Twenty-six students at North Charleston High, a struggling school facing intense scrutiny and pressure to improve this year, were arrested Wednesday afternoon after a melee broke out in the cafeteria.
The massive brawl came during the second week of the new school year that was intended to be a fresh start for the high- poverty, low-performing school.
North Charleston police officers and Charleston County sheriff's deputies responded and found students from rival neighborhoods fighting in the cafeteria about 1:30 p.m., said Spencer Pryor, public information officer for North Charleston police. They broke up the fights, and one student was taken to the hospital after complaining about stomach pains.
Officers charged 13 juveniles and 13 adult-aged students with disturbing school, but North Charleston police would not release the names of the adults who were arrested. All involved students have been suspended for at least five days, and some students may be suspended for an additional five days or referred for expulsion.
Police said the incident stemmed from an ongoing feud between students in rival neighborhoods, and school leaders said the fight had no connection to the reform initiatives imposed by the district.
North Charleston High's academic failure had become so pronounced that the county school board made the controversial decision this spring to reconstitute the school, which meant all employees had to reapply for their jobs, including the principal.
About 40 percent of the school's teachers were rehired, and despite community protest, the school board decided to replace the school's former principal with a veteran district leader, Juanita Middleton. In addition to the new personnel, the district temporarily moved the school's students to the shuttered Brentwood Middle School building until renovations to their campus are finished in December.
The state also has included the school in a pilot Turnaround Schools project this year aimed at helping four of the most needy schools statewide.
Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley didn't think Wednesday's fight was in any way connected to the school's reconstitution or new campus. Schools are nested in their communities, and the North Charleston High community has had at least two neighborhood factions at war with each other for the past couple of years, she said.
Middleton has kept tabs on certain students known to be from rival neighborhoods, and when situations such as this one happen, it's a spillover from neighborhood fighting, McGinley said.
"A fight that disrupts the school is a major concern, but ... I do not think this is a setback in terms of the progress we expect North Charleston High to make," she said. "I don't want this to be blown out of proportion. This is not a reflection on the future of North Charleston's academic progress or the principal."
She said she values students' safety more than their academics, and North Charleston High has a high number of people -- six student-concern specialists and two school resource officers -- dedicated to supervising about 660 students. The school will have additional police on campus today.
The fight at North Charleston High is the biggest during McGinley's tenure as superintendent. McGinley said some of the students arrested didn't throw a punch and instead were charged with disturbing school because they were disrespectful or using profanity.
Some students said they felt shocked and terrified while watching the fight. Senior Letoye Johnson said she saw as many as 10 fights happening simultaneously, and she feared someone would pull a gun.
"It seems like the whole school was fighting, a riot," she said. "The whole school was crazy. They need more security or something because something ain't working."
Some said tensions have become worse since moving to the Brentwood Middle campus. Angela Scott's ninth-grade son got involved in the fight after being hit in the back of his head. He was arrested, and his mother called the Brentwood site too small to house high school students. She feared someone would return to school with a gun.
"My son will not be coming back," she said. "If they don't do something about it, somebody's going to lose their child."
McGinley said Brentwood Middle had as many as 780 students enrolled compared with the 660 high school students who are there now. The district added mobile classrooms this year, and the campus has enough space for high school students, she said.