Last Friday, we had an incident involving unacceptable behavior and poor judgement by a group of seventh graders. They chose to imitate an episode of South Park, called Kick a Ginger, in which they target red heads. This incident was mainly confined to the seventh grade, did not involve the entire seventh grade, and for the most part did not involve grades six and eight. We are outraged by the behavior and poor decisions made by a group of students and we are concerned for both the victims and the aggressors for the impact that this will have them. And we are incredibly disappointed. At the Melrose Public Schools we take the safety of all our students very seriously. We take many opportunities during the school year in assemblies, in small groups and in the classroom to teach our students to be kind and respectful to each other. At the middle school, the administration and staff have identified a list of six personal qualities, including responsibility, respect, and self-management, that we emphasize with the students. However, sometimes, children don’t always think through the effect of their actions on others. As educators we need to turn these incidents into teachable moments so that students learn from their actions and do not repeat them.
We became aware of the behavior at approximately 11:30 on Friday. The behavior took place primarily in corridors and stairwells and during transition times. Regardless, we are equally concerned that staff was unaware of the behavior until injured students went to the nurse.
Mr. Parsons, in Mr. Conway’s absence, immediately made a public announcement, ordering the behavior to stop, informing students that this could be considered assault, and that students who were involved would be subject to disciplinary action. He also apologized on behalf of the school to those who had been kicked. Mr. Parsons then began to call parents of those who were obviously hurt, assisted by Ms. Durney, the school nurse, and Ms. Shaw, the grade 7 guidance counselor.
At the end of the day, he sent a Connect Ed message to all middle school families to provide them some initial information regarding the incident. He also sent home discipline hearing letters to the parents of students who at that time had been clearly identified as aggressors.
When we have any act of egregious behavior, the school and the district begin an immediate investigation. Unfortunately, when the incident happens on a Friday, our ability to investigate is somewhat constrained by the lack of direct access to students. Over the weekend, Mr. Conway viewed surveillance tapes, called families of victims to check on children, and to speak with students and families regarding the incident. Mr. Conway and I also both had conversations with Chief Lyle. If any child is found to have engaged in an assault, appropriate action will be taken, including involvement of the Melrose police, if necessary.
The investigation is continuing into this week. The public needs to understand some factors that impact any investigation we do. First, there are strict regulations regarding student’s due process rights in both an investigation and a disciplinary hearing. All parties have due process rights, not just the alleged perpetrator. We try to do a thorough investigation before discipline is imposed. We do not want to jump to conclusions or respond inappropriately or incompletely until we have all the information we need. Second, when investigating an incident involving a group of students, it is like peeling an onion. With each layer, we find out more that we need to investigate in order to be thorough. This is a time consuming process and should not be rushed. Lastly, student confidentiality must be maintained in all circumstances.
During the investigation stage, we have taken steps to ensure that students are safe and particular students are not involved with each other until we make final decisions. We appreciate the families and students who have been willing to provide detailed information and work with the administration to address this incident. We also appreciate the majority of parents of alleged aggressors who are embarrassed and upset with their child’s behavior.
Based on the information gathered Monday, Mr. Conway met with all staff this morning (Tuesday) before school to help them be better able to discuss the incident with students during A block. We needed to make sure that all staff had accurate information and were prepared to address students concerns and questions.
The investigation and subsequent disciplinary hearings will continue through this week and most likely into next week. While we recognize that people would like to know what happens to whom, as a district, we cannot and do not discuss individual students.
The district will continue to monitor both the victims and aggressors during the school year. We will not tolerate retaliation or any verbal or physical aggression in response to disciplinary action being taken. We are also offering counseling to any student who feels they need to talk to someone.
Additionally, we are collaborating with some of our outside partners, including MAAV and the Middlesex Partnership for Youth, to find appropriate resources to address concerns about being an active bystander and responding to bullying and aggression. And lastly, we ask all parents to work with us and reinforce lessons of kindness, sensitivity and empathy at home. Please contact us if we can help with these conversations.
This has been a very difficult few days for our school community. Thank you to our parents and staff, members of the School Committee, and Chief Lyle for working with us to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. We appreciate the support of our community as we continue to build an inclusive environment in which students can thrive.