Physical altercations between children are not new. From playground bullies in elementary school to the teens duking it out in the high school parking lot over a slight -- real or perceived --- it's safe to say just about everyone has either witnessed or participated in a brawl.
The video of the altercation outside of the Pleasanton Library on Jan. 19 between two children later identified as Pleasanton Middle School students posted on social media showed a vicious attack.
I was horrified to watch the aggressor pull a smaller girl to the ground by her hair and punch and stomp on her head. Then, when the victim starts to get up, the attacker comes back and punches and stomps her victim's head again.
The raw brutality left my stomach in knots. The aggressor smiling at the end left me angry.
When PMS parent Ghezal Beliakoff saw the video, she was outraged and posted it on social media asking people to identify the perpetrator.
"Up to this point, my daughter would talk about fights (at PMS) and I didn't know (the extent)," Beliakoff said. "Then the video was posted two weeks later."
"It was straight out assault," Beliakoff said. "I went to the police station saying I want to press charges. I want to hire a lawyer and I want to press charges against this girl."
The Pleasanton Police Department doesn't have the authority in this case, though. The school district is responsible for students from the time they get to school until they return home -- on and off campus.
Of course, some incidents will rise to the level of law enforcement being brought in. But how officers respond to calls involving students and the outcomes are not "prescriptive," explained PPD Chief David Swing.
"There are several factors (when) our officers respond to a call," Swing said. "Age is certainly a consideration, the totality of the circumstances, the intent of the law, those are all different factors officers take into consideration."
PPD Lt. Erik Silacci said in cases such as fights, there could be police and school consequences depending on the student's age but noted that people under the age of 14 are generally not arrested per California Penal Code.
"The goal of the juvenile justice system is to focus on rehabilitation," Silacci said.
But the wheels of justice -- even "restorative justice" -- turn slowly.
Patrick Gannon, Director of Communications for PUSD, said something that stuck with me. He said, "Social media can amplify a single incident exponentially."
It definitely did in this case.
The fact it was posted over a weekend added fuel to the fire. It's only natural that viewers wanted immediate action and definitive consequences. When that didn't happen, they got frustrated, causing further amplification.
PMS Principal Joe Nguyen did send an email the day after the altercation, most likely before the video was posted. It said, in part,"This behavior is unacceptable and not consistent with expectations for our Panthers and our work with our PRIDE character traits. We have identified the students and will hold them accountable and work with the students and families today."
But only the school community received it, so everyone else had several days to stew and ask why nothing was being done.
In a subsequent email to the school community, Nguyen wrote "The investigation and disciplinary process began as soon as the incident was reported to us. This process is ongoing and may take several more weeks to complete."
Again, only the PMS community received the message, leaving the rest of us to wonder why this was being ignored.
"We take student discipline seriously," Ed Diolazo, PUSD's Deputy Superintendent of Student Support Services, told me. "Because we are educators first, we need to consider consequences in terms of what will support all students involved both socially and emotionally as they learn and mature into adults. We follow a well-defined process and investigate each instance thoroughly in order to determine the appropriate outcome for students."
The well-defined process is part of PUSD's Administrative Regulation on student discipline, which is based on the California Education Code. it starts with an investigation, which can take weeks or months.
We want the people who are making decisions with children involved to take their time. They only have one shot at getting it right, and they need to get it right.
In his email, Nguyen also addressed another aspect of this awful situation that shocked viewers: the bystanders videotaping, cheering and high-fiving. He implored caregivers to remind their students that if they see something, they should say something.
"Taking videos has become a natural response whenever something occurs within the community," Nguyen wrote. "We ask that students not promote inappropriate behavior by taking videos or urging peers to encourage the wrong behavior."
As a result of this disturbing event, the district implemented a change in the after-school routine. Volunteers will now watch over the students as they make their way to the library after school and at the library while they are there.
PMS staff also hosted two meetings for community members to talk about school safety, which is on everyone's minds but of particular concern for parents.
"I've been here for almost 14 years. This is my home," Beliakoff said. "We choose to live here because of the environment and because of the safety and it's completely being taken away from us."
There is no doubt this incident rocked our community and made us fearful -- for ourselves and our children. Nguyen encouraged students if they see something they should say something. That's good advice for everyone as we restore our sense of safety and work together to ensure this never happens again.
Editor's note: Gina Channell Wilcox has been the president and publisher of Embarcadero Media Group's East Bay Division since 2006. Her "Around the Valley" column runs the first and third Fridays of the month.