Parents question Salem High's response to bullying

A compilation of still images from videos taken of fights at Salem High School this year. At least three fights have been reported to police in the last six weeks.

SALEM, N.H. — With at least two fights between students having been videotaped and spread on social media, teenagers, parents and others are saying that the Salem School District dismisses issues with bullying and other student conflict. 

"Everybody told me that in high school there would be less bullying. That was a lie," said Salem High School sophomore Rylee DeLuca, who was involved in a fight recently and says she is being targeted and acted in self-defense. 

Rylee was suspended for five days and is facing an assault charge. The Eagle-Tribune was unable to verify if the other student also was suspended or has been charged with assault, as police and school officials said they will not release information about juveniles. 

Three Salem High fights have been reported to police since school started six weeks ago. Multiple students said a fourth fight occurred Friday, as did a teacher who did not want to be named, but it had not been reported to police by Friday afternoon. 

The number of incidents this year is not out of the norm at the 1,100-student school, police Captain Joel Dolan said. 

But Rylee's father, who says his daughter has been a victim of bullying since middle school, said he fears a "fight club" atmosphere is developing at the high school, and that this is supported by the fact that students appear to be at the ready to record the fights and post them online for public viewing. 

District officials maintain that the school promotes a positive, supportive culture and handles violent incidents firmly and fairly.

Rylee, 15, said she has experienced years of bullying at Salem High School and Woodbury Middle School without much help from administrators, leading to problems with self-esteem. At one point, a student told Rylee she was going to "rip your (breasts) off and shove them down your throat," the teen said. 

This reached a boiling point Oct. 3, when another student with whom she had argued on Snapchat, a social media platform, became aggressive, threw a cup of coffee at her and punched her, she said. One of the videos of this fight was posted to YouTube under the username "Salem High School Fights fights" with a description reading,"Who won? Who should fight next?" 

The other student involved in the fight is not being identified because she is a minor. 

In the video posted on YouTube and another shown to The Eagle-Tribune, it is unclear how the fight started. Rylee and her father, Wayne DeLuca, contend that she was jumped and that the video recordings were planned in advance. 

The parents of the other student involved told The Eagle-Tribune through Salem Police Captain Joel Dolan that they did not wish to comment. Salem Superintendent Michael Delahanty declined to comment on any specific student or case, but said that videos often only capture part of an exchange and people can often draw incorrect assumptions from them. 

Both of Rylee's parents said they have long been frustrated by the school's response to bullying and are now deeply concerned. 

"They don’t even care. They don’t take into account any of her history — that she’s never reacted to an assault, that she’s never had incidents like this," Wayne DeLuca said. "Even if you’ve made (the bullying) known at the school like we did, they’re not going to do anything. They’re leaving them hanging to dry."

Conflicting reports about culture

Multiple bullying and education experts said it is rare for a case of bullying or peer aggression to end up in court. Educational leadership consultant and retired Kearsarge Regional School District teacher Percy Hill said that he never got police involved in a case of peer aggression, and only did in bullying cases as a last resort. 

Delahanty said that the district does not accept or tolerate any acts of bullying or violence. He said that he would expect students confronted with a fight not to engage, and instead find a teacher or the school resource officer.

The fight was not captured on the school's security cameras, which do not cover every square foot of campus, Delahanty said. Last month, an incident involving a man reportedly trying to coax a female student into his car also was not captured by security cameras. 

Issues with bullying and what experts refer to as "relational aggression" go back several years in Salem. 

Former Salem High School parent and Georgetown High School teacher Lisa Ryer said she felt the administration was dismissive and swept issues involving both of her sons— now 19 and 22 — under the rug. She and her husband eventually pulled one of their sons from the high school in 2011.

Between 2011 and 2016, more than 160 violent incidents have been documented at Salem High School and Woodbury Middle School, according to data from the state Department of Education. That number is lower than some other comparable school districts, but on par with the neighboring and similarly sized Timberlane School District.

In 2010, five Salem High School students faced criminal charges after being accused of bullying a girl so badly that she was hospitalized for mental health issues. One of the students involved, Richard Lovette, was given community service. The other four students were minors, so details on their cases could not be obtained. 

