PELHAM, N.Y. — The first thing a visitor notices about the students at Pelham (N.Y.) Memorial High School is that they are bright and engaging.
The second thing that's quickly apparent is that these highly likable kids navigate a social scene and power structure complex and nuanced enough to baffle Henry Kissinger. Each time one teen sees another walking down the hall at this 525-student school, he or she is able to instantly process a dozen pieces of information -including locker location, athletic inclination, academic standing -which help determine social standing and clique status.
Anyone who attended an American high school any time this century knows that teens tend to divide sharply into cliques - and that these divisions can devastate students who don't easily find a niche. But many say the clique system -and the cruelty that often accompanies it -is a problem that's too long been overlooked as a factor in whether students will thrive in high school.
But in the wake of the school shooting in Littleton, Colo., where two alienated boys shot and killed 13 classmates and a teacher, then killed themselves, it's not just security and adult alertness that are being reviewed. The pecking order that dominates many schools is also being held up as something that needs rethinking.
"We as school people need to become much more tuned in to what kids are doing to each other or having done to them," says Bob Shillito, the principal of Pelham High.
Mr. Shillito compares teenage social brutality to sexual harassment -a subject that also has long been ignored or brushed away with "kids-will-be-kids." And, he adds, schools can do a better job of talking to kids about acceptable behavior.
In Pelham, social class plays a large role in determining the groups into which the students divide themselves. This attractive suburb north of New York City is solidly middle class. Yet like many towns, Pelham includes both a wealthier enclave and a more modest section. To the south is Pelham Manor -the "preppy," or wealthy, side of town. To the north, as the houses grow smaller, lies the "homey," or less aristocratic, part of the burg.
And while every Pelham High student interviewed agreed that the preppy/homey divide is the major influence on their groupings, all were equally adamant that the clique system is far too complex and subtle to be reduced to a simple question of economic class.
One group of 11th-grade girls struggles to explain how high school cliques form. It's what kids wear, their music, what they do on weekends, they say, trying to list important factors. "It's sort of sad," Carolyn Silan says of the divisions among her fellow students. "But there isn't any real solution," adds classmate Laura Ruggiero.
Even adults who work with teens daily declare themselves perplexed by the way the social pecking order is established. "It's something I've wondered about for a long time," says Jackie Baumgard, math teacher at Southwest Star Concept School in Okabena, Minn. "What is it about a kid that makes him acceptable or unacceptable to other kids?"
Since the shootings in Littleton, many adults have stepped up a cry for smaller schools, speculating that the impersonality of large schools contributes to unfavorable social conditions. But while a better teacher-student ratio may allow adults to interact more effectively with kids, there is no evidence that smaller classes improve peer relationships.
With 525 students, Pelham High is already a small school by US standards. Ms. Baumgard's school is even tinier -only 250 students in Grades 7 to 12, in a highly homogeneous rural town where social class is not an issue. However, even there, says Baumgard, an 18-year veteran, kids divide into cliques, and some students each year are ostracized. "In a way, it's even worse here because we are so small that these friendships are established very young," she says. "A kid who's on the outs has probably been that way since second grade."
But a small school does offer more opportunities for adults to intervene, she says. "If a kid is on the fringe and begins to drop out we can see that more clearly. Adult intervention can never substitute for their need for approval from their peers, but at least we can force them to talk to each other, to treat each other more civilly."
That's something more schools need to be doing, says Dewey Cornell, professor of education at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Program. "We've been too tolerant" of the way high school students treat one another, says Dr. Cornell. "Cliques and bullying seem to be so much a part of the growing-up experience that we tolerate that behavior. We overlook the kind of pain and distress many kids are experiencing in well-to-do suburban schools."
Cornell says he recommends open classroom discussions about the need for tolerance and acceptance of other human beings, and a greater effort to involve disparate groups of kids in common activities.
"Talking to the kids about tolerance is fundamental," agrees Mr. Shillito. It's a concern he says he and his staff had before Littleton, but which events there have heightened. He also says it's essential to impart a greater sense of accountability to teenagers. When it comes to unkind behavior and exclusion, kids must learn "that you can't do things like that, and that if you do there's a risk."
As for his own school, Shillito says he's aware of the cliques but finds it difficult to stay on top of the rapidly shifting sea of names and alliances. "As quickly as the adults become aware they've changed again," he says.
Many of the students at Pelham agree that the clique system is a harsh one, and openly express their empathy for those who fall outside of a group. "Trying to break into a clique is the hardest thing in the world," says Christine Reardon, a Pelham sophomore.
But for many students, it can be a top priority. "Until you have a clique you're pretty much a loner," says her friend and classmate Lauren Angelo.
Lauren just moved into town last year and spent some unhappy days and nights before finding a crowd to travel with. "You cling to people, you're a follower," she says.
But things have gotten better since freshman year, say Christine, Lauren, and friends who make up a clique known as the Bunch of Us, or The Family. Several girls agree that in ninth grade they were so desperate for friends that they joined cliques where there was little true friendship. "You end up with something to cling to, but it doesn't necessarily mean you have real friends," Ariana Cox says.
This year, they say, they've forged their own group. Now they're seeing the positive side of cliques. "This is like a family," says Ariana.
Frank Orfei, who's been teaching social studies at Pelham for 21 years, says his background in sociology has always made it easy for him to accept the positive side of cliques. "I view it more as a stage of adolescent development," he says. "It gives them an identity. In some cases it's even healthy." But Mr. Orfei agrees that all teachers are looking harder at cliques. "[Littleton] forced us to recognize that brutality does exist."
Cornell, the University of Virginia professor, says he's talked with adults who, years later, retain unhappy memories of high school. He sees it as part of a larger picture. "Human beings tend to gather into groups. Why do we have such ethnic conflict in the Balkans, in Ireland, in the Middle East? We need to start to address it with schoolchildren and hope they won't do it as adults."
Matthew Schwarzfeld, a senior at Pelham High, says he's had many years to study the clique system in his school and recently wrote a paper in which he wondered if he and his friends would mature out of such tendencies as adults. "Maybe we'll even remember that golden rule that our moms taught us long ago," he writes hopefully. "And won't the world be a better place?"
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