Last week, video surfaced of at least two violent episodes between kids that took place on or around the Cunha Intermediate School campus. The context is scant. It’s not clear when they were recorded, nor whether any of the students in the videos were badly hurt. Regardless, they are disturbing and understandably upset many students, parents and others in the community.

In emails to the Review and over social media, some who have seen the videos are adamant that they represent evidence of an increasingly violent and toxic environment at the Coastside middle school in particular, and perhaps even among kids today.

We’re not so sure about that.

School administrators were alerted to the violence and have responded in a thoughtful email to parents. Cunha Principal James Barnes wrote that his staff spends a lot of time and effort to protect kids from bullying. He also notes that preteens are caught in an awkward time in their lives — still learning how to behave as the budding adults they are rapidly becoming. 

“Students are pretty smart but lack empathy and awareness, and so can be cruel,” Barnes writes. “Most of our students are kind, thoughtful and try their best to do well in school and please their families. But they are only 11, or 12, or 13 years old, and they are still learning.”

That is true and always has been true of middle school kids. Schoolyard brawls are not new. That every child has a camera connected to the whole world is relatively novel, however. What has changed isn’t so much the violent impulses of some young people, but rather the ability to share the results with the flick of a finger.

Cabrillo Unified School District administrators are not burying their heads in the sand, nor are they throwing up their hands. Superintendent Sean McPhetridge said he’s spoken with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, which promised additional patrols around the campus. Barnes said he will reconvene a Cunha Health and Wellness Committee to bring new ideas and efforts to combat violence and bullying at his campus. They are clear-eyed about punishment. They promise to hold kids to account where appropriate, but also talk in terms of restorative justice, in which students who cause harm participate in making it right. They look for alternatives to suspension and expulsion and will call on a range of counseling assets.

We live in frightening times made more so by anti-social media that spreads rumors with each click of a computer mouse. Between mass shootings, viral epidemics and the things that pop up on our kids’ cellphones, it’s a wonder that we ever let our children out of our sight. On top of that, our kids will make mistakes, just as kids always have. When they do, let’s act to steer them in the right direction, not overreact and make things worse.

— Clay Lambert

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