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Fighting in Lexington high schools sometimes leaves students, staff with injuries, records show

A student left with a bleeding ear after her earring was ripped out.

Teachers who were slapped and punched in the face.

A student with a broken nose.

A teacher who was threatened by a student who said she would kill his children.

The heavily publicized incident at Henry Clay High School in October, when school police used pepper spray to break up a fight and multiple students were charged, turned out to be one of many fighting incidents at Lexington schools since 2022.

A review by the Herald-Leader of reports of fights at Fayette County high schools revealed school resource officers have investigated nearly 90 physical altercations since the beginning of the previous school year.

Fourteen of the fights occurred from the beginning of this school year through Oct. 20.

In many instances, students were injured and their assailants faced consequences in Fayette County’s juvenile court system.

And in 23 of the incidents, school staff or school resource officers reported they were injured.

“The safety and well-being of our students and staff are of paramount importance to us, and any reports of these types of incidents are taken very seriously,” a statement from FCPS spokeswoman Dia Davidson-Smith said. “Addressing and mitigating conflicts and ensuring a safe learning environment for everyone remains the top priorities for the superintendent and the entire FCPS team.”

Of nearly 90 incidents for which reports were provided to the Herald-Leader in response to an open records request, Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Excellence had the most reported altercations, with 20, though some of those appeared to involve students at the middle school level.

Martin Luther King Jr. Academy is “an alternative program for middle and high school students whose conduct prevents them from succeeding in their regular school,” according to the school’s website, which describes the school as “a highly structured program that balances behavior modification with high academic standards.”

Of Fayette County’s traditional high schools, Bryan Station had 17 reported fights during the time frame reviewed, followed by Henry Clay and Tates Creek with 14 each, Lafayette with nine, Dunbar with six and Frederick Douglass with four.

Two reports were from the Learning Center, which serves at-risk students in eighth through 12th grades.

The records describe chaotic scenes in which sometimes two, three or more students were fighting, with crowds of students gathered as staff and officers intervened to try to restore order.

Sometimes, students use their cell phones to video record altercations, then post them on social media pages where students appear to view them almost as entertainment.

In some cases, students were found to have attacked one another without apparent provocation.

In other instances, officers and school administrators found that incidents outside of school preceded the altercations.

In one such incident at Tates Creek High School on Oct. 18, 2022, two female students assaulted a male student after an argument over rape allegations. The report states that the rape was alleged to have occurred off campus the previous summer, though the student involved said it was “consensual.”

The male student was pushed down the stairs and punched, scratched and hit before staff broke up the altercation. He said he didn’t need medical treatment.

Officers reported that cell phone video recorded by another student gave them a better view of what happened.

While many of the altercations left students with only scratches and bruises, students occasionally sustained more severe injuries.

In an assault at Tates Creek March 2, two brothers were accused of leaving another boy with “serious physical injuries, a broken nose and a possible concussion,” according to the report.

A female victim who was assaulted by another girl at Frederick Douglass High School on Feb. 21 was later admitted to the hospital with a concussion.

A resource officer who saw the incident wrote in the report that the victim, who was holding her phone, backpack and other items when she was hit, slid across the floor and was stopped from going down concrete stairs by a guard rail.

The victim reported having a “really bad” headache and said afterward, “I went completely black and I could not see anything.”

“This was not a mutual fight,” the officer wrote. “It was an assault with the intent to cause serious physical injury.”

A Fayette County Public Schools police vehicle is parked in front of Frederick Douglass High School in Lexington, Ky., on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.
A Fayette County Public Schools police vehicle is parked in front of Frederick Douglass High School in Lexington, Ky., on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.

Girls appeared to be almost as likely as boys to be involved in physical altercations, with females named as aggressors in about 40 reports. Both boys and girls were listed as suspects who fought each other in a few cases.

At least one student threatened to kill another.

On Oct. 19, 2022, at Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in the middle school hallway, one student punched another in the face.

The investigation revealed that another student had taken his shoes and threatened to kill him with his brother’s gun. There was an ongoing dispute between the two students, according to officers, who said no charges were pending and no arrests were made.

‘Fearful to return to the classroom’

Sometimes teachers and responding officers are hurt in the fray.

An officer had a broken ring finger, along with cuts and scrapes to the arms and hand, after the incident at Henry Clay October 20.

In one instance at Bryan Station on Sept. 28, 2022, a teacher who stepped in while two male students were fighting was taken to the hospital by a co-worker because her finger was “suspected to be broken or severely dislocated.”

Two fights within two days of each other at Henry Clay last February resulted in injuries to staff members and multiple officers.

In the first, on Feb. 21, a male teacher fell down while trying to separate two female students who were fighting, and one of the students slapped the teacher in the face. Afterward, the teacher said he had pain in his hip, a scraped elbow and slight pain to the side of his head. The principal sustained a cut on his hand, and three officers also said they had minor injuries after that incident.

Two days later, a male student threatened the principal of Henry Clay after the principal tried to stop him to talk to him in the hall.

An officer who was present said the student told the principal to “get the f--- out of my way before I f--- you up” and “slowly slid his backpack off, balling up both of his fists and taking a striking stance.”

Two officers intervened, and as they tried to take the student down to the ground, they and the student fell down with the weight of the student landing on one of the officers, the report states.

The student tried to get away, was handcuffed, and then another student tried to intervene and was handcuffed, the report states.

