The question of student engagement in schooling, or adherence to school values, is often conceived in terms of student transgression. Youth has, over time, become a problem to be solved – by parents, teachers and school administrators. This article outlines an engagement with lower socioeconomic status metropolitan schooling in South Australia, seeking to understand the clash of frames of reference between elements of the student body and the school adult population. Twenty-two semi-structured in-depth interviews with young people, and observations at the school, highlighted a strong theme of divergent intercultural relations, articulated in questions of power, authority and identity. The authors explore their relationships to authority as an expression of complex family and schooling relations, and the negotiation of conventional and marginalised cultures. The students' accounts describe troubled and unstable family relationships marked by violence, alcohol and drug use, and poverty and unemployment. The authors assert that the students bring their relationships to school, and that school could focus on the three principles of trust, confidence and respect as a means of improving student engagement. A focus on respectful relationships decentres adult constructions of the ‘problem’ and provides a collaborative and (re)conciliatory approach to improving school culture.