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The media obsession with ‘bad kids’

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

Think twice about those narrowly reported ‘student misbehavior’ stories. They can do a lot of unintended harm.

By Cafeteria Duty

If you’re under the impression from reading news coverage that schools have become zones of anarchy this year, I don’t blame you.

A recent headline from the U.S. News and World Report informs us that As Students Return to School, So Does School Violence.

The Washington Post published a similar headline: Back to school has brought guns, fighting, and — brace yourself, people — acting out.

Here’s Chalkbeat: Stress and short tempers: Schools struggle with behavior as students return.

The list of news outlets covering the story goes on and on, including Education Week, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.

Add to this mix the “devious licks” TikTok trend, countless local news stories about student fights, tantrums at school board meetings, and a record-breaking year for school shootings, and who could deny our schools have become Thunderdomes?

This year’s been rough, no doubt. On most days, I leave school dreaming about a drab office job where the most stimulating part of my day is lunch with coworkers.

This year’s been rough, no doubt. But news stories about widespread student unrest aren’t just overblown — they’re odious.

Here are 3 reasons why.

Reason 1: Weak evidence and overgeneralization.

First and foremost, the evidence behind the claims that schools are wracked by violence is weak.

Much of it relies on a form of deceptive, blanket attribution. You see it all over:

“School districts across the U.S. say…”

“Teachers and school administrators across the country say…”

“Multiple schools in Southern California and elsewhere have reported…”

“Teachers are reporting…”

“All over the country, teachers and school districts are reporting…”

“Schools across the country say…”.

Obviously, some generalizing is necessary. But it’s a problem when these stories can only substantiate their broad claims with cherry-picked incidents from across the country.

More than one of these stories sheepishly acknowledges that no national data on violence or misbehavior in schools actually exists.

More than one of these stories quotes the National Association of School Resource Officers without acknowledging an apparent conflict of interest.

A wave of student misbehavior is a theory in search of evidence.

Obviously, some generalizing is necessary. But it’s a problem when these stories can only substantiate their broad claims with cherry-picked incidents from across the country.

Reason 2: Attributing behavior to pandemic trauma

In addition, the coverage is as assured that the wave of school violence as it is of its cause. Which is, of course, the pandemic.

“The behavior issues are a reflection of the stress the pandemic placed on children,” Chalkbeat claims.

The WSJ agrees, since the pandemic “upended” students’ lives.

U.S. News tells us the unrest was “actually expected” given the stress and isolation of remote school.

There are two major problems with this argument.

First, it has become an article of faith that the pandemic has “traumatized” America’s schoolchildren, leaving one with the impression that children have been permanently and manifestly changed for the worse by their experiences during the pandemic.

I feel comfortable speaking for most educators when I say this dramatically overstates the case. While it is undoubtedly true that a small percentage of students have been more than temporarily or irreversibly harmed by the last year or so, the vast majority of students have readjusted just fine.

We even have a bit of reliable data to confirm this: the website FiveThirtyEight conducted a poll asking students themselves how they were fairing and found, among other bright spots, that, overall, “America’s kids aren’t as downtrodden as they’re often made out to be.” Apparently missing prom is a bigger deal for adults than it is for high school seniors.

Second, the pandemic is being presented as an origin story for a rash of problems that existed long before March 2020. According to a recent Education Week story, “sexual assaults, physical attacks, and other hostile behaviors in schools rose significantly in several school years prior to the pandemic.”

A recent advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General acknowledges that much of the turbulence in students’ lives predates the pandemic – and has abated since then. And spiking levels of anguish do not mean students will be irreparably harmed, states the advisory. After a crisis, “most people cope well and do not go on to develop mental health disorders.”

The snapshot anecdotes and statistics that journalists use to build their cynical “sky-is-falling” stories are often invalidated by long-term trends and historical precedent.

While it is undoubtedly true that a small percentage of students have been more than temporarily or irreversibly harmed by the last year or so, the vast majority of students have readjusted just fine.

Reason 3: Conflating misbehavior with violence.

The biggest problem with the coverage is how it conflates misbehavior with violence.

Students calling out in class is not the same as a fight. Fights are not the same as brawls. And online threats are not the same as students bringing guns to school. Yet most of the coverage has conflated rambunctiousness with wild violence and barely made an effort to draw a distinction among the many forms of misconduct educators see daily because, you know, kids are kids:

The Post story reported that a high school in Maryland saw four fights in one day, that two New Mexico students were arrested for planning a shooting, and then quoted a teacher who cried because “a student threw a bag of grapes.”

The WSJ story panned from “a series of brawls” at a high school in Louisiana that led to 23 suspensions to a district in Colorado that sent a letter home to parents because students were “leaving trash in halls, cafeterias, and outdoor spaces.”

The LA Times pivoted from gun threats at two California schools to describing “younger students [who] are having trouble acclimating to rules.” And a columnist for the New York Post was aghast that at her sons’ Brooklyn school, children were “crushing chalk.”

All of the stories, too, referenced this year’s school shootings, which suggests there’s a spectrum of misbehavior that includes talking out of turn and murder.

Please. That children, after a year of doing school horizontally in their pajamas, are having difficulty adjusting to an excruciating regimen that most adults would never abide should not be surprising to anyone, least of whom educators, who understand that most students don’t easily follow rules and routines without constant hectoring and cajoling and a fair bit of bellowing.

The adults who are responsible for said enforcing are themselves exhausted and out of practice. The road’s going to be bumpier and longer indeed. This is precisely what’s happening this year.

As for fights— are there more? Maybe. But the vast majority of fights in school are nothing more than a burst of aspersions followed by a flurry of glancing blows that don’t warrant the lurid coverage local news outlets reserve for their racist obsession with urban crime.

What’s loathsome about the lazy conflation of standard-issue mischief with out-and-out violence is that it walks a fine line between quaint stereotypes about teenage rebelliousness and racist stereotypes that youth of color are a menace to society.

It’s important to note that moral panics about American kids surface whenever American adults are feeling insecure about the direction of our country. More loathsome, still, is that the conflation lets adults off the hook for the deadlier strains of violence and distraction that they alone are responsible for introducing into our schools.

Note that precious few of these stories feature student voices, which leaves them open to perpetuating lazy, perennial adult-driven tropes about rebellious teens, fragile children, dangerous youths of color, and failing public schools.

Do better.

I don’t claim this year’s been business as usual, or that schools have been as nimble as they should be when confronting challenges that arise from modern problems.

But I will insist we hold tight to our skepticism and, more importantly, our optimism. I will also insist that adults take responsibility for the problems in our schools, instead of blaming the kids.

The media can’t single-handedly eliminate narratives that are being promoted by adults, many of whom have their own agendas. But it is their job to get as close to the truth as possible.

Stories about American public schools that omit students' voices, conflate flareups with school shootings, and rely on spotty, anecdotal evidence aren’t just weak. They’re shameful.

Source: Cafeteria Duty. (2021, December 20). The media obsession with ‘bad kids’. The Grade.

Cafeteria Duty is a New York City-based educator whose newsletter is here and whose Twitter is @Cafeteria-duty.

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