A Fork in the Road

Tina Reynolds worries about the difficult situations that her students face each day, both at Coral Bay Middle School and in their community. She is particularly concerned with one of her 8th graders, Joseph Rios. Jo-Jo, as he is known to his peers, is making some bad choices these days. But what, if anything, can Tina do to help him? How can she convince him that joining a gang is the worst possible thing he could do?
Tina Reynolds worries about the difficult situations that her students face each day, both at Coral Bay Middle School and in their community. She is particularly concerned with one of her 8th graders, Joseph Rios. Jo-Jo, as he is known to his peers, is making some bad choices these days. But what—if anything— can Tina do to help him? How can she convince him that joining a gang is the worst possible thing he could do?

Tina Reynolds gets help with her research from a colleague. She bridges the statistics about school violence to the reality she sees daily at Coral Bay Middle School.

Tina Reynolds, an 8th grade teacher at Coral Bay Middle School

Tina Reynolds brushed a stray hair from her face with an impatient gesture and took a deep breath. It was the first time she had sat down since first period. She had just taken a seat behind her desk, coffee in hand, when a knock on the door made her look up. Her colleague, Marcos Arrizurieta, filled her doorway with his lanky frame. “Hi, Tina,” he called, “Are you up for some company?”
“Absolutely!,” she replied. “What’s new?” Marco slid into one of the student desks facing her and set down his lunch tray.

“I’ve got something to share,” Marcos said, unfolding a lone sheet of paper from his pocket and handing it to her. “I think you’ll find it’s perfect for your lit review,” he added.

“Thanks,” Tina said, with an appreciative smile. Tina was almost done with a Master’s degree in Urban Education, and she was immersed in her thesis on school violence.

“I just got it from one of my listservs this morning,” Marcos told her. “It’s hot off the press!”

Click here to view the report: Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2009

As Tina read the statistics about student violence, she was at once sobered and fascinated.

“Wow! Students age 12 to18 were victims of about 1.5 million crimes at school in 2007,” she read out loud, “and 55 percent of these crimes were reported as thefts and the rest as violent crimes,” she continued. “Oh, my gosh!” she exclaimed, “And even then, schools were safer for kids! It says that there were at least 50 times as many homicides of youth away from school than at school, and at least 150 times as many suicides of youth away from school than at school. That’s horrifying,” she said in a small voice. “Oh… this is the 2009 annual report by the National Center for Education. I sure can use this. Thank you for thinking of me, Marcos.”


“Any time,” Marcos responded, “of course, that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. So much of this kind of stuff goes unreported, you know.” Tina nodded in agreement. “Good luck with your writing, Tina.” Marcos said as he stood up and glanced at his watch. “Got to go! I’ve got five minutes.”
“Thanks again” Tina called after him, and her eyes returned to the sample data from the report. Later, she read it completely. For now, however, she underlined one stat that jumped out at her: while one-quarter of schools recorded no violent crimes, a reported 24 percent of schools recorded 20 or more violent crimes! Tina folded the print out thoughtfully and tucked page in her purse. She knew all about the challenges of that 24 percent of schools, schools like Coral Bay Middle, where she had been teaching for the last three years.


Violence is a reality for many of her students, but in their classroom demeanor, at least, Tina is seeing some improvement. This is particularly apparent in their behavior during group work. Tina works hard to earn their trust and to motivate them, but she is concerned about Jo-Jo Rios, who seems to be going through some difficult times at home and in school. When she learns he is being suspended for fighting once again, she wonders what is really going on.
“Mrs. Reynolds, is this OK?” Tanika said, her brow knit as she held her diagram in front of Tina. “That’s how you want it, right?” Tina assured her that she was on the right track and made a few suggestions to Tanika and members of her group, moving to the next small group of students as she circulated the classroom. Tina’s students were working on a multidisciplinary project dealing with the environment and global warming.

Click here to learn about Design Principles for Effective Project Based Learning

Tina and two of her team members are meeting state standards in language arts, science, and technology with the project, which they found online and customized for their use.

