“So, you really want to hear that story?” she says, glancing toward her friend, Deanna Riggins, before looking back at the reporter seated in front of her. “OK, but before I start, I just want you to know I am really a happy girl. I want everyone to like me. I want to be cool with everyone.”
Shalana squares her shoulders and begins.
“Yeah, I got into a fight once,” the 17-year-old Elyria High School senior says. “It started because this girl was talking about me, calling me names, and I just got tired of it. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
The story Shalana tells sends a shiver through Merry Brown, a retired school teacher who tried last year to stop school officials from expelling Shalana for the brawl. On a recent Wednesday evening, she sat near Shalana inside a classroom at Second Baptist Church, a southside Elyria church that houses Brown’s Adopt-A-School program.
Brown started the nonprofit tutoring program to help youth stay current on coursework when they could not go to school. Typically, the reason is they have been expelled.
She shakes her head in disbelief as she listens to Shalana.
“I know girls just like her, so many girls,” Brown says. “All I want to know is why are our girls so angry? Why do they go from zero to 250 so fast and in such a violent way?”
Brown is not the only one wondering why teenage girls — specifically black girls — are choosing to go to blows over boys, gossip, respect and sometimes something as simple as a dirty look shot across a crowded hallway.
Elyria High discipline statistics for the past two years paint a picture of black girls leading the pack in the number of violent fights and assaults. And Elyria police reports tell the stories of young girls who are brutally attacked in the streets, often left battered and bruised by their female attackers.
Such an incident just happened Tuesday.
A 13-year-old girl told police she was walking home near Lake and Foster avenues around 7:30 p.m. when she was jumped by three black girls she did not know. She was alone.
According to the police report, the teenage girl was struck in the face by one of the girls with an unknown object and pulled to the ground by her hair. The females pummeled the girl’s head and body, and she was stabbed in the right leg with a screwdriver. After the brutal attack, the girls ran off and the young teen crawled home.
The police report said her mother took her to the hospital, where her swollen and bloodied face was treated by doctors. Officers took pictures of the stab wound to her leg. However, no one has been arrested because the teen was unable to give officers any information on her attackers.
The problem has been on the radar for those who work with the schools, but until this year, no one really has been talking about it. New Principal Tom Jama, however, is, and he wants the public to know that this is larger than just a school problem.
Not having homework or being late for school is a school problem, he says, but teenage girls fighting with no regard for each other is a community issue that has to be addressed now — and publicly.
A fight or premeditated attack
Shalana says her fight happened in the middle of last school year, her junior year, when she was still figuring out what her life should hold.
She was eating lunch when a girl she called a friend came to her with a juicy piece of gossip: Shalana was being talked about by another girl in the school. It wasn’t the first time Shalana says she had heard such tales, and she decided that day she was ready to get to the bottom of the drama.
“So I went to her classroom. I went there to talk to her and see if it was true,” Shalana says. “I called her out of her classroom, and I just asked her point blank if she was talking about me, and she said, ‘Yeah, b—-, I said it.’ She hit me twice, and at first I couldn’t believe it.”
After the initial shock of the blows wore off, Shalana says her immediate instinct was to throw her fists up to fight. She was no longer a child who could just run to tell a teacher. She had to defend herself because everyone was watching.
“I don’t even really remember what I did. I just started hitting her back,” she says. “We were in the hallway, and all these people were around telling us to fight. They were amping me up.”
The fight didn’t last long. School officials quickly broke it up. But the scuffle disrupted several classrooms as other students ran into the hallway to catch a glimpse of the fight.
Shalana’s punishment was swift and harsh: A 10-day suspension pending an expulsion hearing.
“They called my mother and told her there was going to be an expulsion hearing,” the teen recalls. “She cried, and I was just in shock because I knew I was going to be expelled. I was going to be out of school for a long time.”
Brown said she remembers the expulsion hearing well.
“Her mother was in disbelief,” the veteran teacher says. “She was crying, and there was nothing that could be done. She was going to be out of school for at least 80 days. This is a girl who is just your average girl — a shy, quiet girl that stays to herself. She just cares too much about what others think and doesn’t want people to be mad at her.”
Shalana slouches slightly in her chair as she talks about the reason given by school officials for her expulsion — words she said contradict her true personality. Shalana sought out the girl. She was the aggressor. The fight was a premeditated act of violence.
The fight was the only one Shalana has had at Elyria High in the three years she has been at the school on Middle Avenue. But it was enough for school officials.
They had seen enough fighting by students — especially black female students — in the building, and have for years been battling the violence in the only way they know how: a zero-tolerance policy that basically translates to “You fight, you leave.”
