Is there a fight club problem at Fresno schools? Social media video posts outrage parents

Two elementary school girls face each other in an open bathroom stall as voices in the crowd urge them to fight: “Come on, come on,” a student yells.

The opponents, smiling awkwardly and hesitating at first, start to throw their arms in a flurry. One girl grabs the other’s long hair with one hand and repeatedly hits her head and neck with her other hand, while the other girl grabs her opponent’s braids and tries to hold onto the arm that’s swinging at her.

The two fifth graders at Pyle Elementary School in Fresno push and shove in a circle as the onlookers laugh and cheer.

In this violent Instagram video, an adult’s voice can be heard from afar, causing the children to stop fighting. Someone is heard saying, “Let’s go.” When the two girls separate, they don’t seem to be injured, but their faces are red, and they’re upset. A Q&A box with the video asks viewers to vote on who they think won the quick fight.

This was just one video, from December, that was posted on the Instagram account “Pylefights.” The account, founded in May, features Pyle’s mascot and school name. It showed three fighting videos from May to December, and garnered more than 100 followers. It shared the name of the associated TikTok account in the bio.

Parents have complained to the Fresno Unified school board about the videos. One mom told the Bee that she brought her concerns to the Parent Advisory Committee, but she has yet to hear back. One mom said she spoke directly to the Pyle Elementary principal, Isacc Villanueva-Langdon, about the account, hoping the school might take some action.

“I’ve mentioned this to the principal, and he just kind of brushed me off, saying ‘Oh, they were play fights.’ So I watched a couple of videos, and I would not call any of these ‘play.’ They were pretty violent,” said Jessica Jolliffe, whose daughter is in the third grade at Pyle. “This concerns me because they are just first through sixth grade.”

The Bee called and then emailed the principal more than a week ago, offering him the chance to comment for the story. He did not reply.

Not only Pyle, but at least 14 schools within the Fresno Unified School District have social media accounts dedicated to school fight videos, the Bee has found. Most of the Fresno accounts were registered in the second half of 2023. Ranging from elementary to high school fight videos, the accounts usually create a name from a combination of the featured school’s name and the keyword “fight” or “fightpage.” They often adopt the school’s logo or mascot as headshots. The bios can include tips asking followers to send fight videos they record in specific schools. Some schools even have more than one account on the same social media platform.

“It’s really frustrating because all this stuff is happening, and I don’t feel like the school is doing anything about it,” said Jolliffe.

The Bee contacted the Fresno Unified School District on Jan. 3, and at other times, for this story to see if the district has a social media policy that might address the video posts. The Bee also asked to speak with someone at the district’s Department of Prevention and Intervention about the social media videos and Instagram accounts and whether the district was doing anything to address the situation. The Bee also asked for information about the district’s anti-bullying policy and suspension rates.

In an emailed response, the district provided links to its policy on bullying and said that it would not be able to talk to a Bee reporter or answer a series of submitted questions on the topic until later in the month. The department needs time to prepare, the district public information officer told the Bee. Neither the school district nor Pyle’s principal responded whether they watched the videos and spoke with any of the students involved in the fighting.

The district’s anti-bullying policy says that student safety is a high priority and that bullying is not tolerated. The district also has a cyberbullying rule that students shouldn’t create or transmit harmful content including causing, attempting to cause physical injury to another person, or willfully using violence upon personnel. “A student who has committed the acts is subject to discipline by suspension or expulsion,” the policy says. The policies do not appear to specifically address the posting of student fight videos on social media.

School fight videos are nationwide issue

Documenting school fights and setting up social media accounts to distribute those videos has become a national trend, and the situation has popped up in many states. The accounts are popular. Among Fresno Unified school fights’ accounts, the majority gained more than 100 followers - including at some elementary schools - and the largest one has 1,019 followers.

Other than the obvious problems with student safety, experts told The Bee that the accounts are also dangerous because they normalize violence among students and also add to a student’s burden of learning to socialize normally in an already stressful post-Covid environment. One expert said that it’s bad because students who post the videos are searching for likes and online popularity by featuring inappropriate content.

“There was less opportunity to deal with social interaction about their peers and manage conflict or emotional regulation,” said Marilyn Sliney, executive director of Pacific Clinics, which contracts with school districts to provide student and family counseling.

“They are unfortunately getting recognition for how many hits they receive from these videos,” she said. “The victim of the fight incidents, the child who’s doing the videoing, and those observing, are all contributing to what’s already a complex situation for kids.”

The most frequent challenge they encounter, Sliney said, is that children are still recovering from trauma, especially in their lives after the pandemic during which social media and screen time became significant ways for them to connect. It poses additional difficulties for parents and schools to help kids re-engage in direct social activities.

Nearly half of teens said they use the Internet “almost constantly,” a 2023 survey from Pew Research Center showed, which roughly doubled the 24% in the 2014-2015 survey. Also, 95% of teens self-reported that they had used YouTube, while 63% and 59% said they used TikTok and Instagram, respectively.

Instagram and TikTok require a minimum age of 13 to own an account. It is unclear how elementary kids set up these fighting accounts. The Instagram Community Guidelines also mandate that graphic violence is not allowed and the platform may remove videos or images of intense violence. But the account owner can prevent being tracked down and blocked by changing the handle, and it’s also not hard to create new ones - some Fresno accounts wrote in their bios that they are the successor of a previous account. Another common practice is stating “No snitch” or “Don’t report.”

Fresno parents concerned about safety

As the phenomenon spreads, parents are concerned about their kids’ safety at school and being exposed to increased bullying and fighting. In the videos, fights usually took place in playgrounds, bathrooms, and schools’ backyards, and most of the time, there was no adult nearby to intervene.

“In one of our School Site Council meetings, they said something about it, and I did some digging about it, too,” said Bri Knavel, a mother of three children who all attended Pyle and who serves as a parent representative. “There are some on Instagram, some on TikTok.”

“My second child does not want to go to school, he says he doesn’t know what to do, he doesn’t feel safe, and I just think it’s so heartbreaking,” said Knavel.

Knavel’s oldest son is a special-ed student and was bullied by a group of kids at school. Knavel said she had seen the fighting video involving her son circulated in a Snapchat group; she had kept her son at home for a week-long “Independent study” for safety reasons; and the child even applied for a no-contact order at school.

When Knavel observed at the playground last semester, she saw only two to three staff watching three classes, totaling nearly a hundred students at the playground, and children came by freely from the classrooms to talk to their siblings though they were told not to.

“I heard another mom was worried because her little second grader getting picked on by another second grader, and she came home crying one day because the second grader got his older brother to come and beat on her,” said Jolliffe.

“The excuse that I get a lot of times is we don’t have the funding for it, or we’re understaffed.”