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Why I wouldn't break up a school fight

By Robyn Barberry, Special to CNN
August 12, 2013 -- Updated 1748 GMT (0148 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Florida bus driver was criticized for failing to stop a teen beating
  • Teacher Robyn Barberry says school workers shouldn't always intervene
  • "Teachers I know are mainly qualified to fight ignorance," Barberry says
  • Barberry: "The most responsible action can be protecting yourself so you can care for others"

Editor's note: Robyn Barberry teaches English and drama at a Maryland high school. With her husband, she manages Legends of the Fog, a haunted attraction with more than 200 teen volunteers. She has a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction from Goucher College and blogs about motherhood for The Catholic Review.

(CNN) -- In Florida, a 64-year-old bus driver has been criticized for failing to physically intervene in a three-on-one fight that took place in July. The bus driver says he was afraid to step in. As a high school teacher, I can't blame him.

The adults who work in public schools are outnumbered. When a violent, hormone-fueled scene unfolds, it's our duty to quell the calamity with every resource we have in the name of safety. But where do we draw the line?

Early in my teaching career, I was afraid of some of the bigger boys at school, especially one. I could see he carried a great deal of hatred inside -- for me, for his classmates, for the world. He was tall and muscular; he could have been an athlete, but his poor grades, bad attitude and spotty record kept him from playing sports.

One afternoon, as I waited outside my classroom door, I heard a scuffle behind me. The boy I feared and another, smaller boy were shoving each other by my white board. I stepped in, and told them to stop. When they didn't, I shouted louder and told another student, my go-to helper, to get another teacher. As the shoves turned to punches, rage grew in the larger boy's eyes. The other student asked him to stop, but he had thrust his hands around his neck. I tried to pull him free, but the large boy shoved, pressing the other student and my arm against the cinder block wall. I felt trapped and frightened, and thought I might black out. Just then, two male teachers pulled the boys apart and dragged them to the office.

"Are you OK?" a third teacher said. "Look at your hand!"

My wrist was red and swollen. It hurt, but not as much as knowing I wasn't safe in my own classroom. My neighbor teacher took over my class so that I could go to the office to fill out an incident report. I could barely grip the pen. Two police officers assigned to our school urged me to file assault charges against the boys, but I insisted they just hadn't seen me. I wanted to believe that they wouldn't hurt me, but I also wondered if the boy would retaliate if the law got involved.

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Fortunately, my wrist was only sprained and I returned to work the next day in a cumbersome brace. But I kept wondering, what if the boy had pushed the other one harder? What if his anger was directed at me? Suppose it was my head that was smashed against that cinderblock wall? What if he'd had a weapon?

On the other side, what if adrenaline gave me undiscovered strength and I had hurt one of them? Could their parents sue me? Would I lose my job?

Both students were expelled, but the one I'd been afraid of eventually returned. "C'mon, man," he'd scowl when I asked him to hurry along to class. When I saw anger in his eyes, I backed away, and if needed, I asked for help.

Almost a decade later and much wiser, I'm no longer afraid of my students, but I've made some changes to how I approach fights since then. I shout at students to stop and try to keep the crowd under control from a distance. If available and in working order, I'll use a radio or phone to contact administrators or school resource officers. Their appearance usually signals the end of a fight. After all, administrators are the disciplinarians in the school, with more training and higher pay than teachers, bus drivers or janitors. Officers wear badges, carry the pepper spray and, above all, are trained for combat situations.

Of the many classes one must take in order to earn a teaching degree, not one prepares us for the possibility of classroom combat.

Supplemental training in restraints and fight intervention is made available to some teachers, but I and most other teachers I know are mainly qualified to fight ignorance. We're the ones who can prevent fights from happening in the first place.

I always ask a student who seems angrier or quieter than usual what's wrong, even if, "nothing," is the only answer I receive. I always listen to my students' seemingly banal chatter because fights seldom break out without some sort of a build up. Many times, one of my students, like a high school Don King, will bring an upcoming brawl to my attention. If fight rumors start to flood the hallways, or even if something seems a little off, it's best to bring it to the attention of the administrators or school resource officers. In many cases, students want an adult to intervene before the first fist is thrown.

I've learned that the most responsible action can be protecting yourself so you can care for others. In keeping myself safe, I'm better able to protect my other students, the innocent bystanders. I have children of my own who need me to be functioning at 100%. I'm pregnant now, and when school starts in a few weeks, I must first and foremost protect my unborn child.

For all of those reasons and more I will remain a conscientious objector during fights that occur in my classroom. As a parent, I'd expect the same of my children's teachers. I know that, like me, they didn't enter their classrooms to be prison guards, and that they'd prefer to guide children toward higher roads to civility.

Sometimes it just takes a peaceful protest to get them there.

Would you step in to stop a fight among teens? Do you expect the people who work at your child's school to do it? Share your thoughts in the comments, on CNN Living's Facebook page or on Twitter @CNNschools.

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