Misc: Divisive Teen Cliques

May 2, 1999


Arizona High School Provides Glimpse Inside Cliques' Divisive Webs


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Look around the sprawling Chaparral High School campus at lunch time, and the social geography of the 1,850 students is clearly mapped out.

The football players and their friends have the center table outdoors, at what everyone calls the ramada. In back of them, the picnic tables are filled with popular students, too: an attractive, preppy array of cheerleaders, lesser jocks, and members of the student government and the All Stars, a service club.

"You wouldn't dare come sit out here if you didn't know the people," said Lauren Barth, a sophomore cheerleader. "But once you're in with the girls, everyone is really friendly to you. When I made cheerleader, it was like I was just set."

Inside, in the cafeteria, there are more braces and glasses and hair that doesn't quite have a shape. These tend to be students with less social status, the skateboarders, the nerds, those who say they are just regular, the freshmen who have not yet found their place in the sun.

There are many other lunchtime domains: a bunch of art students eat in the studios, some band members gather by the music building, and dozens of drama students -- and others attracted by their nonconformist clothes and easy acceptance -- in the theater building.

But for all the choices, a few students still have no niche, eating upstairs or alone outside the library, or just wandering, their heads low as they pass clumps of noisy schoolmates.

Like Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and hundreds of other large, well-regarded suburban high schools, Chaparral, here in this affluent suburb east of Phoenix, is a pleasant place, where parents, teachers and students take justifiable pride in their Ivy League acceptances, their sports teams, their theater productions and their vast array of extracurricular activities.

Compared with big-city schools, these schools look homogeneous: the majority of the students are white, middle class, dressed in the same handful of brand names. But the reality is far more complex. It has not been lost on those who run the good suburban schools that the most horrifying violence has been at their kind of places, not at inner-city high schools filled with disadvantaged children.

They speculate about possible structural explanations, pointing out that the most troubled urban high schools long ago geared up to prevent violence, with metal detectors and tough discipline codes. Then, too, the nation's dropout rate has declined sharply since the 1960s, especially in suburban schools. Poor urban schools still lose many of their problem students to the streets; suburban schools still have them.

"It used to be that the kids who were really having trouble, the misfits, would leave," said John Kriekard, the principal at Chaparral. But now, "we serve all kinds of kids and we have to try to be all things to all people."

"We're a microcosm," he said. "Put 1,850 people together, adults or adolescents, and there are bound to be some tensions."

He and others also emphasize the central role schools play in suburban life: "In big cities, there are lots of places where kids make connections, where they have pieces of their lives," he said. "But in a place like this, we're pretty much it."

Adolescence has always been a time of identity formation, with inclusion and exclusion, trying out new ideas, styles and friends. And good looks, athletic prowess, academic achievement and money have always helped to define the social terrain.

But schools mirror changes in the society around them, and high school principals from Vermont to California say that the larger world is now handing them a declining level of civility, fewer shared values, less parental support, increasing competition -- and a few students who act out so seriously as to disrupt the whole school.

Some research on high schools has found that where students fit in the school landscape determines how they see it. Carol Miller Lieber, a former principal who directs high school programs at Educators for Social Responsibility in Cambridge, Mass., says many students entering high school already see themselves as losers.

She cites a study from a suburban Chicago high school finding that students who see themselves as outside the winners' circle have far more negative views of a school than either the teachers or the most successful students.

"In these big high-powered suburban high schools, there's a very dominant winner culture, including the jocks, the advanced-placement kids, the student government and, depending on the school, the drama kids or the service clubs," she said.

"But the winners are a smaller group than we'd like to think, and high school life is very different for those who experience it as the losers. They become part of the invisible middle and suffer in silence, alienated and without any real connection to any adult." Interviews with Chaparral students confirm the research: the popular students who lunch outside were far more likely than the ones sitting inside to say that they love the school, and feel connected to at least one teacher.

A group of freshmen eating inside nodded vigorous agreement as Catherine Hodge discussed her sense of Chaparral.

"I don't like this school and I don't know anybody who does," she said.

"A lot of it is that football is such a big part of school and so many people take the whole popularity thing out of control. And it's like most of the teachers have been teaching for 20 years and don't seem to care much. They all teach the same way, but all kids don't learn the same way. I wish it was a little more individual."

Many educators see school size as a real barrier to personalization, arguing that students at schools with more than 1,000 students -- that is, most American high schools -- find it easier to slip through the cracks, and harder to form close relationships with teachers.

"This is too big," said Chaparral's Kriekard. "I think the optimal size is something under 1,000. We do very well at serving the extremes, the motivated, gifted students and the special-education students. But the hardest to identify, and satisfy, are unmotivated, gifted kids."

