And so I found myself one day in the middle of a brewing fight scene. On the way to a journalism class, I sensed a crowd gathering to watch a showdown between two young men, neither of whom I knew.
“What’s going on here?” I asked. “Is there a problem?”
“There’s no problem,” said the larger one, the obvious aggressor. “This is none of your business.”
“Actually, it is my business,” I replied, now involved. “I’m a teacher, and I can’t walk away and let a fight happen.”
“What are you going to do?” he demanded, now clearly agitated. “Give me a detention? Suspend me?”
“That’s not for me to decide,” I replied, “but I’m not going to let a fight break out here.”
“Get out of my face, Dude,” he challenged. “This is none of your business.”
I became aware of other teachers arriving on the scene, attempting to shoo away the crowd, many of whom would have been only too happy to be entertained by a fight, especially one involving a teacher.
I kept talking, repeating my intentions of preventing a fight. In the meantime, the office had been notified, and the assistant principal was on his way. As the bell rang, the potential victim was led off to his next class. Some of the bystanders were confronted by other teachers.
The instigator, after having first attempted to follow his victim, then headed down the hall in the opposite direction. And I went off to journalism class.
“Mr. Deane,” said one of my students who had witnessed the scene, “you’re amazing. You’re always so calm. You never change.”
“Well,” I smiled, “I guess I’m like a duck—peaceful on the surface, but under the water, the legs are working like crazy.”
A five-day suspension was issued to the instigator the next day.
I wondered about repercussions in the following days. There was an element of potential danger. News began to filter in about the student in question, who, it turned out, was only in his second day in the school. He had come from a southern “sheriff’s” school because of past assaults on teachers and students. The guidance department, however, was having difficulty in getting a complete record.
On the day of the readmission hearing, neither the young man nor his father appeared. Calls to the address of record went unanswered. The family had disappeared. Where? Who knew?
A few days later I received a note from my department head:
A number of staff members have made me aware of your involvement in a student altercation last week and the critical role that you played in preventing serious damage and/or injury. It seems that you were in the “wrong place at the right time” to intercede in a student conflict with the potential for major escalation. All who’ve discussed this situation with me have marveled at how well you handled this situation.
While this is not an official part of your special education role, it is always rewarding to get such positive feedback about a member of our department. Thank you for “getting involved” and doing it so well.
Because I had begun my teaching career at a school for emotionally disturbed juvenile offenders, such scrapes in this suburban public high school seemed tame by comparison. Having been attacked at the former school by one student with a hammer, for example, I found stepping in to prevent a fight at my current school not to be such a big deal. I was certainly on alert, but I was not afraid.
In such a confrontation, it is important not to further provoke the situation. In most cases, the combatants are relieved to be stopped. Stepping in is often enough.
If not, the next piece of advice is not to box in an angry young man (usually). In the case in question, I did not threaten the young man. I only told him I couldn’t allow a fight. Putting a hand on him to restrain him would have escalated the situation. Threatening with detentions and suspensions puts the combatant on the spot. Those can come later, though in some situations, less volatile, they can stop trouble in its tracks. This situation called for something more subtle—a dissipation of rage through a calm approach and calm talk. Once the potential fight had been defused and the crowd had been dispersed, consequences could follow.
But for that one young man, the consequences would come at another time and another place. The temptation was to breathe a sigh of relief, but that left this young man’s issues unresolved. He was still out there.
Who would deal with him next?