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A Curse Of Cliques
There are good reasons to form tight-knit groups. But in America's high schools, they can be harsh
BY ADAM COHEN

When the shooting finally stopped at Columbine High School, and students ran out of their hiding places to safety, some of the most hulking male students had stripped off their shirts. They weren't posing for the cameras. Word had spread through the school that the "Trench Coat Mafia" was hunting for athletes, and at Columbine a polo shirt--and a white baseball cap--marked the wearer as a jock.

It was the first day in Columbine history that it was dangerous to be a jock--and that kind of humiliation may have been just what the killers had in mind. Video games and the easy availability of guns may have contributed to the Littleton horror. But what role did the ingrained cliquishness of American high schools play? Part of the story is old: the embittered outcasts against the popular kids on campus. But what kind of new conflagrations should we expect if the Revenge of the Nerds can now be played out to the firing of semiautomatics?

In the movie version of the 1950s, schools split into two camps: the fresh-scrubbed kids (frats, preppies) and the leather-clad rebels (hoods, greasers). It's more complicated these days. Columbine's 1,935 students look a lot alike--mostly white, well off and primed for success. But students have no trouble ticking off a startling number of cliques--jocks, hockey kids (a separate group), preppies, stoners, gangbangers (gang-member wannabes), skaters (as in skateboarders) and, as they say, nerds. Other high schools have variations on these themes. California has its surfer cliques, and Austin High School in Texas has the hicks--or kickers--who show up at school in cowboy boots, big hats and oversize belt buckles.

It's a cliche that jocks and cheerleaders rule, but it is largely true. While others plod through high school, they glide: their exploits celebrated in pep rallies and recorded in the school paper and in trophy cases. "The jocks and the cheerleaders, yes, have the most clout," says Blake McConnell, a student at Sprayberry High School near Atlanta. "They get out of punishment--even with the police. Joe Blow has a wreck and has been drinking, and he gets the book thrown at him. The quarterback gets busted, and he gets a lighter sentence."

At the other extreme are the Trench Coat Mafias of the world--the kids on the margins. Each school has its own brand of outsiders with their own names--nerds, freaks, punks, ravers. And each group has its own way of standing out. At Atlanta's Sprayberry, says sophomore Shawn Cotter, "the outcasts are mainly people who dress up differently, guys who wear makeup and dress in feminine ways, people who wear black leather and chains."

But high school outcasts have moved beyond the chess club and the audio-visual squad. Now they are wearing black T shirts, trench coats and hard-kicking Doc Martens. Many are also wearing face powder and black eyeliner. "A lot of it is just a front--a mass cry for attention," says McConnell. "Mostly there's nothing behind it."

Still, the worst of high school fringe groups do seem more disturbed than in the past. The awkward kids aren't just smiling inappropriately during science-lab frog dissections. Some high schools have white supremacist cliques. Then there are groups like the Straight Edge, a presence at schools like Salt Lake City's Kearns High School. They are puritanical punkers who are anti-drug, anti-alcohol, and anti-tobacco--and they are violent. If you smoke or drink in their presence, some Straight Edgers will attack you with a baseball bat.

The so-called good cliques can do just as much as the outsiders to foment trouble. There really is a Lord of the Flies dynamic at work among kids. Even nice kids seem to spend a lot of time being cruel to their less socially prominent peers. Social science literature is filled with the gritty details--categorized under headings like "the spiral of rejection." Patti and Peter Adler, sociologists who do field research on cliques, found that a 17-year-old girl in one group they observed could raise her status by getting a boy to spend money on her and break up with another girl for her--and then dump him. Another clique member told a researcher that "one of the main things to do is to keep picking on unpopular kids because it's just fun to do."

The dynamics between cliques are often very raw, particularly for the groups at the extremes of the social spectrum: jocks and outcasts. Even at the relatively well-integrated Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa., it is not unheard of for the punks--who often sport black clothing, tattoos and spiky hair--to be taunted in the hallways. "They call 'em dirty, say stuff like 'Why don't you bathe?'" says a student. Often it is the athletes who dish out the abuse. Haakon Espeland, 14, switched out of Brooklyn's Fort Hamilton High, where he was one of the "freaks." The reason he fled: a stream of abuse, starting on his first day at school, when "all these huge people beat on me, basically for being there."

Adolescents are psychologically fragile, and mistreatment from schoolmates leaves deep wounds. Sometimes, says Augustana University education professor Larry Brendtro, "kids who feel powerless and rejected are capable of doing horrible things." Jason Sanchez, 15, a student at Phoenix's Mountain Pointe High School, understands why Harris and Klebold snapped: "If you go to school, and people make fun of you every day, and you don't have friends, it drives you to insanity."

There is probably no way to stop high schools from breaking down into cliques. We may be hardwired for it. As early as preschool, researchers have found, kids begin rejecting other kids. And even in kindergarten, children have a good idea which of their classmates are popular and which are not. But schools can take the edge off the situation through inclusiveness. "I can't remember ever going to a pep rally and having the skaters show off their talents," says Curtis Cook, a parent at Phoenix's Desert Vista High School. Says New York City psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman: "All kids need to belong, and if they can't belong in a positive way at the school, they'll find a way to belong to a marginal group like a cult or a gang."

The Columbine High shootings seem to have given at least some cliques around the country pause. At Trumbull High School in Connecticut, the Goths have stopped wearing their trademark trench coats. And students in more mainstream cliques may be a little more cautious about taunting students who don't fit in--if only out of an instinct for self-preservation. "I'm not going to talk about them anymore," says Nathalie Kirnon, a Trumbull freshman. "They might do it here."

--REPORTED BY HARRIET BAROVICK, DESA PHILADELPHIA AND ELAINE RIVERA/NEW YORK, LAURA LAUGHLIN/PHOENIX, JODIE MORSE/TRUMBULL AND DAVID NORDAN/ATLANTA