At Chaparral, where violence is almost unheard of, the Colorado shootings came the week after a student assaulted a baseball player with brass knuckles, and some members of the baseball team retaliated by smashing the attacker's car with their bats.

The principal had smelled trouble brewing: "We do know enough about who's who so that a week beforehand, when we saw the assaulter talking to the sophomore athlete table, not the place he'd usually be, we went out and asked what was going on," he said.

Kriekard says the incident was a fight over a girl, but many students describe it in more tribal terms, as a reflection of low-level, but long-simmering tensions between athletes and others -- the same discomforts that apparently helped spark the Colorado shootings.

Chaparral's athletes do not see it that way. "I don't see the team treating people badly, or people resenting us," said Grant Simpson, a sophomore football player. "It's true that if you mess with someone, you're messing with all their friends."

But for many Chaparral students, the Littleton shootings came as a forceful reminder of what group grudges can lead to. "Brass knuckles isn't supposed to happen here and it did, so you sort of think maybe anything can happen here," said Jillian Sitto, a freshman who loves Chaparral and is running for class secretary in next week's student government elections.

"It scares me to death because people are so cliquey here, and there's so much emphasis on who you're friends with. I looked around and tried to think if I could imagine kids feeling so angry here and I could. There are kids who get picked on a lot. It's usually a whole lot of little little comments that add up. I try to be nice to everybody. And after the shootings I tried to be really really nice, because you never know."

She said students get excluded at Chaparral for all kinds of differences, from being overactive, to being fat to being perceived as homosexual. And, she said, although she likes the few Gothic drama students she knows, many of her friends are wary of them, unsure whether the dark clothes signal Satanism, separatism, or just a different sense of style.

The drama students, meanwhile, are defensive these days, annoyed at being sought out by reporters, and scrutinized by schoolmates. To an outsider, the drama building seems the most accepting of diversity, a place where top students mingle with a few special education students, and those who are seriously involved in the school's ambitious schedule of student-written, student-staged productions co-exist easily with those who just come for refuge.

"It's easy to be accepted by the drama kids, because we're all so different," said Melissa Fischer, a self-assured A student who says she is happy at Chaparral, wants to be a doctor, and is active in theater production, choir and Unitown, the club that promotes diversity. "This is my place, the group I identify with. There's us in here and them out there. But I find Chaparral a pretty easy place to live."

Still, when asked what she would like to change about the school, she named the cliques, saying her aversion went back to middle school, when the popular, preppy students would not accept her.

Some students do cross social lines, maintaining varied webs of friendship. Scott Kirschenbaum, who writes a music column for the local newspaper, heads several of Chaparral's clubs, and will attend Yale next fall, has actively sought to know a lot of different people. By almost any measure, he is one of the school's successes -- but even he is critical of Chaparral's social climate.

"Chaparral's very competitive," he said. "To be on top, you have to finagle. There's a lot of back stabbing. You can't be flawed, or your friends will kick you out of the group. You know how when you're applying to college, they tell you to think about what kind of place you're looking for? Well, I wish somebody would do that at Chaparral, would sit down and think about what kind of place it ought to be."

Watching the Columbine coverage by news organizations, he said, he was struck by how much it seemed like Chaparral -- and how one of the girls killed was captain of the debate team, as he is. "I kept thinking how much her life was like mine," he said.

He and other honors students perceive Chaparral as intensely academic. Jeremy Hamerman, a junior on the debate team who is planning a college major in political science or philosophy ("Do you know who Kant is? He's very good.") then graduate school at Harvard or Stanford, reads 100 pages a night, currently "The Brothers Karamazov" and "The Prince" ("I have to prepare because other people are preparing, somewhere").

And he is utterly dismissive of the school's jock culture. "I've been friends with some of them forever," he said. "Sometimes I sit with them in their pointless little world."

His Chaparral experience is worlds away from that of Billy Muna, one of the boys who come to the drama building for lunch, though they take no part in the theater program.

A junior who spends much of his day in a class for students with emotional difficulties, Muna is not outlandishly dressed, but his gray turtleneck and black pants, his slightly browner skin, and some diffidence, subtly mark him as an outsider. But he finds the hall where the group sits to be comfortable turf. "I really was a problem kid when I started Chaparral," he said. "If someone didn't talk to me in a nice way, I'd fight. Then I got really interested in playing guitar, and now the school is growing to me. I still feel kind of uncomfortable here; the kids have so much money. I think of myself as somebody different. And since the thing in Colorado, we get looks from everybody. After those shootings, they talked about the warning signals, and they're describing kids like us. What am I supposed to do with that?"

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