It’s not just an EHS problem
Jama knew the history — both the good and the bad — of the building before he agreed this school year to be the principal. He came in as a much-sought-after administrator known for caring about students and for fighting hard for academic success.
Elyria is considered one of the 21 urban districts in the state, and, unlike other municipalities where it is typical for elementary students to test better than high school students, Elyria is the exact opposite.
Elyria High has some of the highest test scores in the district. In August, the Ohio Department of Education gave the school an “effective” rating, which roughly translates to a B on its academic report card.
However, the building of roughly 2,000 students is still a microcosm of every socioeconomic issue in the community — poverty, drugs, teenage pregnancy, single-parent households, absentee fathers and public housing. The students come from every kind of household, Jama said, from caring, working-class families to low-income homes where they are basically raising themselves.
“But that is why I love being here,” Jama said earlier this month from a seat inside his office in the still-being-constructed $70 million building.
His care for students is evident all over the room. Behind him, a long red gown hangs from a hanger and a pair of brown boots is off to the side. Both are for students Jama has sort of adopted since coming to the building and seeing some of his students’ needs.
“I know when I come here that I can make a difference every single day. I love the kids,” he said.
Jama spent numerous years in the Elyria district before leaving to become principal of Clearview High School. He then was elevated to superintendent of the small district wedged between Lorain and Elyria, but he said he found the job lacking because he missed the daily interaction with students and was happy to return to Elyria High.
He’s had years as an educator to give him a perspective on student behavior.
“The last few years, I have been seeing and hearing things that really are disturbing me,” he said. “We are seeing a different type of fight. It’s mainly black, female students who are having violent physical altercations where the chance of injury is high for both the students and people trying to break these fights up.”
Jama grabs a stack of papers from his desk as he talks. The pages contain the data to back up his assertion, something he said he needed before going public. The issue has racial ramifications, obviously, particularly when being brought up by a white, male administrator, he said.
But the numbers do not lie.
The discipline data for Elyria High shows that during the 2010-2011 school year, there were 86 fights and assaults in the building. Of those, 35 — or 41 percent — were committed by black female students. However, black females at that time made up just 15 percent of the total enrollment of 2,058 students.
The trend is continuing this year.
There have been 51 fights to date, and of those, 26 — or 51 percent — were by black female students. Again, they make up only 15 percent of the student body.
The numbers show what happens within the boundaries of a school day, but Elyria Schools’ Superintendent Paul Rigda said he believes there are more fights in the neighborhoods.
“It comes off as a school problem because we keep track of the fights, but really we are just a convenient venue for the communication problems that start in the neighborhoods, on social networking sites and in the homes,” he said. “If a fight starts at 7 a.m. or 3 p.m., how is that a school problem when we are not even open? It is because we are the ones who deal with it because we can’t just ignore the situation.”
Rigda has given Jama some latitude to tackle the issue, but Rigda said he doesn’t want the district pulled into the leadership role of something the entire community should own.
“It will take everyone working together if there is to be a solution,” he said.
Jama starts talking about where his quest to find the answers will lead him.
“I need to know why our black female students are so angry and what we can do to get them to stop fighting,” he said. “This is a dialogue that we, as a community, have to start having now, and I am willing to be the first to say we have to come together to make this commitment to kids.”
His passion has led to the formation of a committee of community leaders concerned about the violence involving black female students. The group is in its infancy, but the initial conversations being held are about finding both long- and short-term solutions.
Mayor Holly Brinda, who is a former Elyria Schools board member, is involved. During her first state-of-the-city address, she called on residents to offer their support in a tangible way when she asked for volunteers to help mentor 30 at-risk girls at the school.
Being proactive beats being reactive anytime, said committee member Betty J. Halliburton, the educational coordinator for the Lorain County Urban League. Halliburton is a familiar face in the district as she helped launch WEHS, a student-led daily newscast, once served as the district’s communication director and in April will take about a dozen students on a college tour trip through four states.
“This issue could have easily been hidden, but we have to start dealing with our issues as a community,” she said. “What I love the most about this committee is the leadership took the time to bring everyone together to address this issue as a team so it does not affect all of the good that is actually taking place in the school. They immediately said they want to take a ‘we’ approach instead of an ‘I’ approach.”
Meeting the Girl Whisperer
The first call Jama made to Frances Frazier came one Saturday morning.
It was during winter break, and the Holiday Classic, a basketball tournament periodically hosted at Elyria High, was under way. But in the midst of the competition one night, a different matchup took place in the parking lot of the school. It left Jama speechless.
A group of girls from Elyria and Lorain got into a fight. It was not just a pushing and shoving fight, he said.
