On what appears to be an average school day, two students trade punches in the crowded science hallway as phone cameras track their every move. Two weeks later, friends discuss threatening messages against the school they witnessed a classmate post on social media. Finally, as the month nears to a close, a student cowers in fear behind his locker after he sees a classmate store a weapon in his own locker just before first period.
According to U.S. News, instances of youth-involved school violence have substantially increased throughout the nation since the start of the school year. They range in magnitude from online bullying and shoving matches to gun violence. In fact, there has been a rise in school shootings this past year, with 34 cases in 2021 as opposed to 10 in 2020, per Education Week.
“Because of the more violent incidents happening throughout the nation, everybody is on high alert,” School Resource Officer (SRO) James Maeng said. “All the school staff [are] trying to be more situationally aware of what’s happening for everyone’s safety.”
Although violence occurring on school property may not put most students directly in harm’s way, such disturbances can disrupt their emotional, social and educational development, according to a study sponsored by the American Counseling Association.
“[School violence] makes me feel [very] unsafe, and it can be traumatizing to watch,” freshman Jacqueline Tran said. “It can cause anxiety or panic attacks.”
In a poll conducted via Google Forms from Jan. 21-25, 106 students were surveyed on their perception of violence at CHS and how it’s been handled in light of the nationwide increase.
According to a bulletin by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), 91% of school attackers had visible mental conditions such as depression and cognitive deficits. Additionally, all of said attackers had experienced one or more “social risk factors,” characteristics that may increase an individual’s tendency to carry out violence, such as bullying or social exclusion, in the six months before they did so. Since many young people had to live in relative isolation as a result of coronavirus-related lockdowns, the DHS deems the pandemic a precursor of the recent uptick in school violence.
“Because of the pandemic, more distance between family members can cause students to not feel [like] themselves and their social skills could be diminished,” senior Shruthi Ganapuram said. “Not being able to talk to [people] and feeling alone are both factors that can perpetuate school violence.”
A troubled home life may similarly drive students to commit violence. In an interview with Lehigh University, counseling psychologist Peter Langman, Ph.D., stated that school shooters are often driven by anger out of being abused by family members, being in poverty or being repeatedly passed off from one guardian to another—in other words, there is a lack of stability in their domestic lives. Even perpetrators of less severe forms of school violence may lash out due to household dysfunction, per a journal article published by Frontiers in Psychology.
“Sometimes, there doesn’t appear to be an issue with [a student’s] family situation, so that is always kind of a surprise,” counselor Sarah Snyder said. “It’s interesting because there are so many factors that can affect whether someone [engages in violence]. There are external factors, like how their family members treat them, but how they perceive the world can be an internal factor as well.”
Substance abuse is another cause of aggression in many students. According to a 2006 study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 45.6% of teenagers who had taken one illicit drug in the past year exhibited violent behavior, as opposed to 61.9% of those who had taken three or more illicit drugs in the same timeframe. These statistics demonstrate the influence of substance use on school violence as illegal drug use rises among teens.
“The first act of school violence I remember experiencing happened in my middle school and involved a couple of students that were trading drugs for some type of monetary compensation,” Ganapuram said. “I didn’t know how much of a perverse effect drug abuse has on school violence. It can definitely make not only students that are engaging in violent [behavior] but also those that hear about it feel unsafe on their own school grounds.”
We have ethical responsibilities—this is about people and everyone living their lives.”
— counselor Sarah Snyder
There are several other triggers of youth-involved violence, states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as gang activity and easy access to weapons. However, if unchecked, this sort of abusive behavior can have adverse effects on not only the perpetrator and their victims but also the community at large.
“Across the board, school violence can look so different, but, regardless, it’s always a traumatic experience,” Snyder said. “If a student is at a place where they want to harm someone, I’d be working with the family, the school administration and our school psychologist to support them. We have ethical responsibilities—this is about people and everyone living their lives.”
Students threaten violence, organize activist movements through social media
Sophomore Kaydence Greene watches TikTok videos during a debate club meeting on Jan. 26. TikTok is one social media platform through which individuals spread violent rhetoric.
In recent years, social media has become increasingly popular as a medium through which students can spread threats of violence against their peers and educational facilities. In September, the “devious licks” trend raged on TikTok nationally, urging students to steal or vandalize school property. In videos under #DeviousLicks on TikTok, one can see theft ranging from soap dispensers in the bathrooms to entire desks from teachers’ classrooms. In some clips, students even remove doors from their hinges and write on walls with permanent marker.
