Haverhill school administrators say the problem when it comes to curbing student violence is a lack of personnel to handle the job.
Haverhill School Committee members Monday night authorized the school administration to bring in outside security temporarily and keep tabs on the situation—all in response to two female students fighting last Thursday at Haverhill High School cafeteria. School Superintendent Margaret Marotta gave a recap of what happened.
“It lasted roughly about 60 seconds. Within two minutes, all the girls and all the students were separated. The girls were outside and separated in separate rooms. The police were involved. There was a knife found at the scene. It was not used,” she said.
The situation was exacerbated by other students standing on tables and cheering as the fight took place. Many students used cell phones to record the incident with some video recordings ending up on social media.
Marotta said the incident was brought under control relatively quickly because 14 staff members who were in or near the cafeteria when the fight broke out, jumped in quickly to diffuse the situation and protect student bystanders. She said, although teaching staff have been undergoing training for such incidents, it does not negate the need for more police school resource officers and other security.
“One of the issues that we’re having is a shortage of staffing in terms of school adjustment councilors and security officers. We have had a lot of difficulty hiring people. We’ve had those positions posted and posted and we have not been able to find staff to hire for those positions,” the superintendent explained.
Not everyone in the large audience assembled agreed the problem is simply a lack of security. Ruby Kimball, a senior at Haverhill High, said the problems are the result of administrators being soft on the students causing the disruptions.
“Over the past four years, I have seen my school decline rapidly and now it’s at a breaking point. Students who are constantly doing the wrong thing are being catered to and they have no real consequences for their actions. Overall, our principal has been soft in his way of dealing with misbehavior. Students have taken over the school. Good students are receiving a subpar education,” she said.
Another student, Abbey Towler, a junior at Haverhill High, told the Committee she does not feel safe in the school because she was not alerted to the situation when she was nearby.
“It’s frightening to think that I could have been in the hallway and hurt in some way because somebody had a knife going around the school and I wasn’t aware. I know for a fact that we have not had a single ALICE training day since the fall of 2019, which was pre-COVID,” she said.
ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate and is a preparedness program for students particularly as it relates to a school-shooter situation. The Superintendent responded there have been training sessions, but none this year due to COVID-19.
Committee member Paul A. Magliocchetti took the discussion in another direction, saying administrators have their hands tied by laws passed by well-meaning state representatives who limit the way school personnel may deal with students.
“I believe that the superintendent and the principal are doing what they can within the law. I have a problem with the laws. People at Beacon Hill, when they rewrote these laws a few years ago, they don’t know what’s going on in the City of Haverhill, and Haverhill is not like Concord, Mass., or Lincoln, Mass., and they don’t understand the different impacts that it’s having,” he said, noting he plans to raise the issue with state leaders.
Members agreed the current situation is untenable. In the short term, they agreed unanimously to authorize Marotta to explore the possibility of hiring a third-party security agency to fill in on a temporary basis. Additionally, they requested high school Principal Jason Meland return at the next scheduled meeting Thursday, April 14, with a report and plan for addressing the situation going forward.
Mayor James J. Fiorentini noted this new discussion of school violence is markedly different than previous ones, remarking no one is blaming the pandemic for pupils acting out.