Crowd Control to prevent "Mob Rule"
September 21, 2007 3:10 AM   Subscribe

Crowd control techniques for hundreds of unruly people (teenagers in this case)? More inside...

Looking for tried-and-true techniques for keeping a cafeteria full of unruly high schoolers in (reasonable) order. Not all BAD kids, but kids who generally weren't raised to have much respect for authority and have no qualms about flipping off a cop, let alone a teacher.

Fights and food fights break out fairly often (or almost break out--we can usually quell it in time but this is not always possible). Enforcing discipline (detentions, etc.) is difficult because we don't know all of their names and don't always have time call in someone who does. It's a typical overcrowded school and a kid can easily "disappear" into the crowd before you can identify him.

My classroom management techniques are pretty strong, but it's different when there are hundreds of them and you don't know most of their names (yet. I'm working on it).

Any suggestions from people (teachers, law enforcement, military, cult leaders, people familiar with crowd psychology, whatever) who have tried-and-true ideas on how 4-5 people can motivate a few hundred to keep relative order?

I'm not looking for military ranks here--kids will be kids after all, and the students here are quick to rebel against iron-fists. Students here respond best to teachers they like, respect, and trust, so the firm-but-positive approach tends to be better than the authoritarian approach (which usually leads to a very bad us vs. them situation). I'm mainly just looking prevent or quell the disruptions that can invoke "mob rule."

P.S. I'm also looking for general ways of dealing with individuals who respond disrespectfully or ignore our instructions because they know we can't enforce any discipline until we know their names (I have been known to follow a kid down the hall to his next class or break out last year's yearbook to find out his name, but this is not always possible when there are several of them or their faces are not particularly memorable).

posted by Alabaster to Education (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Provide positive goals, i.e. for every week no food fights occur, something good will happen, say watching a movie the last hour of the day or some such.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:00 AM on September 21, 2007

The positive authority figure is a good one, but you do need at least one Officer Hardass about. This way, most of the teachers can play "good cop" while one plays the "bad". The Hardass should rank above teachers in some way so that way the positive authority figures can seem to be more on the students' side.

I've used this technique on a horde of drunkards at large beer tasting events before, and it does work, and the idea was cribbed largely from my own high school experience (where a Vice Principal was the Hardass). The role of Hardass is thankless, but it does get the job done.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:44 AM on September 21, 2007

Could you carry around a (disposable/digital) camera and photograph any kids who try to get away with things because you don't know their names?

Also, probably unhelpful, but posted because the language is so ... strident: US Army Officer's Manual, 1917, on mobs:

Mobs are, by their very nature, peculiarly liable to dejection or elation; they sneak into their hiding-places or swarm into the streets directly as they fail or succeed. Without discipline they can neither be checked in the excesses that follow victory, nor rallied from the discouragement that follows defeat.

Victorious or temporized with, the rioter finds a thousand venal wretches at his back; beaten, or energetically handled, he is deserted by his erstwhile friends. The fact that there are in society so many professional agitators, so many anarchists, socialists, thieves, cutthroats, vagabonds, and ruffians, who, with the instinct of the vulture, will seek the field of prey on the one hand, and on the other, with the instinct of the rat, desert the sinking ship, renders it absolutely necessary that the mob shall not be trifled with to the extent even of permitting them to seem to be victorious for a single day.

Mobs are cowards at first. They only gain courage as they find that those whose duty it is to suppress them are themselves cowards. A mob is not to be feared when it is first aroused.


Mobs as a rule are made up of cowards -- not necessarily physical cowards but moral cowards -- moral cowards because of their consciousness of being in the wrong, of being lawless. The most cowardly members of a mob are generally in the rear, which is, therefore, the weakest, the most vulnerable part. Having neither discipline nor organization, the very moment a break is started, the rest will follow like so many sheep.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:03 AM on September 21, 2007

Stagger them. Which is to say, have multiple lunch breaks to cut down on the number of students in the cafeteria at any one time. You'll need to re-do the whole schedule and hire more staff, but it might work. Maybe.

I don't think you should reward them for simply behaving civilly. That's not a reward; it's a bribe.

we can't enforce any discipline until we know their names

This isn't true at all. For example, there's this one highly classified technique used by the CIA which you might be able to use here. It is called "Hey you!"

Or you could always just ask what their names are, if it matters so much.
posted by Reggie Digest at 5:36 AM on September 21, 2007

Find areas where it looks like trouble is threatening to break out, pull up a chair and chat. This is especially effective before full scale (food) fights occur. Keep it informal, shrug off any insults or slights, find out how their days have gone, etc. You don't want to appear over eager or as though you're trying too hard; you just want to chat.

I've found this to be an effective way of keeping students under control (especially once you know their names). Granted, my experience is with a dining hall full of antagonised drunk first year university students, but I'd imagine that it should be effective with high school students at lunch time.
posted by lumiere at 5:38 AM on September 21, 2007

Divide and conquer as Reggie Digest suggests. You can even divide up the lunch room with dividers to make the groups smaller or even allow some kids to have an open campus (time off for good behavior). Also think of ways to get them out of the lunch room quicker by allowing kids who have finished eating to go play in the gym or read in the library, for example.
posted by JJ86 at 5:43 AM on September 21, 2007

Or you could always just ask what their names are, if it matters so much.

They will lie. And the people around them will lie. And while you're preoccupied being led into their game, other stuff is happening behind you. Until you know names, you're just getting by.

Can you start a parent volunteer squad to help monitor?

Can you increase the level of punishment for cafeteria offenses, and then send home a letter to all parents explaining the reason for the new rules? That way when a kid gets busted, the parent understands and is more likely to support the punishment.