The magnitude of the licks became so great at CHS that staff made attempts to quell the stealing. Administrators made an announcement over the loudspeaker on Sept. 13 warning students against partaking in licks and threatening legal action against those that were caught in the act; additionally, certain bathrooms were blocked from use. Over the next couple weeks, the bathrooms were reopened and refurbished. However, the widespread success of the trend caused concern about the dangers of social media.
“[With] the potential of media campaigns, the question is how [social media] influences what someone might act on—that’s always a concern,” Snyder said. “So, those calls for action can be very scary.”
Additionally, there have been multiple instances where physical threats against schools were made over social media platforms. For example, the uptick seen in Richmond involved bomb threats and gun violence circulating through TikTok and Instagram. These incidents followed the Oxford High School shooting in Michigan, during which a student shot and killed four classmates with his father’s handgun.
Instagram accounts posting videos of students physically fighting each other have popped up in many students’ feeds within the CHS community. One such page, “chantillyhsfights,” has amassed hundreds of followers and almost 2,000 views on two of its posts, which feature close-up videos of students pushing, shoving and pummeling each other in different parts of the school.
“I thought it was really weird how [the account] documents fights like that. It feels out of place, I guess,” Tran said. “I think one of them [took place] literally just down the hallway [from where I am standing], so very close to us, and, in general, scary.”
However, social media has also allowed students a platform on which to organize peace and advocate social issues in light of school violence. Throughout the nation, students protest about several different issues, including racism, sexual assault and reproductive rights. A peaceful walkout on Dec. 16 at Fairfax High School in protest of a student-on-student altercation, during which racist and Islamaphobic remarks were thought to be made, was followed by a similar demonstration at CHS that Friday. The Muslim Student Association (MSA) organized Chantilly’s walkout and promoted it on Instagram, causing many students to repost the message.
“It’s important that we all unite, no matter what area you’re from, to help protest,” MSA president and senior Ayham Elayan said. “I feel like I’ve faced a lot of support here at Chantilly, [which] I’m very glad about. It’s a very friendly and welcoming environment.”
Student Resource Officer James Maeng monitors the history hallway during C Lunch on Jan. 27. SROs are schools’ first line of defense against violence.
FCPS has previously established policies and procedures to mitigate the threat of school violence, a lot of which stem from state regulations. Some of these procedures have changed due to the increase in violence across the nation and changes to Virginia guidelines, and they include having an optional committee to oversee threat assessment teams that includes mental health professionals and administrative support as of 2020, stated by the Department of Criminal Justice Services.
SchoolSafety states that law enforcement, often through the use of an SRO, is utilized to build security and mitigate school violence and are the first line of defense.
“School security officers are utilized to the full extent to make sure no violence occurs and to stop it from happening,” Maeng said. “We break up fights and make sure everyone is safe.”
“[School violence] greatly affects students,” senior Nancy Melgar said. “The decisions [made] about school violence are crucial, not only to our futures, but to our lives right now. Making sure that the county shows us that they are here to support us would greatly benefit everyone.”
According to the National Association of School Psychologists, students and officials must be well prepared to handle aggressive situations and altercations. There are sometimes “tells” in students who are just about to engage in violence, and it is important to both recognize and acknowledge these signs, per the Department of Education, in cooperation with the Secret Service.
“There are triggers [of school violence], like when I see two students getting close to each other, pushing each other here and there,” Maeng said. “[Or], if I see a big crowd forming somewhere, nothing has happened yet, but obviously something’s about to happen.”
The Youth Violence Project in conjunction with Fairfax County has made efforts to educate students and staff on reducing violence and reporting threats, a few of which include developing model procedures and providing training modules on how to deal with threat assessments.
“If you hear anything about fights, notify us immediately,” Maeng said. “Go to any subschool. Tell your teachers and counselors. [Tell them you] want to remain anonymous.”
While letting adults know about violent altercations is helpful, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburg states that students are more knowledgeable about violence occurring in school and that it is vital for students to be included in the decision-making around preventive measures.
“We have to listen to each other and not talk over voices of [those] that need their voices uplifted because they are telling us what is wrong,” Melgar said. “We have to unite and say that [violence] is not right to survive.”