Last week, my high school alma mater in the prosperous Montgomery County suburbs of Philadelphia went viral. A video of a student brawl injuring four security officers and eight teachers appeared on YouTube, bolstering long-whispered rumors of the district’s decline. Four students were taken into custody; one of them, 18 and charged as an adult for four counts of aggravated assault, is still in jail as I write. All four of the students were black females.
I haven’t visited Cheltenham High since I graduated in the faraway American Graffiti era, but I ventured back for a packed emergency community meeting about the May 4 events. In addition to memories, I found a stark illustration of the nation’s evasions about racial gaps in education.
It became clear almost immediately that the brawl was no one-off. “Really we have experienced [this kind of fight] our entire high school career,” said the student council president, the first speaker lined up at the audience mikes. “We complained. We never got any response. We were told all disputes were personal and the school was safe. Why now?” she asked tearfully. “Because a video of it was leaked to the media?” Students described rape threats, stalking, kids sent back to classrooms after menacing teachers or classmates, teachers walking past fighting kids, security guards looking the other way. The problems, students insisted, weren’t limited to the high school; they remembered thuggery in middle and even elementary school, too.
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