One of the officers said he had some abrasions to his elbow, knee and forearm, and shoulder and knee pain afterward. The other officer said he had pain and swelling to his elbow and pain to his shoulder and wrist.

A Fayette County Public Schools police vehicle is parked outside Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.
A Fayette County Public Schools police vehicle is parked outside Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.

And on Feb. 27, two female gym teachers at Frederick Douglass High School reportedly sought medical attention after they tried to break up a fight involving five female students in the gym.

One of the teachers said a student pulled her hair during the altercation, and she said she was left with soreness to her head for three days. After the incident, she said in a statement to police, she felt her “back tighten up/spasm from the fall, my knee hurt from hitting the floor, my hand bleeding and my head beginning to pound.”

The other teacher said in her statement that her ankle, shoulder and arm were hurt.

“I was fearful to return to the classroom due to the psychological effects. I felt a need to take a week away from the building to try and recover from the trauma caused by this event,” she told school police.

Incidents at Martin Luther King Jr. Academy

Teachers appeared to be particularly susceptible to being hurt at Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, where 14 of the 20 reports of physical altercations involved injuries to staff.

On Sept. 28 of this school year, a female student hit a male teacher in the chest and told another teacher she was “going to kill his kids,” according to a report. The student also said she would have the teacher “taken care of.”

On Jan. 23, the records show, a female student spit on and kicked multiple staff members and officers who had responded to a fight in the cafeteria during the middle school lunch at MLK.

Less than month later, a female teacher was punched in the ear, causing pain and redness, when she tried “to shield” another student from an assault. The report states that the student who hit the teacher later said the teacher “gets paid to get hit, f--- her.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Excellence at 2200 Liberty Rd. In Lexington, Ky., is photographed on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023.
Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Excellence at 2200 Liberty Rd. In Lexington, Ky., is photographed on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023.

The following month, on March 22, a female student at MLK hit a female para-educator with her fist several times during a mediation in a classroom, as the staff member was trying to prevent other students from being hit.

When officers arrived, they said they found the staff member “lying face down on the floor holding the suspect (redacted) around the legs, attempting to prevent her from reaching the other students” as the student “violently struggled” against her.

After the officers separated the student from the para-educator, they said the student yelled “obscenities with unintelligible remarks” and made “undirected threats of shooting others and shooting up the school,” the report states.

The educator was treated by medical personnel for a sprained jaw and shoulder strain, and the county attorney picked up the case, according to the report.

Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Excellence at 2200 Liberty Rd. In Lexington, Ky., is photographed on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023.
Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Excellence at 2200 Liberty Rd. In Lexington, Ky., is photographed on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023.

How schools are responding

By February 2023, Fayette school police had used pepper spray to control unruly students five times in the 2022-2023 school year, the Herald-Leader reported at the time.

The measure was used to keep students from hurting themselves or others. In each pepper spray incident, there was a physical altercation between students in which the students were at risk of serious injury, school officials said. All other efforts to de-escalate the situation were unsuccessful.

Some of those students, officers and in at least one case, others in the vicinity, experienced side effects from the spray.

In just one of the 90 reports of physical altercations was a staff member reported to have injured a student.

In that instance, a male teacher at MLK Academy was accused of hitting a male student in the chest, and the student “showed officers a red mark on his chest that was approximately 3 inches to 5 inches wide and long.”

Two other students and the teacher said it happened as the teacher was taking a pencil away from the student, who was holding it “in a threatening manner” towards the teacher.

“We are focused on maintaining high levels of safety on all of our school campuses,” Davidson-Smith said of MLK. “The measures used to keep students safe are the same at all schools and the policy is applied the same.”

Tracking trends

The Kentucky School Report Card says there were four first-degree assault events for Fayette County for the 2022-2023 school year and 227 other assaults or events of violence.

For 2021-2022, there were no first-degree assault events and 171 other assaults or events of violence, according to the data.

Statewide, 133 first-degree assaults were reported and 6,742 other assaults or violent events were reported during the last school year, compared to 84 first-degree assaults and 4,442 other assaults or violent events the year before.

While the details of the reports may be concerning, the prevalence of fighting in schools is actually decreasing, according to at least one source.

The CDC’s High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey asks students whether they have been in a fight on school property during the previous 12 months, and since 1993, the percentage of students who said they have been in a fight at school has been decreasing.

In 2021, the most recent survey for which data is available, 5.8% of students — 8.1% of boys and 3.2% of girls — reported having been in a physical fight on school property during the previous year. In Kentucky, that number was 6.6%.

That’s down from a high of 16.2% of students nationwide in 1993, the first year for which data was available.

Fayette school district response

Steps are being taken to reduce physical altercations in schools, including increased supervision, conflict resolution programs, and working with students, parents and staff to promote respect and understanding, Davidson-Smith said.

The district has a tipline for anonymous reports.

A process is followed when a student fight or assault on staff occurs, with immediate investigation and the correct type of discipline, said Davidson-Smith.

“Staffing levels are within the limits that are acceptable, but can always be better,” she said.

At the high schools, there are teams of four officers in the building during the instructional day and more are brought in for selected athletic activities beyond the traditional school day, she said.

School level chiefs and the Fayette schools police department track any issues that are reported and track where more supports might be needed, Davidson-Smith said.

What could be the causes of these physical altercations?

Schools mirror the issues that are found in communities, Davidson-Smith said. “If there are problems outside our walls, they will eventually find a way inside.”