Later that year, a male student was suspended for 10 days after jumping another student who hadn't shown up to a fight. 

Around the same time, the district updated its policies. 

There is now an advisory program at Woodbury Middle School and a digital citizenship program in which students learn about safe and responsible internet and social media use. That program was introduced this year. The high-schoolers talk with teachers at the beginning of the year, though Rylee said that she does not recall having any lessons on bullying or violence at the high-school level.

The district is working on adding more frequent, specific lessons in the high school, according to Delahanty. 

"I think the school culture and community is supportive and truly a remarkable place for young people," he said. 

Ryer — who says her sons experienced problems at Salem High School until about three years ago — said that she didn't feel the district did enough. 

"The culture there is very dismissive. There was one student purposefully picking on one of my sons, who one day squeezed toothpaste into his hair.. .. Boys would go around the hall and grab other boys' private parts. I was told, 'Boys will be boys,'" she said. 

'These things don't occur in the vacuum'

Carol Croteau of Bully Free New Hampshire said that bullying targets can escalate toward fighting back physically because they feel there is no other option. 

"You don't want people to see you're scared. You have to stand up for yourself. What do they expect you to do, just stand there?" Rylee DeLuca said when asked why she didn't try to run away and instead fought back in the recent incident at the high school. She added that a friend of hers ran to grab the school resource officer, who did not arrive until after a teacher broke up the fight. 

Wayne DeLuca said administrators told him both girls acknowledged in their written statements that Rylee did not throw the first punch. He added that Rylee was also made to sign a no-contact agreement without his or his ex-wife's knowledge. 

Delahanty said that administrators do not always have students write down witness statements or sign no-contact agreements without a parent present, but find students' responses are more candid when their parents aren't there.

He added that administrators conduct a thorough investigation before handing down any consequences, but that decisions on legal charges are made by police. 

On Thursday, DeLuca said the juvenile court rejected his request for copies of the police report. 

Delahanty added that, generally, the idea of a consequence like suspension is to act as a deterrent to behavior being repeated.

University of New Hampshire education and justice studies professor Todd DeMitchell said that there is no evidence that zero-tolerance policies — in which students are given penalties like suspension regardless of the circumstances — are effective in stopping bullying or fighting. 

Schools need to take action swiftly, but should primarily address the underlying issues that led to the violence, he said.

"If all we do is stop the fight, we don't address what caused the fight, and that's important," DeMitchell said. "You have to understand who the students are. What's their history? These things don't occur in the vacuum."

What experts say about aggression in schools

The thinking around identifying and combating aggression in schools has changed quite a lot over the last few decades, experts say. 

In particular, they say that the word "bullying" is overused. Quite a lot of the violent or troubling behavior in schools is relational aggression, 

The American Medical Association defines bullying as a pattern of repeated aggression with deliberate intent to harm or disturb a victim despite apparent victim distress and a real or perceived imbalance of power. Under state law, bullying is a single incident or pattern of incidents involving a written, verbal, electronic or physical act intended to physically harm a student, damage his or her property, or cause substantial emotional distress.

It can lead to depression, PTSD or suicide. 

It's a definition that UNH education and social justice professor Todd DeMitchell said is too vague. 

"Children push, shove, irritate heck out of each other. Not every one of those acts is a bullying act. If we too easy label, they'll live up to it, and we diminish what is real bullying," he said. 

DeMitchell and other experts said that each issue requires a different, but swift response. 

Mutual or relational aggression can often be addressed with mediation, educational leadership consultant Percy Hill said. But bullying requires a different approach. 

"Peer mediation is not to be used in a bullying-type situation, because really, it's about violence. Bullying behavior is about imbalance of power. The bully sees the target as someone they can control," Bully Free NH founder Carol Croteau said. "What needs to be done is work focusing on that perpetrator."

Perhaps the most important thing a school can do is be proactive.

"There should be clear rules, consistently communicated and enforced. But, it's a lot more than just punishments we had out. How do we help our students make good decisions on their own?" DeMitchell said. 

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