“There was a pregnant girl there trying to fight. I tried to pull her away and told her she was going to lose her baby, but she didn’t care,” Jama said. “Then I saw a woman who actually pushed this little toddler out of the way. It was not to get him away, but because she wanted to get into the fight, too. These girls didn’t just not have any regard for themselves, but they had no regard for their children, either. I was just shocked.”
In the melee, Jama broke his toe.
A police report of the incident, which happened shortly after 8 p.m. Dec. 28, details just how out of control one girl was by the time police arrived. While most of the people involved ran off, one 17-year-old girl didn’t — she was still trying to fight another girl when police arrived. She was taunting her and throwing punches in her direction. A police officer grabbed the teen, telling her to calm down so the matter could be sorted out.
But, according to the police report, she kept on attempting to pull away from the officer. She continued to hurl insults at the other female and even began to spit in her direction.
She was arrested, placed into a patrol car and taken to the police station. There, she was charged with disorderly conduct persisting and underage alcohol consumption.
Jama said he couldn’t believe the brazen attitude of the young student even in the face of law enforcement.
“I couldn’t sleep because it hit me all of a sudden that this was not just a school problem that could be solved with suspensions and expulsion,” he said. “This is something that is happening on the street, on the weekend and in our community.”
Jama went to the Internet for more information and was led to Frazier’s Rise Sister Rise project, which was funded by the Ohio Department of Mental Health to look at relational aggression in black girls in four Ohio cities: Lima, Dayton, Akron and Columbus.
He agreed with her research and had to call her, he said, because she was something he was not: a resource on black girls.
Frazier is a black woman with a dynamic personality who has been dubbed “The Girl Whisperer” by many who know her work. With short cropped, natural hair and big, brown eyes brimming with compassion, Frazier said she was not looking to come to Elyria, but others often find that her research transcends the boundaries of cities and call her for advice.
According to her work, nearly 56 percent of the girls surveyed — more than 400 girls between 12 and 17 — had hit or beat someone up in 2010, the year studied, and 50 percent of the girls had committed three or more acts of violence in that same year.
“There are approximately 201,000 black girls living in Ohio, and in my study just 409 girls participated, but I have found that the results are the same no matter where the girls come from,” she said. “It’s more complex than just one reason as to why they are fighting, but what I do believe is when black girls are involved in a lot of traumatic stressors — divorce, witnessing violence in the home, mental illness in the family or sexual abuse, just to name a few — the only way they know how to process that stress is with anger. They are angry.”
That anger has a way of turning typical girls into fighters, Frazier said.
Doing the best they can
This year is going to be a better year. It may seem like a simple affirmation to say, but 17-year-old Deanna Riggins says she keeps telling herself that she is not going to be defined simply by her mistakes. She will not just be known by the bad girl persona that has followed her for so long.
“After getting in trouble so many times and people looking down on me, I just got tired of it,” she says. “Now, I look back on some of my fights, and I realize it was just dumb. I did all of that for nothing because if you fight or not, you are still going to have problems.”
Brown looks at Deanna with amazement. It was like witnessing a light coming on for the first time, Brown says.
“See, you have matured, and I bet you feel better now. Don’t you?” she says. “I need more girls to think like you and to realize in the end it is not worth it.”
“Yeah, but at the time I wasn’t thinking like that. It was over something stupid, but she made me feel like she was disrespecting me,” she says.
The word respect came up a lot as Deanna recounts a fight she had while at Elyria High. She felt like she was being disrespected and had to defend herself so others in the school would respect her, she explains.
But she didn’t want to fight in the beginning. It started off with her and another girl gossiping about each other to mutual friends. Before long, the girls were giving each other mean stares and tongue lashes in school.
“Then it just spiraled to we were fighting after school one day,” says the jovial, dark-skinned girl with long black and red micro braids.
The two ended up a little off school grounds when they finally threw down, but school officials still found out about it. Deanna said her scuffle led to a 10-day suspension.
“I tell myself I don’t want to fight, but when you are in that moment, you just end up doing it,” she says. “I know it sounds weird, but we have a lot going on and we are doing the best we can. Sometimes we make mistakes, but don’t label us all as fighters.”
Deanna is referring to what she calls the daily pressures of being a teenager in a time when every bit of information said or typed travels at lightning speed. In her world, girls have to watch what they say, whom they hang out with and what clothes they wear. Nothing is off limits to those who want to instigate a fight or start some excitement in the day, she says.
“It’s all really king of childish,” she says.
But rising above the nonsense is not easy. Frazier said the lives of black girls are full of ever-present contradictions.
They like a lot about themselves, have significant relationships with their family and enjoy their relationships with their friends. But black girls also have high percentages of risky behavior, particularly of the violent nature, have exhibited some behavioral and emotional issues and have experienced and witnessed violence at their homes, school and in their neighborhoods.
