It is late in the afternoon at Domus Academy, and most students have headed to extended day programs in the gym or art room, but the halls are ringing with the sound of a commotion. At the end of the hall, a small, thin boy in a red paper crown is cursing at a classmate, stepping forward menacingly with each word until the other boy’s back is against the wall. He shoves the other boy with the butt of his palm and spits out, “Man, fuck you.” He says fuck loudly, enunciating in a kind of childish reverence to the word, a recognition of the power and danger it still holds for him.

In the time it takes Mike McGuire, the school’s director, and two other staff members to reach them, a pair of shoves has been exchanged, and the boy in the crown has thrown a punch. The squabbling students are pulled away from each other; one is escorted away, complaining quietly, but the red-crowned boy struggles, is held back, demands to be let fucking go.

“Calvin, man, what happened?” McGuire says.

“He was stepping all over my feet and disrespecting me, so I punched him,” Calvin replies matter-of-factly (Calvin’s name has been changed to protect his privacy). He wrenches his shoulder out of a staff member’s grip and readjusts himself, arms folded across his chest, feet shoulder-width apart.

“How is that kind? How is that respectful?” The questions are a mantra McGuire has repeated at least three times, to at least three different students, since the day began.

“I got offended.”

“Well, and I understand that,” McGuire says. “I still got to send you to problem solving, though. You got to do your time.” McGuire gestures to the room where Domus students are sent to deal with their misbehavior — a kind of on-the-go detention.

Calvin sighs. “All right. Sorry.”

Without any more protest, the boy allows himself to be led away by a staff member. His head hangs, but as he passes me, he looks up. His crown has fallen limply around one ear. “Hi, Miss,” he says, flashing me a smile.

“Way to be polite, Calvin,” McGuire calls after him. He grins at me. “See? He’s a good kid.”

For more on Domus Academy’s students and the school’s innovative approach to education reform, look for the April issue of the Yale Daily News Magazine this week.