Sunday, 15 April 2012

On Tagging and Taggers

My issue for today is, I think, closely related to transience - and I'm not certain how to write about it, or even if I should write about it.  I know that I'm struggling with how to deal with it.

For much of this year, and only this year, our school has faced the issue of "tagging."  If you don't know what this means, it's a kind of stylized graffiti.  A student picks a moniker or nickname for himself, (I believe this to be an exclusively male activity - but I could be wrong), creates a stylized signature based on this name, and then writes it around the community in spray paint or thick marker or shoe polish - on mailboxes, traffic signs, abandoned houses, fences, sometimes on business walls.  This year, a small number of them have started tagging our school - bathroom stalls, walls, exterior doors, etc.

We've caught a few, and "consequenced" them, after fairly lengthy counselling sessions during which they've shared a lot of information about the "tagging culture."

Here's what we know:  They're not a particularly large group - maybe thirty to forty throughout the west end of the city.  There are taggers in all the area schools.  They believe their tags have artistic merit. (Just to be clear - we're not talking about street artists - these are not the multi-coloured murals or stencils that appear overnight, that are often paid for by business owners - these are "quick and dirty nick-names"  - scrawled on bathroom walls or garbage cans.)  They respect each other's tags and would never tag over another tagger's "work."  They've formed groups among themselves that I would characterize as sort of pseudo or pre-gangs.  In addition to the actual members, there are other children who want to be members and so practise their tags anywhere they can to literally "get their name out there."  Their activities within the schools are limited to tagging, but there are other things they do, as a group, in the community. 
These other activities aren't legal either.

Once we catch them in the school, their activity here stops.  They don't choose a new moniker and start up again.  However, their "code" keeps them from telling any of their compatriots to stop.

We've figured out who many of these students are.  We've spoken to them individually, and as a group.  To our faces they say that they don't do it in the school, or promise never to do it again.  Since we don't know what their individual moniker is, we can't connect them to an individual tag, so we don't consequence them.  I believe that this convinces them that they've fooled us into thinking their group is larger than it is, and that they can tag with impunity.  (And until we catch them, they're right about this.)

We've made announcements to the entire student body about the issue.  The vast majority of the student body see the activity as negative, and quite frankly, silly and useless.  They're embarassed by it.  This attitude has no influence on the students who do it.

Taggers seem to have no desire to fit in with anybody but kids that are other taggers.  From the kids that we know, they arrive at high school with a thick emotional "crust" that makes them difficult to work with, and they have no interest in anything that the school culture can offer them.  They're not good at sports, have little musical or dramatic talent, don't enjoy reading, are weak academically, and really - don't seem to be very good at anything we do at school.  They don't even seem to be good at art.  (It was very difficult for me to write this paragraph - believe me, I'm not giving up on them, and I know that we can develop these talents in each of these students, but right now, they have no desire to work or even play with us as a school community.  They are each other's support group - not any adult in the building, nor any adult in the community.)

They're polite enough.  They don't cause too many issues on an individual basis - but they're not engaged in anything we offer.  They go through the motions academically, either just passing or just failing.  Their parents are as frustrated as we are, and seem to be supportive of anything we try to do.  In fact, these parents are dealing with the same issue around their homes, and are trying to figure out how to stop it without involving the police - which wouldn't stop it in any case.  One parent, who awoke to find new tags all around her property, on her garbage cans, her recycle bins, etc. was told by her son, "It's our art Mom, you have to respect that!"

The oldest of these students, at our school, is 16.  The youngest is 14.  Their group leader, apparently, attends another school, but the Vice-Principal of that school tells me that that student seems to be far more of a follower than a leader.  He fits the profile I've outlined though.

Like I said at the start of this, though tagging has been an issue in our community for years, this is the first time we've had to deal with it within the school.  I know that it is an issue at many other local schools as well.

Does anyone have any suggestions for me?


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