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Brattleboro Union High School Principal Steve Perrin.

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School year off to a rocky start at BUHS

Rape, fights, threats, guns, mischief have descended upon campus this fall, and many attribute the problems to social media and pandemic isolation

BRATTLEBORO—Amid allegations of fights, students accusing one another of rape, one gun found in a student’s vehicle, a rumor of another, graffiti of threats to kill everyone, malicious mischief, police walking the halls, and students feeling unsafe to go to school, Brattleboro Union High School has had a rough start this fall.

Some of the acutely disturbing events appear driven by social media and perhaps the long isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, but many are asking whether a culture of turning a blind eye to problems, notably sexual abuse, is at the root of the misconduct.

Since August, when the Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) School Board started to respond to a Viewpoint piece in The Commons in which sexual misconduct claims against former Brattleboro Union High School English teacher Robert “Zeke” Hecker were brought back into the light after a number of years, the school has experienced what school officials acknowledge as an unusual spate of disturbing activity.

“None of these events are out of the ordinary for a high school over time, but it’s interesting we’re having this happen at once,” said Principal Steve Perrin by phone Friday.

He noted complications from the social media platform TikTok, “but some is from coming back from an 18-month hiatus. We haven’t had regular school since March 2020.”

Perrin said he believes that, for some of the students, “social skills have atrophied for face-to-face action and conflict resolution. Our ninth-grade class has not seen a normal year since seventh-grade.”

And Perrin said that “the revelations about the disgusting behavior of Zeke Hacker — I don’t know how much it’s impacted the students, but the adults are pretty disgusted and angry and feel horrible for the victims. Especially those of us who have been here from the ’90s. We’re shocked, reeling. We’re blindsided.”

A report of one student accusing another student of rape and the attack having been filmed and circulated on social media is under investigation by police.

“I will not address the alleged rape out of concern for the children who are living the trauma and because we are not involved in the investigation,” said BUHS School Board Chair David Schoales. “It is a police matter.”

“In the event an ongoing police investigation is taking place, I’ll defer any comment until they complete their work,” said Perrin. “While police do their work, we continue to support victims and their families in school and in the larger community.”

Schoales did say that the school board is “likely to take some actions to address the concerns about sexual abuse” at the Tuesday, Oct. 12 meeting, which took place after press time.

Taking steps

To community commentary on social media that the school hasn’t reacted quickly enough to the incidents, Perrin said he has done so as fast as possible, sending emails to parents four times, including twice on Oct. 7 — first, at 3 a.m., and again at 3 p.m.

“We let people know right away there was a weapon on campus, and then the rumor, and then the graffiti,” he said. “For me, I know our schools are safe, but when you get these things so rapid-fire, you worry. I just hope parents continue to trust us and our judgement in what we do.”

One problem is that kids are texting faster than Perrin can attend to issues and gather facts.

“We’re never going to keep pace with the rate of social media,” he said. “I put something out at 1 p.m. about the gun incident, but kids had been texting as it unfolded.”

“We will send out information as soon as we can,” Perrin continued. “The vast majority of our parents are understanding and supportive. I can’t tell you how great our parents and students are. We have a great community here.”

On Oct. 3, Perrin wrote to parents noting “the difficult start to the school year.”

“As mentioned last week, this has been a trying start to the school,” he wrote, noting an “increase in conflicts from fall 2019, both verbal and physical” as well as an increase in “inappropriate texts and images online.”

“We are sorry that September has been so hard and we’re going to take steps to improve things for the rest of the year,” Perrin wrote, noting that supervision in hallways and other public areas will be increased, with teachers and paraprofessionals continuing to be an active presence.

That presence is being augmented with BUHS safety staff members and administrators rotating through areas of the school. The student engagement coordinator is also making sure that all students are in classes and is working closely with them and their families to do so, Perrin said.

Unscheduled monitoring of rest rooms will also increase.

Starting last week, an “ongoing conversation about our school community” was initiated with students and staff members.

“That conversation will be based in advisory and will include discussion of our current problems,” wrote Perrin, before it started. “It will then shift to implementing concrete steps we can take as a collective school community.”

Noting that all students will be part of the discussion and that the program is in draft form, Perrin said he plans to “identify the elements of a safe learning community, what the impacts of violence in school are for all students and staff, and determine what proactive steps we will take as a community.”

Perrin admitted that “we have a lot of work to do to restore a full sense of safety at school for everyone,” but added, “I do think BUHS is a safe school and a vibrant learning community.”

“We need to reflect, analyze and improve our school,” he wrote to parents. “We will work with our counselors to refine the plan for advisory conversations and our teachers and staff will work to provide supervision and support for our students. Ultimately, this will be a community-wide, shared process in which all will take an active role.

“We can blame the pandemic and blame society in general for our difficult opening and there are lessons to be learned there. More importantly, right now we need to listen closely to our students and respond to what they need to feel comfortable at BUHS. They are the reason BUHS exists and we will take all necessary steps to ensure they have a safe, supportive school.”