Click here to view the ePals Global Warming Classroom Project

The students in her language arts class were working on a pre-writing assignment in small groups of four and five, preparing to write letters to their state Congresswoman. As she reviewed the next group’s diagram, Tina thought about how far some of these students had already come this year, not only academically but also in terms of their social skills. Certainly, their ability to work together as part of a group was a huge accomplishment. Tina had been introduced to an author in her graduate work that drew parallels between animal and human behaviors.

Click here to view Dr. Dugatkin’s research on Animal Cooperation

Rick Norman, Assistant Principal

This work and all she’d been able to find on cooperative learning had given her increased insight on how to help her students. But having the students work cooperatively had gotten off to a rough start, to say the least. Initially, Tina had to defuse several situations, and she clearly remembered times when verbal altercations threatened to escalate beyond her control. But look at them now, she thought, you just have to believe in them and persevere, and…Tina’s thoughts were interrupted by a booming voice: “Ms. Reynolds?” She recognized the voice of Assistant Principal Rick Norman.
“Yes, Mr. Norman?” she replied.


“I need Mr. Rios to come with me,” he said. “And bring your bookbag, Mr. Rios,” he added, “you won’t be coming back.” Tina could only watch as Jo-Jo stood up from his desk and swaggered towards Mr. Norman, a disdainful look etched on his young face. Tina approached the doorway where the Assistant Principal stood with his eyes glued to Jo-Jo. “What’s happened, Rick?” she whispered to Mr. Norman . “Fighting again,” he responded. “Mr. Brooks brought us a pretty beat up kid a while ago, and we finally got him to tell us what happened. He claims Jo-Jo here jumped him on his way to class,” Mr. Norman added, shaking his head, “and that he was just defending himself.” “Tina,” he said, just as Jo-Jo reached them, his torn shirt and disheveled appearance not to be missed, “this kid is quite the troublemaker, isn’t he?” Tina realized Rick made this comment for Jo-Jo’s benefit. “Let’s go, young man, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do,” he added, but what Tina noticed was that Jo-Jo looked right through him, his eyes devoid of emotion, an impassive expression on his face.

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Tina obtains the facts about Jo-Jo’s fight. She is appalled to learn it was an unprovoked and extremely violent attack. Back in her classroom, she struggles to understand what is happening to this student. While rushing to her university class, she is delayed by Marta, another student and a friend of Jo-Jo’s. Marta provides insights about the reason behind Jo-Jo’s strange and violent behavior that will force Tina to intervene. What will be the best course of action?

After fifth period, Tina headed to the main office, hoping to learn more about what happened and why Jo-Jo had been in yet another fight. Jo-Jo had only been back from his previous suspension for two weeks. At this rate, he was going to be spending more time out of school than in it, and this was a trend he couldn’t afford to continue, Tina mused. Not if he was to have any chance of passing eigth grade this year! She was almost certain that failing would ensure that Jo-Jo would eventually drop out of school. And what then? This bright young man, this angry and bright young man, would be looking at a lifetime of zero possibilities. She shook her head to clear out these morose thoughts and knocked lightly on Rick’s door. No answer. He must still be on bus duty, she realized. While she waited, Tina remembered the statistics dealing with school violence that she’d read this morning. Here was this young man–much more than a statistic to her–and she couldn’t help but wonder if that’s all he, and others like him, were ultimately reduced to. Thinking about how she’d frame her research paper, she considered that profiling one of those statistics through a case study of one of the victims or perperators of a school-based incident would add meaning and depth to her work.

School bus

“Hi, Tina,” Mary Jo Gomez, the Principal’s secretary, called out to her, “are you looking for Rick?” A few minutes later, with Mary Joe’s help, and the aid of a school walkie-talkie, Tina met Rick out by the bus loading zone. He darted into view, waving to her from the end of a quickly disappearing row of yellow buses, a swarm of students between them. She knew it had been hard for Rick, who was new to Coral Bay this year. With dreams of becoming a principal, he’d left a comfortable position in one of the district’s best schools when he agreed to come to Coral Bay. He handled most-–if not all—of the discipline problems at the school, and it was obvious that he was woefully unprepared for what exactly a school like Coral Bay would require of him. It was a hard job, and Rick had responded in kind by becoming a hardened version of himself. From Rick, she learned the details of what had happened. It seems that Jo-Jo had waited for another student, Leroy Jackman, and jumped him on his way to fourth period from the portables.

