#childsafety | School officials respond to parent questions about fights at HHS

Nov. 25—HAVERHILL — School officials last Tuesday night attempted to answer questions from parents concerned about the safety of their children during a special meeting on violence held Tuesday night at the high school.

Questions focused on what was causing the fighting and what the district was doing to stop it. The meeting was tightly controlled, with 23 questions being submitted ahead of time via email and reviewed by school officials ahead of time.

“We believe students are experiencing trauma and are solving their problems or grudges by fighting,” principal Jason Meland told the crowd of about 20 parents, staff, students and School Committee members.

The meeting came on the heels of last week’s chaos in the cafeteria that was caught on cellphone cameras and posted on social media showing students, police resource officers, teachers and administrators fighting.

On Tuesday night, school officials said changes in the school day intended to put a damper on fighting include increased hall and restroom sweeps during every period, updating the hall pass system with a new check-out and check-in process, increased monitoring of the cafeteria during lunch periods, and overhauling the discipline referral system. Motion and sound detectors have been installed in high school restrooms as well, officials said.

There was very little discussion about what the consequences are for fighting, how many students have been suspended or for how long, although principal Meland did say multi-day suspensions were meted out based on what role students played in fights.

“It is never acceptable for any member of our community to put their hands on any other member of our community,” he said. “Every single incident of fighting that we’ve experienced at our school we take extremely seriously and is assigned serious and fair consequences.”

Superintendent Margaret Marotta told parents that many of the students involved in fights are younger students, although “we’re seeing an uptick at all ages.”

Marotta said the district added 60 student support positions this year, but more staff are needed to address social-emotional issues that are on the rise.

“It’s not enough in this declared mental health crisis,” Marotta said. “Our children are angry, upset, and are acting out and don’t know how to manage their behaviors.”

She said she wants to continue adding student support services, and far more than the district can pay for on its own.

Jim Carlson, guidance supervisor for Haverhill High, said there were more than 1,500 student visits to guidance since September, far more than in a typical school year.

Jami Dion, director of guidance, offered parents a number of tips that can indicate their children may need more support services, such as changes in sleep patterns or in academic performance, excessive worrying or emotional outbursts that are out of the ordinary.

“I would encourage you to reach out to your school,” she said.

Responding to a question by parents asking if an increase in violence and fights is related to an increase in gang presence and how concerned is the school about gang activity and what is being done to prevent it, Haverhill Police Capt. Wayne Tracy said there is no evidence to suggest an increase in violence is related to gangs or that gangs are present in the high school.

Longer range plans for dealing with students who engage in fights include expanding the Gateway program at the Crowell School into a full alternative school.

The Gateway program currently serves 28 students while the high school’s night school program serves 30 students, officials said.

“What Haverhill needs is a full alternative school,” Marotta said. “A 2,000-person high school is not for everyone.”

The district operates an alternative school called Greenleaf Academy at the Greenleaf School in Bradford, which is for students with social and emotional disabilities.

Marotta explained that another alternative school would be for all students who want a “smaller, more individualized learning experience. This would be a growth of the current Gateway Program.”

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