In schools, the mob mentality thrives on the belief that they can't catch EVERYBODY, and they won't punish EVERYBODY. You need to prove this untrue. Use peer pressure; punish a whole class based on the actions of a few, and break the charismatic charm their misbehaviour casts over their classmates. In the cafeteria, if they are broken up into sections, each section can be held accountable for the behavior displayed by its individuals.
posted by hermitosis at 6:00 AM on September 21, 2007

I agree with the suggestion to carry a camera.
posted by jayder at 6:25 AM on September 21, 2007

A few years back I was the lone staff member in a 2300+ student high school library and I had to supervise 100+ students every period by myself (in retrospect I believe this is illegal but neither the administration or union showed any interest in improving a comfortable situation for them). This was a violent, disruptive crowd that would not give me their names and if I tried to escort them to the office they would bolt and run. Most of the students would not sit for photos for the yearbook because they didn't want a record of what they looked like in the hands of the teachers. My (male) VPs would not come to break up a fight unless they had a back-up male with them so I was often preventing/breaking up fights myself. I had to be a hardass about rules in order to stay alive each day. There were four chairs to a table and students could not add more, their butts had to be parked in a chair or moving to a destination (not aimless wandering in that weird limp gait). I kicked out students for minor infractions and I was not afraid to yell. I didn't care what the students thought of me (but there were some lovely ones I built relationships with). I spent most of my time observing group dynamics, figuring out who the natural leaders were and giving them special priviledges (not reporting them cutting class, allowing them to play games on computers, turning a blind eye to minor infractions) if they controlled their group. This wasn't spelled out to them, it was just using positive re-inforcement and swift negative consequences. I never tried to be anyones friend but I did show an interest in what individual students were doing and I believed each day everyone started with a clean record, so if a student I had kicked out every day for the past two weeks came in the library and was mostly appropriate I would not turf them for a minor infraction of the rules. I was always on the move and visible and was known for swooping up behind students when they thought no one was around to watch their misdeeds. I was a teen once too so no trick they could pull was one I hadn't done myself. I listened for names (due to their cultures many students when by multiple names) and used them frequently when addressing the students. I kept a special eye out for bullied students and befriended them (my worst regret is that I did not save a teen that did commit suicide due to bullying outside of the library). I began the year very rigid about the rules and made sure students knew who was in charge. I relaxed about enforcing the rules after I had control and keeping in mind the energy level of the students, especially just before breaks or during exams. Although it sounds like I thought this out, mostly it was just instinctual as I tried to live to the end of each day (literally, I recieved death threats from students with violent criminal records). Since you have multiple teachers I would have each person patrol the same area each duty. Students tend to sit in the same place and the teacher will get to know the individual students faster. Group punishment is definately the way to go, make them regulate each others behaviour. As a last reort, embarrasment/loss of face is devestating to many students, I used it sparingly but with a few impossible students it did at least keep them away fom me.
posted by saucysault at 7:26 AM on September 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

Tasers. (sorry, someone had to).
posted by tadellin at 8:26 AM on September 21, 2007

Have them watch Cool Hand Luke, then put on your sunglasses.
posted by RussHy at 8:44 AM on September 21, 2007

Sorry, that was flippant, but my point is you have to apply sanctions to the leaders. Remove them. Make them eat a special table with LOTS of supervision. Like you sit there beside them and retrain them in how to eat a meal politely. Fork to mouth, chew, napkin, repeat. Frame it as etiquette training.
posted by RussHy at 8:58 AM on September 21, 2007

Brandon Blatcher's idea was the best I read so far.
posted by banished at 9:02 AM on September 21, 2007

Maybe it is time to put in some video cameras in the cafeteria. If this sort of thing occurs enough for you to post here, then you never know when it is going to get worse. What happens when on of the kids brings a knife, or worse, into the fight? At least with a few, well placed security cameras you and maybe another staff member or two can sit down an try to identify the bad apples.
posted by B(oYo)BIES at 10:00 AM on September 21, 2007

Provide positive goals, i.e. for every week no food fights occur, something good will happen, say watching a movie the last hour of the day or some such.

I began the year very rigid about the rules and made sure students knew who was in charge. I relaxed about enforcing the rules after I had control and keeping in mind the energy level of the students, especially just before breaks or during exams.

Combine both ideas, start as a total hardass, and then provide positive reinforcement. The better behaved students can leave, etc., etc.

If you can, change the lunchroom so it looks like a lunchroom for CHILDREN.
Teddy bear pictures on the walls,
Low tables and chairs, etc.
Only sporks or sippy cups.

Then get another part of the cafeteria, wall it off, call it the lounge. Show movies or sports. maybe have a chef come in to cook as some part of a vo-tech program in the lounge.

Then if a student acts out of line.

"Well so-and-so, is watching MTV and eating like an adult in the lounge, but you're sitting here like my six-year old in Kindergarten because you throw food and start fights like my six-year old in kindergarten. When you grow the **** up and act like an adult we'll treat you like an adult. your choice."

Walk away

Worked for me in high school, where the better behaved kids got to watch a lot of Monty Python at lunch.
posted by xetere at 11:02 AM on September 21, 2007

I had a teacher once who had taught previously in Iran, prior to the revolution. He said that as a young American, the kids gave him endless shit. So what he did was, when one day he couldn't tell who was throwing stuff from the back of the class, he punched the biggest, strongest kid in the face. He told that kid that he'd hit him again, harder, if there were any more disruptions. There weren't.

Obviously, you can't punch the kids. But you can grab the biggest, meanest ones and make sure that you punish them for something they didn't do, but won't say who did. Don't get into any conversations about whether it's fair (or acknowledge that it's not). That kid will then run herd on the rest of the kids.
posted by klangklangston at 12:13 PM on September 21, 2007

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