Rick Norman

The fight had been unprovoked—or so it seemed—and particularly vicious. Tina winced as Rick described how Leroy had been repeatedly kicked while on the ground, and that Jo-Jo “then simply walked away,” leaving the young man bleeding and hurt. That’s how Tom Brooks, the school security guard, found him. Tina learned that Leroy was checked by the school nurse and released to his parents. A defiant and unrepentant Jo-Jo had offered no denial of the attack and, worse, no explanation for it. In the end, he’d been suspended for yet another week and his frazzled mother had come to pick him up. Tina heard that she had been “spitting mad” at her son, repeating like a mantra that she’d had to leave work early and that he was going to get her fired. “That kid is nothing but a bully, as far as I’m concerned,” Rick said. “It’s clear that the mother…well, let’s just say she can’t control him.” Meaningfully, he added, “and it’s sad to think, Tina, but he’s headed for major trouble in his life; jail or worse. It’s clear as day, if you ask me.”


Tina headed back to her classroom, feeling deflated and confused. She was angry at Rick for openly writing Jo-Jo off. The bright, articulate young man she’d known in her class this year was nothing like the monster Rick had described. There must be something triggering Jo-Jo’s unacceptable behavior. But what? Maybe there was something going on at home Tina made a mental note to contact Jo-Jo’s mother on her way to class this afternoon. Class! She quickly gathered the papers she needed to grade and stuffed them unceremoniously into her tote. She had class today, and as she glanced at her watch nervously, she hoped she’d still be able to get on the expressway before traffic built up. As she gathered her oversized purse,and rushed for the door, keys already in hand, a small voice stalled her.
“Ms. Reynolds?” Marta, a student in her first period class, was peeking in her door.

“Honey, I’m rushing out to class,” Tina said, “Can we talk tomorrow?” But one glance at Marta, and Tina stopped dead in her tracks and had her come in. “Five minutes, OK?” Tina said, while Marta nodded. “Now, what’s this all about?” she asked.

Marta, her eyes fixed on her tightly-clenched hands, responded “It’s about Jo-Jo, Ms. Reynolds. He’s done something really stupid.”

“Yes,” Tina said patiently, “I know. The thing about this fight . . .”

“No,” Marta emphatically shook her head, “ that’s just part of it!” From Marta, Tina learned that Jo-Jo was being recruited by a gang, one of several, rival gangs that plagued this community. She listened attentively, waves of dread washing over her, as Marta explained that Jo-Jo must prove himself to the gang in order to be accepted, and that these school fights were just a small part of his initiation. Tina learned that it was the gang members who dictated whom Jo-Jo should target and when each attack was to take place. “And there’s something worse that he needs to do next,” Marta continued. Tina could see the inner struggle that Marta was experiencing. On the one hand, she wanted to help her friend by recruting Tina’s help. On the other hand, Marta was clearly frightened, both for Jo-Jo and for herself, and for the repercussions that would surely follow if she said too much. Finally, fear won, and Marta suddenly became tight-lipped, insisting she didn’t know anything else. “Please help him, Ms. Reynolds,” she stammered, “Jo-Jo’s not like that. He’s not like them…he don’t belong in any gang!”

“But what can I do, Marta?” Tina had heard herself saying, in an unfamiliar voice, “I don’t even know what it is he’s supposed to do next!” But Marta had bolted to the door, casting a furtive look behind her at Tina.

“I don’t know, either,” she’d called out to her “something that they’ve asked him to do is really bad. That’s all I know.” And just like that, she was gone. Tina slumped against a nearby doorway in an attempt to collect her thoughts and rein in her racing heart. Feeling that she was in over her head, she considered her next steps. What actions must she now take? How might she best act on the limited information Marta had entrusted to her? Most importantly, how might she protect the Bay Cove community and still help Jo-Jo?

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