Recent news of a bathroom fight that left a student dead in Wilmington, Del., brought to mind a similar incident that recently took place near my own home, where a fight between two teenage boys at a suburban Cleveland high school dominated local news headlines last month.
The Cleveland-area bathroom brawl left a 17-year-old student with a fractured skull while another student, 18, was arrested for felonious assault.
It leads me to one question that just won’t go away: how can we better protect our young people from such violence?
According to Westlake City Schools and local police, following the bathroom fight, school officials found the younger teen lethargic in the bathroom. The injured student was first taken to the nurse and then went home with his family. Later, relatives took him to the hospital.
He reportedly suffered a fractured skull and a brain bleed, and was kept several days for observation and then sent home. Police then said that the aggressor was 18-year-old DeAndrew Smith, whose name was released because he is legally an adult.
Westlake High School issued a statement to parents proclaiming its responsibility in protecting the injured student. Rightly so. But what about its obligation to Smith, also a high school student who only weeks ago turned 18? What about the school’s failure to properly supervise the students and in so doing, prevent such fights? What about the ten plus students who witnessed the event? What about the school’s duty to provide appropriate medical care to an injured student?
I talked with several students who witnessed the fight, but who asked not to be identified. The students said they left the lunchroom where two teachers were supervising and went to the bathroom to watch a fight between the unidentified 17-year-old and a third student who was not Smith. Once in the bathroom, the students state that an unidentified “third student” backed down and the unidentified 17-year-old allegedly turned his attention to Smith.
The students I spoke to told me that the fight began when that 17-year-old pushed Smith, something that appears to be confirmed by a video that one of the students captured on a cell phone. That video has been shared in the media, circulated on social media websites, and was posted briefly on worldstarhiphop.com
The fact that the students were unsupervised in the bathroom has been completely ignored by media accounts and it appears to be absent from publiclly available school and police discussions. This lack of supervision could mean that the culpability for the injuries sustained by the injured teen extend beyond Smith.
“The school does have a responsibility to protect the safety of students,” says Jay Heubert, an education law expert and professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, “and their obligation is to take reasonable steps to prevent foreseeable dangers and harm.”
According to Heubert, who also is chair of the School Law Institute at Columbia University, negligence can take many forms.
“It can be negligence of supervision or it could also be in maintenance of the restroom, says Heubert. “Is it a place where lots of fights have occurred? Is it a place where staff or teachers never go?”
He also says that shared negligence may apply if Smith didn’t initiate the fight.
“There is a thing called contributing negligence. If someone injures you but you contributed to your injury—that can also be factored into responsibility.”
Rather than exploring these questions, unfortunately, news stories generally played into racial stereotypes. Nearly all coverage described DeAndrew Smith, who is Black, as an “adult” who preyed on the younger White teen identified as “ the victim.” Likewise, Smith has been characterized as an 18-year-old 10th grader, which suggests he an unsuccessful student. In fact, he is a student athlete and both teens are 11th graders.
Images of Smith, primarily a mug shot, were widely circulated in the news, and nearly all coverage reiterated the Westlake police’s description of the fight as “an unbelievably vicious beating.” Additionally, most media accounts in a debatably legal (and certainly unethical) overstep discussed Smith’s pending juvenile charge from a separate incident. All make it difficult for the public to ignore race as a variable.
The convergence of the school, police and media around an accounting in which the school fails to assume any responsibility, one that demonizes an 11th grader by playing on racial fears, is especially troubling.
Students I talked to at the school agree that Smith is popular, well-liked, and not the menacing monster that has emerged in news coverage.
But instead of a balanced representation, we are left with a narrative that at best is a painful reminder of how little we in Cuyahoga County have learned from the last year and a half at the center of the national ugly intersection of race and criminal justice, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was left as the sole person bearing responsibility for the ways society failed him.
Our community is still deep in the fight to hold that system accountable. Likewise, even though we can’t control sensational racial stereotyping in media coverage, we can and should hold our school systems accountable for the safety of students.
After the recent death of 16-year-old Delaware teen Amy Joyner-Francis as a result of a school bathroom fight, we are tragically reminded of what’s truly at stake in these matters—the lives of young people.
Bakari Kitwana is a Westlake resident, the author of The Hip-Hop Generation, and a senior media fellow at the Harvard Law-based think tank The Jamestown Project.