Crisis in the Cafeteria! (And We Don’t Mean the Food)

In schools across the country, lunch period can feel more like a torture chamber than what it should be—a fun and much-needed break from the stress of classes.

BAERBEL SCHMIDT/GETTY IMAGES

For many kids, it’s not just the soggy fries that leave a bad taste in their mouths at lunch—it’s the vibe. We go behind the scenes to find out why the cafeteria can be so terrifying . . . and what you can do about it.

Last spring, a 14-year-old from Brooklyn, New York, was pummeled in the school cafeteria. By the time adults were on the scene, he had already been blinded in one eye. In Philadelphia, several Chinese immigrant students were attacked in the lunch line during a wave of racial violence at their high school. And in Baltimore, Maryland, a senior with Asperger’s syndrome was repeatedly bullied by his fellow students during lunch—they even pulled his pants down before an adult intervened.

Sadly, these victims are not alone. Bullying experts, school counselors, principals, and students all confirm: In schools across the country, lunch period can feel more like a torture chamber than what it should be—a fun and much-needed break from the stress of classes. But even if you’re lucky enough to have never felt your stomach clench over finding somewhere—anywhere—to sit, the fact that lunch period is a potential nightmare for many students is something that should matter to everyone. Choices spoke with experts who study why kids act the way they do, and it turns out that academic stress, rushed lunch periods, crowded cafeterias, and rock-concert-level noise can come together to create a perfect storm. In this environment, kids who want to act badly can run amok, and teens who usually try to do the right thing feel so overwhelmed that they give up or don’t notice that other kids are being left out—or worse.

Mean is on the Menu

As you might have gathered, the cafeteria is one of the most frightening places in school. Even if you do have friends to sit with, simply standing with your tray, looking out at the sea of faces and trying to locate them (and not trip and fall), can make anyone feel borderline nauseated.

If you don’t belong to a group to sit with, it’s even worse. In many lunchrooms, soccer players sit with soccer players, girls in head scarves sit with other girls in head scarves, and African-American students eat together, as do Latino, Asian, and gay and lesbian kids. Although your parents and teachers might talk about being open-minded and inclusive, the idea of walking up to one of these groups and asking to join them feels as crazy as blasting off to Mars, right?

Beyond the tyranny of cliques, so many things can go wrong—from bullies picking fights to class clowns catapulting carrots across the cafeteria—that it can be almost impossible for the adults on the scene to keep everyone in line. “There are times when my back is turned and bullying occurs less than 10 feet away,” admits David Roou, the principal of Black River Falls Middle School in Wisconsin. And it’s not his fault—cafeterias seem to be built for chaos.

Recipe for Disaster

What’s going on here? The truth is that we haven’t done a great job of creating lunchrooms that encourage more inclusive or civilized behavior. Many double as the school gym or are crammed into windowless basements. Southwest High School in Minneapolis has so little space in the cafeteria that students are expected to eat lunch sitting on the floor. Choices interviewed one assistant principal who wears earplugs when he supervises lunch. Other monitors bark orders through bullhorns. If these schools and teachers are driven to such extremes, why would anyone think you should use your indoor voice to catch up with friends?

That free-for-all atmosphere is magnified by rushed lunch periods. A national survey by the School Nutrition Association shows that, on average, middle and high schools schedule about 30 minutes for lunch. When you factor in the time it takes to get to the cafeteria and stand in line—not to mention go to the bathroom—you might have only 10 minutes to shovel down food. So even if you’re the kind of person who normally tries to include others, who has time to get to know someone new when you barely have time to unwrap your burrito?

That you and your friends might not notice that some of your classmates are in friendship Siberia—much less being bullied—worries researchers like Karen Evans Stout, Ph.D., an education professor at the University of Minnesota who studies the social experience of school lunch. Stout says that students do better academically when they feel like they are part of the school community. “We have a factory approach,” she says. “Instead of focusing so much on getting people through the lunch line, we should think more about how we can create a lunch period that gives students time to build relationships­—so they feel like they belong.”

That’s not to say it’s wrong to want to be with your friends. “Lunch is one of the only break times that students get to socialize,” says middle school teacher Sandi Graham, who is also an assistant professor at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Being naturally drawn to people who you feel are like you—because they have the same interests or are the same race—is normal too.

But what might seem like just hanging out with your buddies can sometimes turn disrespectful and spiral out of control—or be perceived as threatening to other students. “As we expect students to achieve more academically, we also add more stress to a student’s day,” says Graham. “So you relax and let loose a bit more at lunch. You think, ‘I’m going to let it all hang out, because this is the only 25 minutes of the day that I can do that.’” It’s hard to know if you’re going too far. When the clock is ticking, you’re less likely to pause and check out how others might be experiencing your actions.

For example, one eighth grader in St. Paul, Minnesota, told us it’s fun to watch his friends “do stupid things, like play with food and tell sick jokes to make people laugh.” He’s talking about relatively minor stuff, like smashing an ice cream cup on the floor (which may not feel so harmless to the person who has to clean it up). But what if blowing off steam extends to picking on a girl who has no one to defend her?

Table Manners

The good news is that your lunch experience doesn’t have to be so unappetizing. In fact, many schools have tried a few common-sense tricks to make it better. When noise threatened to overtake the cafeteria at Ypsilanti High School in Michigan, the school piped in music at a low volume to create a calmer vibe. South View Middle School in Edina, Minnesota, made its cafeteria more friendly by establishing a “no seat-saving” policy and switching from long tables to round ones, so students can see and hear everyone at the table. This helps get more kids in on the conversation without shouting, which isn’t just more inclusive—it also reduces noise levels.

The most interesting cafeteria reform, however, was instituted at Folwell Performing Arts Magnet in Minneapolis, where students are invited to do the Cha Cha Slide at the end of lunch period. Although dancing together might sound really awkward, even the rowdiest students say that it has cut down on trash talking and made lunch period much less tense. “I like doing it because it gets my mind off everything that’s going bad,” says an eighth grader.

And isn’t that the kind of break that lunch should be for everyone?

 

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