“What this tells me is we are not talking to our girls,” Frazier says. “All girls have what I like to call a wisdom gift. It’s that little voice inside of them that tells them what they should be doing, should be listening to. But too many of our girls don’t know how to use it. It’s time we taught them how to listen to themselves and tune everything else out.”
Rising above the fray
Thaja Partlow is a girl on a mission.
When the bell sounds at Elyria High, the 16-year-old student makes a beeline from one classroom to the next. She walks with determination and has no time for stragglers in the hall who would rather socialize than study.
Instead, she moves around them like she is maneuvering an obstacle course.
“I’m in the books. That’s me,” the 11th-grader says. “I don’t worry about other people or their fights, but I always end up hearing about it.”
Like the time a friend told her about a scuffle she had in front of the Team 3 office in the school. It was over a text message and a boy. Fights are almost always about boys, Thaja says matter-of-factly, and the girl came to her to brag about the way she handled the situation.
“I don’t know why they do it,” she says. “I don’t like people fighting because it’s just not my thing. But when it’s black girls fighting, it just make us all look bad. We are all not like that.”
Thaja said she fills her downtime with MAC Scholars, Link Crew and track. She has a 3.5 grade-point average.
Merry Brown calls Thaja a girl on the right track and says she likes to bring her around to show other students that rising above the fray — no matter how hard it may seem — is possible. Brown also hopes others will follow in Thaja’s footsteps and seek extracurricular activities to occupy their time.
“They need an outlet and something to feel proud about,” Brown says.
Brown says she knows from experience that the right program can change lives. In the 1990s, when Brown was teaching at the school, she and former math teacher Gwen Gilmore started a program geared toward black students called PURPOSE — Promoting Unity Responsibility Pride Originality and Success through Education. To be in the program, students had to maintain good grades and behavior in school.
The program no longer exists, and Brown does not attribute the rise in student violence to its absence, but says it is an example of what can be done to reach kids.
Cortney Gilbert, a 26-year-old woman who sometimes tutors students in Brown’s program, nods her head in agreement as Brown speaks.
“She’s right. When I was in school, I didn’t have time to get in trouble. I was involved in so many things,” Gilbert says. “There wasn’t an opportunity for trouble.”
Now, Gilbert says she listens to the stories of her younger cousins who attend Elyria High and cringes at what is going on.
“I ask the same things,” she says. “I work with kids, and I just ask them what are you mad at? Who are you mad at? I don’t think they know. I think they are mad at the world.”
Coming back from the brink
Regan Phillips sighs and says a quiet thanks to God.
The turnaround with her 17-year-old daughter, Angel, that was brought about because of the unusual catalyst cancer proved to be is nothing short of a miracle, she says.
There is not a day that goes by that she doesn’t acknowledge that fact.
“She is now a fabulous student, but she wasn’t always,” Phillips admits. “I’ll be honest and say in previous years, she was an angry kid. She was headed down a road that was less than favorable.”
Phillips said Angel used to be the student who got into a lot of fights and threatened teachers.
“Two years ago, we didn’t think we would graduate her,” she says.
But Angel now is a senior with plans to attend Kent State University after graduation. She loves to cook and is in the kitchen cooking up a quiche as her mother talks about their family.
Phillips’ willingness to open up is the reason why school officials tapped her to be a member of the newly formed anti-violence committee. She is the success story they want to see repeated.
“I was not really surprised by the statistics they shared with us because I recognize that our kids are in a battle,” she says. “When they are going through puberty and the teenage years, it’s so tough. That is when they really need you.”
When asked what changed in her family, Phillips replies simply: “Everything.”
“We were a typical middle-class family. My husband and I both work and took care of Angel,” she says. “But I worked a lot of hours. My husband worked a lot of hours, and Angel was left alone often. Imagine having a bad day at school and then coming home to a silent house and cooking your own dinner. That was her life too many days because we thought working to provide a good life for her was important.”
Then, Phillips says, she was diagnosed with cancer. She had to take a break from working and took that time to really analyze her life. She says she took a hard look in the mirror and knew her daughter was angry partly because of her.
“I often tell people God healed me physically and healed my daughter emotionally,” she says. “Cancer allowed us to refocus. Angel was angry and was not able to express how she was feeling. I knew I had to be there to help her through that. I know that sometimes it seems like they don’t listen or they don’t care, but we can’t give up. And, we have to let them know they can’t give up, either.”
Going forward, that is the point Halliburton says the committee hopes to get across to the community. Doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result is not working.
“We want to send a message that we only want to save our students,” she says. “We care — we care about all of the students, and we want them all to accomplish all they want to do. We are not just going to put a Band-Aid on the issue. There are little kids that are looking up to these girls. This issue is about looking beyond just the high school.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.