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School officials slam media coverage of Decatur fights

(Feb. 6, 2015) School officials took a two-fold approach to a trio of incidents involving Stephen Decatur High School students last week, urging tolerance and respect from students and parents on one hand, while condemning what they saw as the inflammatory coverage by local media on the other.

One Decatur: Stephen Decatur High School students and staff stand united in the gymnasium on Friday, Jan. 30. (PHOTO COURTESY MARY BERQUIST/SDHS)

Coordinator of Public Relations for Worcester County Schools Barbara Witherow, Stephen Decatur High School Principal Thomas Zimmer and Worcester County Superintendent of Schools Gerald Wilson spoke at the Berlin school on Thursday, Jan. 29, each carrying the same message: the incidents were unrelated, race is not an issue at Decatur, and the school is moving on.

Following a pair of fights and an incident on social media involving one or more students posting racially insensitive content, Witherow acknowledged, “in light of the recent events we know that there are parts of the system that did not work.”

“We teach our kids to resolve disputes peacefully, and we know that there were two fights,” Witherow said. “We also teach our children to use social media respectfully and we know that there were some hateful postings.”

The first altercation took place inside the school during dismissal on Wednesday, Jan. 21. On the following day, a half-day, at least two more Decatur students were involved in a fight after school hours at a nearby McDonald’s.

Witherow said she became aware of a racist post on Instagram allegedly involving Decatur students on Friday, Jan. 23.

According to Witherow, administrators at Decatur took immediate action after learning about each incident, dealing with it “head-on.”

“They identified the students, they interviewed the students, they communicated with the parents and they applied consequences,” Witherow said. “That part of the system did work.”

Witherow said administrators collaborated and sent a letter to parents on Jan. 28 in response to the incidents focusing, “about the responsibilities that we all have when there are disputes.”

The letter specifically addressed the role of the bystander.

“What that means [is] the person who is witnessing a fight, for example, or the person who is picking up the cellphone and filming the fight,” Witherow said. “We’re telling kids that behavior is not appropriate. The right behavior is to get help, get the right people involved, or if you see social media that is inappropriate to let people know right away. That’s the right message.”

A part of the system that did not work, Witherow said, was the coverage from a Salisbury newspaper, which published student photographs and videos of the two fights.

“While we’re telling our kids that they should be acting responsibly and getting help when there’s a situation, the Daily Times chose to post both videos on the website, and, in addition, in the paper this morning they published photographs of students, including a close-up picture of the victim,” Witherow said.

“I’ve been in communication for 30 years,” Witherow continued. “On a personal level, I find this despicable. On a professional level I’m deeply troubled by it. This is our community. These are our kids. We are trying to teach them so that they grow and become responsible, healthy, productive citizens. We do not exploit them for the purposes of sensationalism.”

Witherow stressed that neither of the incidents were related and “were not generated by issues around race.” She also declined to disclose the exact cause of the two fights, citing privacy rights of students.

The racial elements on social media, according to Witherow, occurred “after the fact.”

Zimmer said he met with students from each grade level at Decatur on Tuesday, Jan. 27, discussing “what had taken place and what we can do as a school family to move on.”

“As a family sometimes there are disagreements, as in my own house, and you have to get along, you have to work them out,” he said. “We always don’t agree, but certainly the students here respect each other and we’re moving forward from there.”

Zimmer also discussed proper conduct on social media during the meetings with students.

“Back in my day, when kids fought they fought, and then people would talk about it,” he said. “Now when they fight, people want to videotape it and quickly send it out. I’d let the students know that if they’re going to be at a fight videotaping it, you’re going to be held accountable for doing that.”

As the media coverage focused on possible racial concerns at Decatur, Zimmer said student reaction was largely embarrassment.

“I have students who are bothered by the fact that the entire student body is being painted by the same brush,” he said. “A couple incidents occurred with small numbers of people and the student body is bothered by that. They feel like their reputation is being soiled. They feel like the community is now looking at all of them in a different light.”

Zimmer added that school officials contacted police following the incidents, leading to an increased police presence during dismissal. He was not aware if police filed any charges, but said the students involved in the fights were “issued consequences” by the school.

Wilson said the school was safe and praised the response by the administration.

“We have a great deal of confidence in the principal, the staff, and the students here and parents to pull together and learn from these experiences,” he said. “This school is in a good place right now.”

The results of an investigation by the Worcester County NAACP backed up the school’s findings. NAACP President Ivory Smith said the organization’s investigation into the incidents found no racial motivations behind the two fights.

“It was just a fight,” Smith said. “I talked to one of the kid’s father the other day and they’re upset about the situation, but they’re all back friends now, which is good. We’ve just got to move on from this.”

Smith called the incidents a misunderstanding and said no one from Decatur has approached his office to complain about issues of race at the school.

“If someone stepped forward, we would definitely investigate, but as of right now no one has filed a complaint,” he said. “Hopefully, we can come together. Let’s put black and white behind us and let’s move forward.

“Maybe this is a wakeup to adults,” Smith continued. “If some of the kids think this involved race, maybe the adults can teach these kids that there is no race – we’re all one color. If you get a cut and you bleed, we’re all bleeding red. We may be a different color on the outside, but on the inside we’re all still bleeding red. We may have different religions and different beliefs, but we’re all together as one American melting pot.”

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