Before it was taken down, one social media account featured 28 clips of children fighting across various sites in the borough. Charges have been filed in one incident; another remains under investigation.
By Matt Skoufalos | August 10, 2021
In some of the videos, children square off as if in a boxing ring.
In others, those sitting on the sidelines are provoked into a confrontation.
They take place in clear daylight at recognizable locations across Collingswood, from Knight Park to Roberts Pool, to the terrace at the Parkview apartments, and the bathrooms and outdoor campuses of the borough junior-senior high school.
Some of them appear to have been recorded in Cherry Hill parking lots, Audubon parks, and the middle of a residential street.
In many of them, the camera operator can be heard goading the combatants into fights, critiquing their performance, or chastising others who step in from the sidelines.
And until Tuesday afternoon, when it was no longer available, the Instagram account that hosted them all featured the tagline, “Go F— your self fight or the video not get took down.” It had at least 100 followers and 28 posts from August 1 to 10.
Although the identities of those involved in the encounters remain largely unknown, several appear to be school-aged children trading blows in pre-determined confrontations. Yet not every scrap presented on the account features willing combatants; some are flat-out assaults, presaging other such violent encounters that didn’t reach Instagram.
One Collingswood family notified police after their child was attacked by a classmate who features prominently in several of the videos.
“This [child] walked up and said, ‘I want to fight you,’” a parent said. “[My kid’s] never been in a physical altercation with anybody, and decided they were going to walk away.
“[The assailant] pulled [their] hair, dragged [them] to the concrete, and said, ‘The next time you walk away from me, it’s going to be worse.’”
The parent filed a citizen complaint against the assailant, which prompted the child to tag the victim on Instagram and threaten them again.
“They’ll fight kids in the bathroom,” the parent said. “They’ll fight kids wherever.”
Following the attack, the parent enrolled the child in mixed martial arts classes in an attempt to regain their self-confidence, and also sought help from a school guidance counselor.
But the child has clearly been traumatized by the event, the parent said.
“I don’t even want [my child] walking around town,” the parent said.
“[They’re] not safe.”
At the same time, the family has pressed charges because they “really would like to see [their attacker] get some help.”
Until he was made aware of the Instagram account, Collingswood Police Chief Kevin Carey said that only two reported incidents of youth fighting had made it to his desk in the past month, with only the aforementioned assault resulting in charges.
(The other is an active investigation; the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office is participating.)
Despite having received a few calls for reports of fights, borough police had responded to scenes only to find they’d dispersed beforehand.
According to his analysis of the video footage, Carey said that a handful of the same children appear in most of the posts; most frequently featured is the child charged in the citizen complaint. With the Instagram account having been taken down, he expects that the intensity of the behavior should subside.
“Now that the Instagram page is down, they’re more aware that other people are aware [of the incidents],” Carey said. “It would certainly seem that [their] family unit is aware. I’m sure that some of that action will stop.”
Rather than subject the adolescents to criminal proceedings, the chief said Collingswood Police prefer to use a diversionary program, in which youth offenders agree to fulfill community service hours instead of entering the juvenile justice system.
Pressing charges in these instances also affords police the opportunity to connect juvenile aggressors with social service programs that can help get at the root of their issues, he said.
In the assault case, police notified Family Link, the Family Crisis Intervention Unit for the Camden County Court System, which is administered by the Camden City-based Center for Family Services, and the Department of Children and Families Division of Child Protection and Permanency. Carey said he is optimistic that the borough school district will support these referrals for social services with its own programming as well.
“I think that it’s a good thing to have those programs in place to try to get to the root cause of what’s going on rather than just penalizing the kids for doing something,” Carey said.
“Getting to that, stopping that, is sometimes difficult,” the chief said.
“The referral program goes far beyond what the limitations of the juvenile justice system does.”
Most importantly, Carey said, the decision to press charges as a citizen can afford authorities greater discretion in dealing with circumstances that can have long-term consequences for children.
“If you want the person to get linked to these diversionary programs, give us the opportunity to make referrals,” he said.
“If nobody’s going to step up and force the issue, then law enforcement can’t do it, either.”
Collingswood Superintendent of Schools Fredrick McDowell described the videos as “disturbing” and “unacceptable,” and the behavior captured on them as a byproduct of childhood stressors during “a challenging time”; namely, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
McDowell views these incidents against a broader backdrop of family issues that have intensified during the pandemic, including social isolation, economic instability, inappropriate social media use, and pervasive bullying.
As the summer ends and students face the prospects of returning to school amid the uncertainty of a surge in caseloads driven by the COVID-19 delta variant, “chaos is re-emerging” in some households, he said.
“Some children are looking for a release,” McDowell said. “How do children deal with trauma? If you’ve got an invisible enemy that you can’t punch in the mouth, what’s your next best thing?”
Nonetheless, the superintendent said the district will “take a hard stance against violence,” so as to avoid dealing with similar incidents when the 2021-22 school year kicks off.
McDowell, a longtime martial arts instructor, said he is personally keenly aware of how physical altercations can go south quickly, and is concerned that kids could be “greatly injured” if these scuffles persist. But he also pointed out that children who pressure others into a physical confrontation are typically students who’ve experienced trauma themselves.
“There seems to be a growing problem of these young people who think it’s cool to fight, or it’s cool to fight on camera,” McDowell said.
“We’ll be working to counsel students and work with families to correct the behavior.
“There are other ways to settle your disagreements than physically,” he said.
“Bullying is never okay.”
School officials have been reviewing the Instagram footage to identify the times and locations of the incidents and the students involved.
From there, the district will contact parents, restate their expectations of student behavior, and offer referrals for services, counseling, and other supports to the families that need them.
Liaisons to the schools’ harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) teams are “aware, and actively investigating” in partnership with law enforcement, McDowell said. He expects that district-wide priorities on social-emotional learning and trauma-informed care will help to mitigate the impact of these experiences.
“We believe we should be able to counsel our way through this,” the superintendent said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A spokesperson for Instagram received our request for comment in the matter, but didn’t respond prior to publication. Check back for updates.
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