Ten minutes after school is out for the day, the halls of Wakefield High School in South Arlington are still. There is only the occasional slam of a locker, the thwak of a ball hitting a wooden gymnasium floor, the muffled shouts of cheerleaders practicing outdoors.
But ask about the recent fights in which three teachers were injured and the noise level rises again, as clusters of students and teachers summon each other to speak of their anger, confusion and, mostly, their frustration about the incidents.
On Oct. 19, math teacher Louis Goffredi was knocked down from behind and hit several times when he tried to break up a fight between two students after school. And on Friday, police said, two teachers were hit unintentionally when they stepped in to stop fights.
Police, administrators and teachers say that the three incidents are unrelated and do not reflect an increase in violence at the school. "There's no epidemic of fighting," said Sgt. David Tooley of the Arlington Police Youth Resource Unit. "You get 1,700 adolescents together in one school and tempers are going to flare."
Four students involved in the Oct. 19 incident now attend alternative education programs and will not return to Wakefield, school officials said. Many Wakefield teachers had urged the School Board to expel the students, an action recommended by Wakefield principal Dennis Hill.
After meeting with about 100 Wakefield faculty members yesterday to explain the board's stance, board member Dorothy H. Stambaugh said, "I got the impression that a number of them are angry and, besides angry, are concerned."
She said the October incident has prompted the board to examine school policy on suspensions and expulsions. While board members will not consider specific alterations in the policy for about a month, Stambaugh said, possible changes include clarifying the procedure for expulsions and creating an intermediate punishment between a 10-day suspension and expulsion from the school system.
In the meantime, many Wakefield teachers and students and Arlington school officials are bristling over the attention the school has received from the incidents. They say the school, Arlington's largest and most thoroughly integrated, has suffered for years because many have been blamed for the actions of a few.
"I do feel that these are isolated incidents," said Ingrid Berdahl, who has taught French at the high school since 1977. "Wakefield has had a reputation for having problems like this occasionally that dates back to integration. And there are some people who don't know our school very well who tend to just write us off."
"It's unsettling, of course, but the problem is just one or two kids," said Victoria Ryan-Barr, who has taught English to foreign students at Wakefield for five years.
Several students interviewed this week agreed. "The one thing I don't like is that people are making it sound like teachers and students are at war with each other," said 15-year-old Janet Glock.
According to teachers and school officials, Wakefield has struggled to shed the scarred reputation it acquired after a series of racial confrontations 25 years ago.
"I think that Wakefield always got bad press," said Daniel Brown, director of school and community relations. Brown has worked in the Arlington school system for 27 years. "Wakefield was the most integrated setting, people just naturally keyed in on it."
Teachers, administrators and students say life at Wakefield, the only Arlington high school with a majority of nonwhite students, has been more peaceful since the early 1970s. Police have said the most recent incidents were not racially motivated.
Brown pointed to the number of suspensions at Wakefield, which plummeted from 206 in 1982-83 to 85 last year. "I really thought things were on the up; that's why the recent incidents floored me," he said.
The recent fights have baffled Brown and others.
"We have to get down to the cause of these fights. We have to figure out why they're happening and stop them before they happen," said School Board Chairman Gail H. Nuckols.
Students say many things -- in fact, almost anything -- can prompt a fight: girls, grudges, sexual insults. In a school with many who do not speak English as a native language, innocent idiom and slang can be misconstrued and twisted into a reason for a fistfight, said Michael Pickett, a junior whose faded denim jacket is plastered with Students Against Drunk Driving buttons.
Pickett said peer pressure eggs on fighting students and keeps others from trying to stop the battles.
Some adminstrators and teachers are hoping that peer pressure of another sort -- the emotions of students rising to defend Wakefield -- will help the school put an end to the negative publicity it's received recently.
"If we can get students to rally and say, 'We want our school to be the best and we are a good school' . . . . If we can somehow or another get that going, who knows?," Brown said. "I can conceive of that as being potentially positive."