Jocks, preps, nerds, and geeks. Hipsters. Headbangers. Stoners and skaters. Goths.
The social composition of an American high school can be as complicated as a Balkans ethnic break down. Cliques form around shared interests, break up, and re-form. Groups line up in a strict hierarchy of prestige.
Usually, membership in such subgroups provides youngsters an important sense of belonging. Tension between cliques is resolved through taunts, shoves, and the occasional fight.
But in a culture filled with images of violence, inter-clique conflict can take a deadly turn.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the students authorities say were responsible for the tragic shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., were clearly troubled young men. They were also angry at their inability to fit in - an anger they directed at groups they perceived as enemies.
Columbine "is cliquey, extremely divided," an anonymous student told the Associated Press. "There is a lot of tension between groups. It was almost continual conflict - anything from verbal abuse to physical attacks and violence. I think these guys eventually got sick of it."
The common clique
Not that Columbine was unusual in being divided into tight groups of friends.
Many US high schools, especially those in inner cities, are riddled with gangs. Crips vs. Bloods might be seen as the ultimate in clique violence, though many experts draw a distinction between gangs, which often have ties to a larger adult culture of conflict, and traditional subgroups of students.
These cliques are almost everywhere in US teenage life. They distinguish themselves by variations in manner and clothing that can be as subtle as the variations in epaulets of 19th-century armies.
Thus jocks wear shirts from Abercrombie & Fitch and mushroom haircuts with long tops and shaved sides. Preps don Old Navy, too, and generally leave body piercing to the stoners, hipsters, and skateboarders.
Many schools have groups that wear black and Doc Marten boots, say educators. They are often young men of above-average intelligence who resent the social dominance of others.
At Columbine, the black coat boys called themselves the "Trenchcoat Mafia."
"You're always going to get cliques with young people," says Antonius Cillessen, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. "That's part of normal identity formation."
Set common goals
But there are certain cliques that are formed around deviant behavior, Dr. Cillessen adds, such as kids who enjoy role-playing games or listening to violent music, and these cliques often come in for some teasing from more popular cliques, such as the football team.
"We have always had these cliques in the past competing with each other, but today, the competition is getting more violent," he says.
So what can a school authority do? Cillessen argues that they need to focus on diminishing the differences between groups by giving them a common goal. Ironically, football generally serves that kind of purpose, by giving a school a common group identity and common focus.
If you can organize an activity and create cohesion among groups, perhaps by sending them all to camp where they all have to work together, play together, and get to know each other, you can reduce tension among the groups, says Cillessen.
In addition, authorities who are aware of the deviant or isolated nature of a certain clique might want to target certain kids within that group for intervention.
The Arkansas experience
Linda Van Blaricom, a Little Rock, Ark., psychotherapist, worked with students from Westside Middle School in Jonesboro after the shootings there last March.
"Cliques by themselves are not the problem. It's the kids who are on the edge and on the outside," she says. "We could be doing a lot to include those kids by intentional planning."
Ms. Van Blaricom suggests a cooperative learning model that centers on the formation of learning teams. Students are not singled out for success or failure but rather compete on teams. She says that schools can't solve the problem alone, but rather must work in conjunction with communities, churches, and organizations.
"The whole team benefits at the same time it teaches tolerance of others as well as diversities," says Van Blaricom. "It has to start at a young age, though. That's vital."
The Little Rock School District offers peer counseling, but Van Blaricom stresses that the students who may need the most help will likely refuse to talk to a counselor.
Following the Jonesboro shootings, area schools dusted off crisis-management books and enforced procedures to deal with a multitude of hazards. They also started observing students more closely. Teachers now target loners and "misfits."
School nurses, counselors, police, and teachers meet weekly to discuss students with emotional and academic issues.
"We try to stop problems before they escalate now," says Jackie McBride, assistant superintendent of schools in Jonesboro.
Dr. McBride points out another lesson: "You have to be careful in stereotyping these kids and painting a picture that isn't accurate."
*Contributing to this report were Suzi Parker and staff writers Scott Baldauf and James N. Thurman.