Officials Say Haverhill ‘Kids are Struggling Mightily;’ School Fights Not Gang-Related

Haverhill High School Principal Jason Meland and Superintendent Margaret Marotta answer questions about high school violence during November of 2021. (WHAV News photograph.)

Director of Guidance, Counseling and Student Support Services Jami Dion. (WHAV News photograph.)

Since the start of the school year, Haverhill High School has experienced 15 fights involving a total of 44 students. Contrary to popular guesswork, though, police say the fisticuffs are not gang related and school staff find those involved tend to be younger students.

Haverhill Police Capt. Wayne Tracy told a gathering of families Tuesday night at Haverhill High School “there is no evidence to suggest an increase in violence is due to gangs.” Rather, high school Principal Jason Meland reported differences are largely rooted in social media taunts outside of school hours. Superintendent Margaret Marotta also noted pupils involved tend to be freshmen and sophomores—particularly those who did not have a normal transition between middle and high school because of the pandemic.

“Our kids are struggling mightily,” Marotta said.

Similar problems are being reported nationally. Guidance Director James Carlson quantified the stress, noting, “The volume of need has increased exponentially. What counselors would see over the course of weeks; they are now seeing in one day.” The issues manifest themselves in students as anxiety, aggression, social skill loss and increased suicidal and self-harm thoughts.

Over the short term, Meland said, Haverhill High is addressing problems by increasing supervision in hallways, bathrooms and the cafeteria; having more security “sweeps” of hallways targeting tardy students; limiting travel time and overcrowding by reopening certain bathrooms closed earlier because of social media-encouraged vandalism; adding a second school resource police officer and two student support coordinators; and taking other steps. He added, the unusually large freshmen class of around 600 students also presents problems, requiring him to divide those students among two different lunch periods.

Marotta said, over the long term, Haverhill schools must transition its Gateway Program into a “full-fledged alternative school.” She noted a “2,000-student school is not for everyone.” An alternative school, which may be a focus of next year’s budget, would provide smaller classes and more personal attention on students who need the most help. Other recommendations are expected to be discussed during Thursday’s regular School Committee meeting.

The superintendent pointed out student videos of fights that are being shared on social media are “concerning and frightening.” On the bright side, however, they show staff are “right on it.” Meland added students’ video shots serve to escalate fights by making participants into “social media stars.” He further clarified the schools’ position on students taking such videos, saying there is a difference between images shared privately with administrators and those posted online.

Director of Guidance, Counseling and Student Support Services Jami Dion told families all schools now have adjustment counselors aimed at providing early intervention. She observed that students previously identified as sad or depressed are now matched by as many who are “angry.”

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