When school fights break out in Miami-Dade, cameras are often rolling

Unmarked Hialeah police cars responded to Hialeah High in February after a handful of fights broke out, some of them shared that day by fellow students on social media. Video-sharing of fights is a common trend in schools across South Florida and the country.
Unmarked Hialeah police cars responded to Hialeah High in February after a handful of fights broke out, some of them shared that day by fellow students on social media. Video-sharing of fights is a common trend in schools across South Florida and the country. EL NUEVO HERALD

A group of girls recently ganged up on a classmate outside of Homestead Middle School in a fight later posted to YouTube.

Cellphone cameras again were rolling when a boy at Allapattah Middle was beaten up for reporting classmates who were having sex in a school locker room.

Also caught on tape: a backyard melee with dozens of Hialeah Senior High students kicking, punching and dragging each other to the ground.

Schoolyard fights are nothing new. But now that almost every student has a cellphone in his or her pocket, the violence often gets recorded — as it did with every one of these skirmishes involving Miami-Dade schools this year.

Although the video evidence ultimately can aid police work and help administrators dole out fair punishments, experts say their spread through social media can also lead to more harassment and bullying online.

A quick Web search for “school fights” turns up hundreds of videos, some with millions of views. A few also pop up that claim to involve Miami-Dade or Broward students. Often, you can see other students also recording the melees in the background.

It is so common for kids to record brawls that it’s often one of the first pieces of evidence school police look for, said Miami-Dade Schools Lt. Raul Correa.

“We know that we police young people and young people ... are very tech-savvy,” Correa said. “Everyone has a cellphone and everyone has a camera on their phone.”

The department is accustomed to seeking search warrants for cellphones, Correa said, and tips often pour in from social media.

“When we get video and anything that can help us solve an incident, we greatly appreciate it. We actually solicit it,” he said. “We’ll have parents who will send us little bits and pieces of things that were posted to Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat, and you name it.”

Each case is handled differently, with some students recommended for in-school discipline while others may face suspension, expulsion or even arrest.

Video recordings have been key in how one parent has handled the “beating” “of her daughter in a hallway at North Miami Beach Senior High last week. The Miami Herald is not naming the parent because she fears her daughter will face retaliation.

“She was repeatedly punched. Caught from behind. Pulled on the floor. Held by her hair and repeatedly punched by another girl on her head and face,” the parent said. “I never would have comprehended the gravity of that situation without seeing it.”

Now that she has, the mother said she is considering whether to pursue more serious discipline for the classmate who attacked her daughter.

“These videos are priceless right now,” she said. “Without that video, I wouldn’t have the clear evidence that I have about what that girl did to my daughter.”

Experts say there are many reasons why kids may record fights — to gawk, to instigate, to further intimidate or simply because it’s second nature in the social media age.

But for kids on the receiving end of the beatings, the wider exposure can add another layer of anguish when it morphs into cyberbullying, said Emilie Ney, an assistant professor of school psychology at Barry University in Miami Shores.

“It makes the aggression and the bullying much more public,” Ney said. “Now, all their classmates can see the photos and the video and it is perpetuated even further.”

As a result, kids can feel as though they’re never safe — not even in their own home.

“They don’t have an escape,” Ney said.

Despite her daughter’s bloody nose and sprained finger, the parent from North Miami Beach said the teen’s experience has been far more painful emotionally.

“She says she’s being teased because she got beaten up,” she said. “Her trauma is emotional.”

There also can be a positive flip side, said Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. Brawls caught on video can help school administrators decide how to punish students fairly. And the possibility of being recorded in the act could discourage other kids from getting into fights in the first place, said Patchin, who is also a professor at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

“There have been cases where cellphone evidence has emerged that shows one person instigated it and another was just defending themself,” he said. “If there are no consequences and there’s an aggressor, that’s a problem.”

Whereas there is a well-documented “suicide contagion” — where media attention to a suicide can lead to others — both experts said it’s unclear whether taping fights encourages more violence. It’s also unclear how much of it is simply a staged act.

Even as more violence gets caught on video, schools have steadily become safer. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, victimization at school decreased from 181 incidents per 1,000 students in 1992 to 52 incidents per 1,000 students in 2012. In Miami-Dade schools last year, there were about 600 incidents of battery, compared with almost 800 the previous year.

Every so often, the phenomena of fights on camera attract worldwide attention.

In 2008, six girls from Lakeland lured a classmate into a house and pummeled her unconscious. She woke up and they bashed her again. The whole 30-minute attack was recorded — in fact, the teens had planned from the beginning to post the beating online.

Most were given probation and one was sentenced to about two weeks in jail.

But the teens got the fame they sought: Lifetime turned the incident into a movie.

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