To end school fights, Merced adding guards, security cameras

MERCED -- Golden Valley High School student Morgan McCoy is fed up with fights on her south Merced campus.

"It's getting to a point where it's just too much," the junior fumed.

Other schools in the Merced Union High School District are experiencing similar spikes in fights and suspensions. As a result, administrators, teachers and others are working overtime to "bully-proof" their students and campuses. School authorities are adding more sentries and cameras to monitor students during their breaks.

So far this school year, Golden Valley has had 100 incidents of violent behavior on its campus. Students involved in those incidents have spent more than 400 days on suspension since classes started Aug. 13.

Sandra Schiber, the district's executive director of child welfare and attendance, told the high school board at its Wednesday night meeting that 293 incidents of "confrontive behavior" have occurred at the district's six campuses this school year. Eight have resulted in expulsions, she reported, but that "including one from today," the number probably was closer to 10.

Fights seem to happen more frequently toward the beginning of the school year, she told the board.

"Always the first few weeks gang mentality comes out," she said, but was unable to explain or confirm if these numbers are higher than in previous years.

The nature of school fights has changed since many of the board members walked high school hallways. Schiber said it used to be that two students would fight and a crowd watched.

These days, a half-dozen fights could be going on in that same circle, with more combatants joining in.

"It's just becoming bigger, scarier and more serious," she said.

Several campuses, as well as the district as a whole, have taken action against this trend of student strife.

Golden Valley, for example, will soon switch to split lunch times. This means half of the school's 2,543 students will go to lunch at one time and the other half will take lunch a half-hour later.

"Pretty much it splits down the middle of campus," said Principal Craig Chavez.

With only half the student population out of classes at a time, Chavez said, campus security guards will have fewer students to oversee.

"What we're trying to do is change the ratio," he said. But he'd like to see a change in student behavior, as well.

"Fights happen because they're public," Chavez said.

If students didn't rush to watch a fight and ignored the combatants instead, fewer confrontations would occur.

Golden Valley senior Abel Reyes said he knows about the fights that occur on campus but hasn't seen any.

"I leave," the 17-year-old said.

But many students aren't following in Reyes' footsteps.

Sophomore Jessica Lee said she thinks the groups that surround fights sometimes keep campus security from getting there quickly enough to break them up.

At Merced High School, where there have been 74 fights this school year and 371 days of served suspensions, school resource officer Rick Macchia said he rarely breaks up fights.

"Campus supervisors and administrators are usually out on the grounds," he explained.

Additional campus security guards have been hired by the district for all of its campuses and it's buying and installing security cameras.

But, as Schiber says, it's not what is in a child's backpack that makes him act out, it's what's in his heart.

"We have to get kids connected to school," she said. Addressing peer culture and its problems "is basically the biggest problem on our campuses."