KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — One East Tennessee principal says he’s had enough fighting – bullying and disrespect in his hallways. So he’s solving his problem the old-fashioned way: peacefully.
When fighting’s the status quo
Halfway into interviews with students from Carpenter’s and Eagleton Middle Schools in Maryville, Tennessee, I realized I was hearing a common theme:
“There’s like – people name calling,” says one student council member, “and they don’t realize how much it’s hurting others.”
“There’s a lot of name-calling and fights,” says a student athlete.
“There’s a lot of name calling and fights at our school – it’s kids being rude, just being ornery,” adds another student council member.
“There have been some fights,” says one student who’s stopped her friends from fighting before.
“A lot of the times, we’re all friendly or whatever, but sometimes someone just slips and calls each other a name,” says a sixth-grader. “And then fights break out.”
“It’s people going like, you’re retarded or you’re stupid,” says a student artist, who says she’s been bullied but just ignores it.
“It can also be scary because you don’t know if they’re going to do it to you or not,” says another sixth grader.
Tori, Ryan, Noah, Kiera, Ashton and Jordan face that reality at school, and they say it’s a problem for other students at Carpenters and Eagleton middle schools in Maryville.
Mike Crabtree is working to change that. “I’m glad they said that to you; I’m glad they were able to say hey – this is something that concerns us,” Crabtree says.
Bullying - or something else?
Crabtree is the principal at Carpenters Middle. He knows about the problem – but he also knows that despite training teachers to handle bullies and working to catch fights before they happen – he can’t stop all the run-ins.
“It’s not as simple as , ‘Find out who the bully is and take care of it.’ There’s a lot of factors that go into it, but part of it is asking kids what’s going on. Whether it meets the legal definition of bullying or not, it’s kids being mean to other kids,” he adds.
As a former high school principal, Crabtree says high school students were confident enough to come to him before fights broke out – but now that he’s in charge of a middle school, he finds the impressionable middle-schoolers worry if they tell adults, they’ll lose face, be called a snitch – or worse.
“They’re afraid – if they don’t take up for themselves physically, they’re afraid they’ll be picked on even more,” he says. “Parents share that concern,” he says, adding that he thinks it’s a cultural response even outside of the South. And he says it’s a response he feels has contributed to the culture of fighting back that repeats itself in his school hallways.
“No parent wants their child bullied, and there is a safe, old traditional remedy,” he says, “and that’s – ‘You stick up for yourself, you fight if you have to.’ But there’s other ways to handle it, and that’s what we try to tell [these students].”
Crabtree says it’s a problem that’s playing out nationwide. But he also says he doesn’t think a national solution would work in East Tennessee.
“I don’t believe that we could buy a program or we could hire a speaker to come in and it solve our problems. Other people have done that and it hadn’t solved theirs,” he says. “What would work?”
Building a peaceful school
Then Crabtree had an idea, born of school anti-violence awareness campaigns, Martin Luther King Day events and the Beatles songs he listens to regularly. He says “Here Comes The Sun” embodies the inspiration he wanted his students to feel. Crabtree called Vandy Kemp, a former colleague, with his plan. She describes the conversation:
“And he said, I think what I want to do is focus on is the notion of creating a peaceful school that doesn’t welcome bullying, that doesn’t allow bullying to happen.”
Kemp is the Dean of Students at Maryville College, a small private university a couple of miles from Crabtree’s school. As a former principal, she immediately understood what Crabtree was saying.
“Bullying doesn’t happen where grownups are around. It does happen where kids are,” she says. ”And honestly, I believe that the only people that can affect bullying at a school are the kids themselves.”
First steps in a Peace Project
Kemp and Crabtree decided if they were gonna try this – they were gonna do it big. With support from the county’s schools and Maryville College behind the project, Crabtree invited six schools across district lines to a “Peace Project” kickoff day just before summer break.
“What we’re trying to do is give kids some options, and these guys, being able to go back in the hallway, we’re not there all the time, we shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t be a police state in the schools,” he says. “But we should have a group of kids who know how to say – Chill. Let’s talk about this.”
So school staff trained kids to stop fights before they happen while Maryville College students in a “Mountain Challenge” leadership program led outdoor teambuilding exercises. And each school asked teachers to send students chosen for the influence they seemed to have on diverse peer groups instead of on school-wide popularity or academics.
“Twelve year olds listen to twelve year olds,” Crabtree says. “My hope is that once it’s established, the kids will take pride in it, and they’ll say, this is how we do things here.”
VIDEO EXTRA: What is “Mountain Challenge?” Click here to watch full-screen.
Student leaders guide the effort
Kiera Reagan is a new student leader in the Peace Project. She’ll show next year’s sixth graders what a peaceful school looks like.
“Nobody’s crying, nobody’s getting picked on, everybody’s laughing and talking with everybody else,” she says.
I asked if she thought it could happen.
“I think it could,” she says. “And I honestly think it should.”
Maryville College will track the program next year to see exactly what works and what doesn’t. Participating schools plan to introduce the “Peace Project” to all students at a district-wide football jamboree this August. But Crabtree says if these students go back to their schools with Keera’s determination to change the status quo – he’s already been successful.
Key Student Leaders: