High school pep rallies aren't what they used to be. Gone are the days when an entire student body could crowd into a gymnasium to build school spirit and not risk a melee.
Hoping to avoid campus violence -- such as the vicious fight between two girls after the recent homecoming pep rally at Milford Mill Academy in Baltimore County -- even the most optimistic school officials are taking precautions.
In Baltimore County, one principal bans pep rallies, and another requires some students to watch them on closed-circuit television.
A Howard County school administrator recruits husky student athletes to act as security guards.
In Baltimore, one principal enforces strict rules about who is permitted to attend pep rallies and how the attendees should act.
"Let's face it, we no longer live in the time of 'Leave it to Beaver,' " said Dorothy E. Hardin, principal of Pikesville High School in Baltimore County, which outlawed pep rallies several years ago. "We have to be prudent in situations that involve gatherings of students where things could get out of hand."
Milford Mill's homecoming pep rally Oct. 8 might have been one of the most extreme examples of a gathering gone out of control.
During the afternoon event on the football field, students yelled insults at each other and fought.
As the pep rally was ending and students boarded school buses, 14-year-old Ebony McLendon was kicked in the head by an older girl, blacked out and received emergency treatment from an ambulance crew.
Another girl was arrested and charged with first-degree assault.
As a result of the violence, Milford Mill Principal Norman S. Smith canceled the homecoming dance, a decision that met with a mixed reaction from students.
'Not everybody's fault'
"I agree with him, but it's not everybody's fault," said Milford Mill sophomore Lashelle Roe, 16, of Owings Mills. "Most of us were just there to have a good time."
Even principals who allow pep rallies say they have used creative crowd-control techniques to prevent inappropriate behavior by a minority of students.
At Randallstown High School in Baltimore County, Principal Eric A. Carlton restricted the number of students who attended his school's Oct. 1 homecoming pep rally to 350. The rest of the school watched the event on closed-circuit TV.
"We limit the number of students who attend, because if we didn't, it would get out of hand," Carlton said.
To keep out students from other schools, Principal Helena Nobles-Jones of Northern High School in Baltimore will instruct teachers to collect identification cards before they bring students to the school's homecoming pep rally Oct. 29.
Students have been told that if they break pep rally rules, Nobles-Jones could ban them from the homecoming football game.
"The kids these days, they turn whatever they can into something that they have no business doing," Nobles-Jones said. "We've exposed them to too much too fast, without setting any examples."
Athletes provide security
At River Hill High School in Howard County, Principal Scott Pfeifer recruited football players to serve as pep rally security.
"We bought them T-shirts and asked them to police the students themselves, and it worked really well," Pfeifer said. "It made [security] a peer thing and not just teachers running around and disciplining the kids."
Over the public address system at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, administrators tell students how to file into the school's gymnasium and how to behave.
"We've never had a problem," said Assistant Principal Al Porter.
How to rally properly
Meticulous planning is the key to a safe and orderly pep rally, said Bob Burton, a retired high school activities director from Fallbrook, Calif., who tours the nation talking about building school spirit.
"If properly done, schools can have a lot of success with a pep rally," he said. "But you have to communicate to the student body at the start of the pep rally that you throw confetti up in the air, not in your neighbor's face."
Traditional pep rallies often pit high school classes -- freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors -- against each other.
But games created in the spirit of fun don't always translate into good times, educators said. Fights sometimes break out between students.
"If you are talking about which class is best, before you know it, you lose focus," said Robert J. Kemmery, principal of Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore County. "You don't want to do something to disadvantage someone else."
The aggressive nature of pep rallies turns off some principals, including Pikesville's Hardin.
"In many schools, pep rallies become yelling matches between classes, but is that really class spirit?" said Hardin. "Our school shows spirit in the way we work on cancer fund-raising drives and the way we support the needs in our community that are really important."
Burton is a big fan of class competitions but says the games shouldn't be taken too seriously.
"Some people say that the kids get carried away, but the point needs to be made early on at the pep rally that even though we are competing, what we are really doing is playing together," he said. "This isn't the Olympics."
Sometimes, parents, not students, complain most when school officials try to tone down the traditional pep rally.
When discipline problems and a cramped gymnasium prompted Kemmery and student leaders to shorten Eastern Tech's annual homecoming pep rally and move it to the football field at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County a few years ago, some parents groaned, he said.
'Things have changed'
Lynn Lind, whose daughter Dee-Anna Lind is a senior at Milford Mill, is among those who view pep rallies as central to the high school experience.
"The kids have to work all year long, and they look forward to letting their hair down," she said. "I'm all for kids having fond high school memories."
Many school officials dismiss that sort of "kids will be kids" reasoning.
"Your traditional pep rally just doesn't make sense for us," Kemmery said. "I can't be driven by malcontents. Things have changed."