Here is a timeline of events that have transpired at BUHS. Underaged youth involved are not identified.

Gun found in student’s car

On Thursday, Sept. 23, a firearm was found in a vehicle on campus, as Perrin wrote to parents.

“We were alerted to this by members of our community and took immediate action,” he wrote. “Part of that response involved assistance from the Brattleboro Police Department (BPD), who quickly and efficiently secured the weapon. The police department is continuing to work with the person who possessed the weapon.

“During this incident, constant surveillance was maintained and at no time was the firearm out of the vehicle until the police took possession of it. All students and staff remained safe while the process of securing the firearm took place.

“We will continue to work collaboratively with the Brattleboro Police Department and other support agencies to support the family involved.”

The Brattleboro Police log states that on Sept. 23 at 9:06 a.m. officers responded to the report of a possible weapons offense.

“Investigation showed that an 18-year-old male was in possession of a weapon on school grounds and this stemmed from an incident the prior evening,” the log states. “The male was taken into custody and later released on a juvenile citation into Family Court to answer to the charges.”

About one week ago, rumors of a second handgun on campus were swirling on social media, but Perrin said by phone this week that is not true.

“There was a rumor that a student had a gun,” he told The Commons. “That student did not have a weapon. We verified that through our own video surveillance and with that student and his family.”

On Sept. 30, Perrin wrote to parents, saying, “After investigating, it was concluded that the student did not bring a weapon to school. We appreciate that rumors about weapons can cause anxiety, especially in light of last week’s news that a weapon had been found in a vehicle on campus.

“We will continue to operate normally today. We also appreciate that students and parents reached out to us and shared their concerns and information with us. We will continue to work towards maintaining a safe, welcoming, and productive school environment for all staff and students.”

Student petition says school is ‘dangerous,’ and calls for guard

Shortly after the gun incident, a student started a petition to BUHS administrators and school board members at change.org that has, to date, been signed by 375 people, not all students.

The petition, attributed to student Juliana Miskovich and signed initially by “the concerned students of BUHS,” states that students feel “exceptionally unsafe at our school” and calls for an “unarmed official” to be present.

“School is not a place to feel in danger; it is not acceptable for us to feel this way. We believe there should be no danger present in our school and there should be no guns in our school. Period.

“This being said, we believe there should be an unarmed official at our school who is thoroughly trained in de-escalation tactics. We have had threats against the school, multiple fights, and other issues that endangered the students.

“We do not feel comfortable in our own school. We hope that instead of brushing off these feelings that you will take them seriously and work speedily in order to address these issues.

“We also believe that we are entitled to know the truth of the events at our school. We are left in the dark about events that concern our immediate safety. So please do not hide the reality of these dangerous situations from the students at BUHS.”

Below signatures, the petition holds a place for signers to state why they have signed.

“There is virtually no reason why I should be worried about my little brother and his peers being in harm’s way while they’re simply trying to get an education,” writes one person. “It is seriously time for Perrin to stop engaging in frivolous PR tactics and act through manners of transparency and respect for the community by way of making BUHS a safe learning space.

“Trust is decaying between the public and the school’s administration, so please, Perrin, stop writing BS untimely emails after the fact of a present threat and get off your ass and do something constructive to rebuild the trust of parents and students. This is literally children’s lives we’re talking about. Do better.”

“I don’t feel safe,” writes a male student.

“I need to feel comfortable at school, focus on my work, and be a student athlete,” writes a female student. “This is not fair to any of the students.”

Another female writes she is signing because she “should be able to succeed in my classes without the fear that my safety at school is being threatened.”

“Do better. And be honest,” she says.

“I feel very unsafe at school,” adds another female student.

Perrin said he held a Leadership Council meeting after the petition was received to address reinstating an unarmed officer. He explained that the plan now is to hire “an added safety officer” who is not a police officer but is “trained in de-escalation.”

The campus, which includes three school buildings, currently has a safety director and three people on staff in this role. They are trained each year in safe restraint techniques through the Crisis Prevention Institute.

The safety staff is responsible for supervising the school and grounds and for forming a response team when there is a fight on campus. Staff members also provide support when nurses respond to medical emergencies.

In 2020, some students and parents had expressed concern at having a uniformed and armed police officer on campus, and the school board voted to suspend the school resource officer (SRO) position for the 2021–22 school year to “carry out a more complete analysis of the impact that the SRO program was having on the school community,” said Perrin.

Since that change, more social workers and student support staff members have been hired.

“We have had stellar support and response from the Brattleboro Police Department so far this year,” said Perrin. “They have been excellent, communicative partners this year.”

Perrin said he also intends to reinstate a dean of students post after a year of not having one and to do so before the end of October.

A dean of students, he said, “can build relationships and do restorative practices with kids.” Those duties free assistant principals, “who are working mightily on things like graffiti in the bathrooms that are time-consuming and challenging,” he noted.

