I wanted to hear them. I wanted to hear from the good kids, the kids who haven't much been heard from.
They go to school to learn. They are disgusted with the fighting. They resent the attention the knives and punches bring. They are tired of kids getting suspended for fighting and sometimes coming back to school in a week. They resent having their class time stolen by kids who don't want to be there.
They are four seniors at Lafayette High, which is getting a reputation for in-and-outside school battles that included an attack on an assistant principal. But they could be at any of a half-dozen fight-plagued city schools. These Lafayette kids work hard, they are proud of their school and they're angry that kids acting out smear its reputation.
When kids suspended for fighting are back in school in a week, it sends a message.
"The message," said Christian Herrera, "is you can keep doing the same thing and not get in much trouble. A [week's] suspension is like a vacation to them."
Said Leah White, "I heard a kid say, 'I'm gonna punch somebody in the face because I don't want to go to school for five days.' "
"The message is the school system doesn't care," Sabella Brown said. "They throw chairs, they assault a teacher, the school gets put on lockdown, and I miss out on my education."
The five of us chatted on a recent afternoon in a school office. The kids had a lot to say: Chronic troublemakers shouldn't be let back into school. Younger kids with violent histories shouldn't be let into high school until they shape up. Parents can't expect schools to do everything. Street kids bring their eye-for-an-eye culture into the schools. Girls fight over gossip or boys.
"With the dudes, it's something that happened [on the street]," Jerry Calhoun said. "Maybe you can't get to them outside, but you know you'll see them at lunchtime."
"Sometimes it's over turf," Leah White said. "You cross into another gang's area, it's disrespect. Or your brother got jumped by somebody. Or your sister got jumped."
"It gets real outside on the street," Calhoun said. "Then they bring it in here."
None of them is scared to be in school. That's not how it is. Everybody knows that if you keep to yourself, you're fine. But even kids acting out in non-violent ways -- tossing paper balls, walking in and out of class, talking over the teacher -- affect everybody.
"Teachers are constantly yelling or angry," Leah White said, "because we've got these kids in the class."
"Most teachers either kick those kids out [of class], or work around them," Calhoun said. "They'll have them sit in the back with their heads down, while the kids who want to learn are up front."
The four had mixed feelings about reviving the district's alternative school for violent kids. If it's a place with counseling and programs, yes. If it's a lockdown, no.
Another way to reach problem kids? Put back programs sliced by years of budget cuts.
"So many of these kids have talent, but no place in school to use it," Sabella Brown said. "They can write, they can rap, they're musical. But they have no motivation in school."
Music got cut, the business program vanished, home economics is no more.
"You can't keep cutting programs without an effect," said Jacquelyn Baldwin, Lafayette's principal. "Now we're seeing the effects."
The district has to do something. Bring back alternative schools that work. Put back programs that reach out-of-control kids. Take violent kids out of these schools.
Most of all, make the schools work for kids who want to be there. Otherwise, you just make victims of the innocent.