Fights at Patti Welder shed light on new social environment for girls

Dec. 10, 2011 at 6:10 a.m.
Updated Dec. 12, 2011 at 6:12 a.m.

Vanessa Mosqueda received a phone call Monday that had her rushing to Patti Welder Middle School for the second time in as many weeks.

This time, a fight ended with her eighth-grade daughter's glasses busted, her scalp red from hair yanked by another girl. The week before, a fight had ended with a bloody nose.

Mosqueda, 30, said she has filed criminal complaints this year against four girls who have physically attacked her daughter.

"She doesn't feel safe," Mosqueda said. "As soon as she hears someone talking or mentioning her name, she doesn't feel safe. She's ready to leave."

Her daughter's situation seems to be part of a growing number of adolescent girls who are resorting to physical violence to solve otherwise typical teenage problems. From 1996 to 2005, arrests of girls charged with simple assault increased 24 percent, while arrests of boys for the same crime decreased 4 percent, according to data from the FBI.

Opinions are mixed about whether the statistics reveal an actual increase in violence among girls or just an increased awareness and crack-down on bullying, as Patti Welder Principal Carlos Garza characterizes it.

But Mosqueda and another mom of a Patti Welder student tell of a social terrain that just this year has left them so scared for the safety of their daughters, they refuse to send the girls to school.

Scared of school

"I'm at a loss. I'm not sending my child somewhere where she may not come back," Terena Terral, 34, said.

Terral's daughter, an honors student and cheerleader, has missed two weeks of school recently, fearing the same group of girls that has attacked her friend, Mosqueda's daughter. Terral said her daughter's grades have slipped, as her days become less about learning and more about looking over her shoulder.

Mosqueda's daughter has missed the same amount of school, as threats and fear escalated, the daughter said. Some days she gets spooked and leaves classes early. Other days, Mosqueda comes to school with her to act as a protector in the hallways and classrooms. The daughter has begun seeing a therapist.

The moms point to a clique of 12 or so girls, mostly eighth-graders, who are involved in a tangle of arguments about boys or name-calling, dirty looks or he-said, she-said and sometimes just who's friends with whom. Some of the girls used to be their daughters' friends, while others they've never talked to.

The fights are only exacerbated by social media like Facebook. Mosqueda has turned over to the school and police Facebook posts from classmates, which are littered with curse-filled name calling and contempt for the consequences the school imposed after the fights. One student, meanwhile, bragged online about not getting in trouble after hitting Mosqueda's daughter in an incident earlier this year.

Girl fights

The girls' situations have marks of both traditional teasing among girls and a turn toward more physical responses.

Girls are still less violent than boys, said Anitra Shelton-Quinn, director of school psychology at UHV. They're more apt to ostracize other girls or spread rumors than throw a punch.

But on par with national trends, Victoria schools seem to be reporting more instances of girls fighting or instigating fights, said Diane Boyett, district communications director.

"That's part of that difference - how girls are resolving their differences now. You used to go off and say bad things about them ... and now the level of physical response is actually increasing among females," Boyett said.

Shelton-Quinn said much of the appeal toward fighting could come from the way new media - such as cell phone videos - have turned physical aggression into a way to gain peer-acceptance.

The two students from Patti Welder said several of their peers have fights from the hallways saved on their cell phones.

Plenty of girl fights can be found with a quick search of YouTube, and some are even scrutinized in the national media.

"There's some type of recognition girls are getting from it," Shelton-Quinn said.

Social media has overhauled the dynamic of how adolescents relate to each other and how schools can respond, Shelton-Quinn said.

Previously, altercations were mostly confined to the school grounds.

"Now that it's on Facebook and texting ... it's a little bit more difficult to identify and to contain. It becomes widespread in a matter of seconds," Shelton-Quinn said.

When an ostracizing comment or a rumor reaches a large audience quickly, the affects can be particularly harsh for girls, who report being depressed more often than boys.

"Girls tend to deal with those things a little differently. The requirement that society imposes on girls as it relates to physical perfection ... becomes a detriment to the way she perceives her existence," she said.

Boyett called Facebook the latest tool in the arsenal of bullies, but said the school has limited power when it comes to what students say outside of school.

"They have First Amendment rights, and the school district can't infringe on those until their First Amendment rights have infringed on the learning environment," she said.

Our schools

The school district has set forth a broad spectrum of consequences when it comes to fighting or bullying in school. Each campus, then, is charged with determining and enforcing the consequences based on the circumstances of each fight. Each middle and high school in VISD has a police officer on campus, too.

At Patti Welder, Garza said, each investigation of fight begins with asking students specific questions from a standard form. Using interviews and footage caught on cameras across campus, the administration then decides who's responsible for the fight and whether it's mutual or one-sided.

"Oftentimes, we'll do mediation with one of our trained counselors, who is a mediator. We get parental permission to do that, and 98 percent of the time, that resolves the issue," Garza said.

For ongoing problems that can't be solved through mediation, the school may impose in-school suspension, send a student to Mitchell Guidance Center, or ask students to sign a bully contract that defines specific expectations and consequences for students, Garza said.

Boyett said 69 Patti Welder students have been reported to be in a fight, instigating a fight or involved in bullying since the beginning of the school year.

Comparing that number to other middle schools may not provide an accurate picture, Boyett said. Each year, schools devise a campus improvement plan that may, for example, crack down on fighting by reporting minor offenses, which inflates their numbers. Other schools, meanwhile, may focus their improvement plans on different issues unique to their campuses and handle small conflicts internally.

But Garza said the number of violent incidents at Patti Welder is actually down from last year, as statistics from the first six weeks of school show a 60 percent decrease in those reports.

He attributes the drop to programs aimed at promoting positive behavior - such as the school's Cub Camp and Destination Success programs.

"I don't know about an increase in bullying, but I think we have an increase in awareness, which is good," Garza said.

While the school cracked down on the girls actually involved with physical altercations against her daughter, Mosqueda said she felt the school had little power to diffuse a larger group of alleged instigators. She requested to transfer her daughter to the only middle school with room to take on another student - Howell Middle School. On Friday afternoon, she got word the transfer was approved, after two weeks of waiting and after one final fight that broke her daughter's glasses.

Terral, meanwhile, said she took her daughter out of Patti Welder and enrolled her in a correspondence course.

Looking ahead

Mosqueda and Terral said they were often frustrated by the bureaucracy and sometimes slow response from their daughters' former school.

They were mostly upset that their daughters missed so much class time because of fear.

But for the most part, they recognize the difficult new social terrain both adolescents and adults are trying to navigate.

"I know that (the school is) trying to do the best they can do on their end. But as a community, we need to step up," Mosqueda said.

Shelton-Quinn said her fear - manifested in Mosqueda and Terral's daughters - is that aggression in schools will deter some students from getting an education. She and her colleague, Trina Gordon, have started the Village Builders project, which will work with VISD to end bullying and address problems children are facing in school.

But even with more programs to target bullying, Shelton-Quinn said ending abuse in schools will take a community effort.

"It really does take a village to raise a child. It takes parents connecting with the school and the children, and the schools connecting even with the social networking sites in order to halt this constant torment," she said.



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