Expert Says Institutional Change is Needed to Combat Girl Violence

LatinaLista — Maribel Santiago and Alma Rivera got “into it” after school on Monday of this past week at Woonsocket Middle School in Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

Punches were thrown and Maribel ended up punching the school’s vice-principal in the face. By the time it was all over, Maribel and Alma had some explaining to do.

Not so much because they were fighting but because of who they are — they’re the moms.

The story goes that Alma drove her daughter, who was suspended from Woonsocket Middle School, for the express purpose of confronting Maribel’s daughter over something the girls were fighting about.

Maribel drove to the school to pick her daughter up because some of the kids had told her that Alma’s daughter was going to attack her daughter when she got out of school.

Well, we know what happened next.

As a result of the fight, both mothers were arrested for simple assault and the two daughters plus two other girls who joined in are suspended from school for at least 10 days, with the possibility of expulsion.

Because of the fight, the school superintendent is calling for enacting an anti-violence program with the help of the local police department and community groups.

In a public meeting last night where she stood before the School Committee, Maribel repeatedly apologized for her actions and asked for leniency for her daughter, but said she felt it wouldn’t have happened had school administrators listened to her pleas in the first place.

According to Maribel, she told another vice principal about the threats but it seems the administrators didn’t take the threats seriously.

With over 1600 students, Woonsocket Middle School is the largest middle school in New England. News reports confirm that the school has had more than its fair share of bad publicity due to school violence in the past.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data from 2003-2004 show that the school is majority white with Hispanics making up the largest minority.

A quick review of parent comments on Great Schools web site show that administrators have a history of not meeting the needs of their students.

One parent wrote:

“I think the WMS is a very unsafe school for the students and teachers. The children are running the school. The parents of the children are also to blame. I am a mother of a student there, a very unhappy mother. The school policy should probably need to be revised, especially when you are being punished for self defense… The teachers are also to blame when they are aware of the problems and they take no action. The WMS needs discipline and a lot of work. The germs are starting to spread and everyone is getting affected…”

And a reader responded to a newspaper article about the incident:

Asking for help and it going unanswered is a Woonsocket Educational practice. I graduated in 2004 and in my senior year of High School I was witness to 4 of these such “THUG”, events. Being late for school I witnessed one of my fellow classmates in the main office asking to be kept away from another student because he wanted no problems with the student and was done with his jokes and rough play. As soon as he left the Principals office he was attacked in the lobby of the front office in front of the secretaries, 2 Vice Principals and 10 or so students. It took about 2 minutes before any of the staff responded to what was going on and in that time I attempted to break up the fight. My classmate was suspended, the attacker was suspended, and justice was served I suppose you could say because I was suspended for trying to separate the 2. I was suspended because the staffing refused to do what they are there for.

And as for the “thugs” crap, we’re not in South Central L.A. People see violence everywhere, you’ll never escape it. So everyone is a product of a violent environment. But I know one thing for sure, if my child were to come home bruised and battered because they didn’t want to be considered a “thug” so they let another student pound them into the dirt, I would not only punish my child, I’d file charges against the school. So my tax dollars pay for my child to get beat up, what an American Dream. Next time a person uses the word “thug”, I suggest you look at the circumstances and figure out exactly what the student/person is going through before you judge them.

I’m not promoting anything that happened, however, if the students and Parents were heard rather than judged, the school system would be a much better place.
Tired Of People Who Are Perfect, Woonsocket RI

The last statement by this reader resonates with anyone who has kept tabs on how Latinas do in school.

Parents want their concerns, and their children’s concerns, to be taken seriously by school administrators.

And when the school fails to offer the kind of intervention that parents expect of them to keep their children safe, then families step in to take up the slack.

Cindy Ness, Director of Programs at the Center on Terrorism and a practicing psychotherapist in New York City has researched urban and political violence committed by females, and the structure of violence in inner-city communities.

Ness conducted a 2003 ethnographic study of girls in inner-city Philadelphia. The majority of her subjects were African American with a few Latinas. She said that it is not that these mothers like Maribel and Ana promote fighting to their daughters but they do have a hand in it. The difference is they don’t want their daughters fighting but they do want them able to protect themselves from greater danger.

In a telephone interview with Latina Lista, Ness said,

“Police report that when girls go at it, it’s much harder to diffuse the situation. Also when girls fight, it’s the only time when there is a double-generational dynamic that comes into play.”

In other words, it’s not just mothers who have the back of their daughters but other female family members as well.

There is no excuse for Maribel and Ana fighting or encouraging their daughters to settle their score with their fists. Yet, the story of this fight at Woonsocket Middle School, between these two Latinas, is more common at schools across the country with sizeable Latino populations than anyone would like to admit.

Ness said that the only way to change this type of behavior, in both mothers and daughters, is for there to be real institutional change.

It’s great that the Woonsocket Middle School Superintendent wants to implement an anti-violence program, but the question begs to be asked, given the history of the school, why this wasn’t implemented before.

It would have been simple enough – just as simple as listening to both the parents and the students and appreciating the fact that everyone deserves the courtesy of being listened to and heard.

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