so unruly that he had to be driven to school in his own self-contained bus. Another student was removed from class for carrying a gun and another for carrying a 10-inch knife. So, this was a tough and volatile crowd, and she had to plan accordingly to maintain a safe and supportive climate.

As a result, Jane engaged in preventative actions. First, she set up a well-organized, structured class and made sure there was never any downtime when students could get into trouble. Second, rules, expectations, and consequences regarding bullying, name-calling, and physical confrontations were explicitly set. Third, she got to know all her students personally and became aware when any of them seemed particularly troubled or agitated. Teachers who have a good relationship with their students are more likely to prevent potential conflicts from turning into violent confrontations. Fourth, she never took her eyes away from her students.

To respond to a fight, a well-developed plan is necessary. Here was Jane’s plan: 1. Maintain a calm demeanor, approach the fighting students, call them by name, and say, “Stop, now.” And if that did not work then say “stop” again. Remember, often students may be looking for an excuse to stop. 2. Tell the class to move away from the fight, that is, disperse the crowd. 3. Under no circumstances directly intervene in the fight. This was extremely important as the students were bigger and stronger than her. 4. Contact the office and request immediate help. 5. Before help could arrive, pick up the water-filled trash can in her room and throw water on the combatants. This was her ultimate cooling down and distraction technique. Fortunately, she only had to implement this trash can plan one time, and in all other circumstances was able to verbally de-escalate violence before it got out of hand.

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Jane had the basics correct. However, our society has become more litigious in recent decades, and consequently, here are other actions to take. Review district policies regarding teacher and staff interventions in student fights. All educators have a responsibility to take action to keep students safe. Every adult failing to act exposes students to safety risks and districts to liability claims. Taking action can mean helping to disperse the bystanders, calling for assistance, or taking note of student behaviors contributing to the incident for later reporting to administrators. It does not mean intervening physically.

However, adults may have to physically intervene to prevent students from getting hurt. The age, size, intensity of the fighting, and degree of danger will determine how many adults will be needed to separate the combatants. The previous president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, Ken Trump, has made these general suggestions regarding using force when intervening. Use of force should: (a) be reasonable, necessary, and timely in the eyes of a prudent person; (b) escalate only in response to the level of resistance and without malice by the staff member(s) using force; (c) cease once compliance is achieved; and (d) be documented (and witness statements obtained) following the incident.

Final Thoughts: We now have better methods to teach students how to self-regulate their behavior, peaceably resolve conflicts, de-stress, and manage anger. In addition, districts provide workshops to teach educators how to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations among students. Schools now need to focus on using proactive strategies (e.g., planning and prevention) and establish a culture of care to reduce the likelihood of student violence.

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Thanks to Philip for contributing his thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

What is the best advice you would offer to a teacher who might be in a situation where they have to consider intervening in a physical fight between students?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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