“So we’re hoping that a dean will — in addition to being another connection to kids and trusted adult in the building — allow the assistant principals to work with teachers more,” Perrin said.

Plumbing damage inspired by TikTok challenge

On Sept. 27, the school experienced serious plumbing problems at the hands of a group of students, apparently egged on by a viral national trend called “Devious Licks” on the social media platform TikTok — a trend that encourages theft and vandalism.

On the app, users refer to thefts as “licks,” usually described as “devious” or “diabolical.”

“We had some damage,” said Perrin by phone. “We had an occasion where students had been taking part in the TikTok challenge about vandalizing a bathroom. They were putting paper towels and toilet paper into the toilets, so over time that built up and it ended up with a plug in one of our pipes that led to our sewer drains and ended flooding a hallway.

“We don’t know which piece of paper was the culprit, but it was abundantly clear that they were stuffing things into the toilets.”

In that area of the building, six bathrooms feed into the affected exit pipe so Perrin “isn’t sure” which toilet or toilets were vandalized.

He also said a bathroom mirror had been broken.

During the clean-up, students were taken outdoors and brought in when it started to rain.

In a letter to parents following these incidents, Perrin asked that students with knowledge of the incidents speak to a staff member, assuring confidentiality.

Asked what punishment would be forthcoming when and if students are identified as having participated in the vandalism, Perrin said, “I’m really going to choose not to talk about the consequences.”

“In addition to the inconvenience to the school community, it is also an unnecessary financial cost,” Perrin wrote. “This type of behavior is not acceptable at BUHS and runs counter to the values of our school. We will continue to investigate this vandalism.”

TikTok responded to the “devious lick challenge” issue on insider.com, saying, “We expect our community to stay safe and create responsibly, and we do not allow content that promotes or enables criminal activities. We are removing this content and redirecting hashtags and search results to our Community Guidelines to discourage such behavior.”

But Perrin is asking parents to help with this month’s viral challenge, which has been called “smack a teacher.”

As it happens, the trend might well be more of a rumor, with plenty of discussion and distress about the concept of students uploading videos of themselves striking staff members.

But the fact-checking site Snopes reported that “we have not found evidence to support the claim that ‘slap a teacher’ is in fact a viral or widespread trend on TikTok,” and TikTok itself on Oct. 6 condemned the challenge while noting that there was nothing resembling a national trend to remove from the site.

Regardless, Perrin said the school was taking the prospect seriously.

“We ask that you talk this over with your student and that students hearing about potential assaults on staff members immediately inform us,” wrote Perrin. “I do have optimism and faith that our students would not strike a staff member, but as the September challenge demonstrated, social media has considerable influence in our local and national community.”

Threatening graffiti keeps half of student body at home on Oct. 8

On Wednesday, Oct. 6, threatening graffiti was found on the wall of a restroom stall.

“It was a threat to the school saying they were going to kill everyone on Friday,” said Perrin, who announced the threat to the student body, asking anyone who knew who wrote it to come forward, and wrote to parents. “We do not know who did that.”

“We’re using our cameras in the hallway and have identified 26 potential people who went into the bathroom in the period in question,” Perrin continued. “We’ve also done some handwriting analysis work and interviews. Nothing has yet turned out to bear fruit.”

“We’re hopeful a student can come forth to let us know who they think did it,” he wrote. “We still have one more student to interview that we haven’t been able to have contact with.”

On Thursday, Oct. 7, more threatening graffiti was discovered in a different restroom.

“It said something similar but didn’t reference Friday,” said Perrin, noting Brattleboro Police officers had been requested on campus Thursday and Friday.

“They were a great resource,” he said. “They walked around the school and talked to some students.”

Perrin wrote to parents again Thursday, noting that “based on the investigation and interviews we completed today, we are confident that this is not a credible threat to harm people at our school.”

“Both of these pranks are mean-spirited and harmful to our school community,” he said of the graffiti.

Perrin acknowledged and addressed the anxiety, urging parents to encourage students who were struggling to “connect with their school counselor, administrator, or other trusted adult here at BUHS.”

“Students should not feel anxious about coming to school and we ask for your partnership and support as we repair the damage these two pranks have caused. We also ask students who may have information to let us know in confidence.”

He also explained that the school did not go into a lockdown situation Thursday, because that happens when it is believed there is “an imminent threat to students and staff.”

“That was not the case when these rumors were reported to us,” Perrin told parents. “Based on the rumors and the response we had already taken, we were confident that our school was secure.”

He also addressed why he waited until the afternoon to make an announcement to parents while talking to staff members earlier.

“Simply put, we needed to complete the investigation process. In this type of situation, providing a complete message is critical,” he said. “A partial message would have created more opportunities for conjecture and generated more unsubstantiated speculation.”

“We also need to communicate with the other schools on the campus, the Superintendent and the Brattleboro Police Department,” he continued.

“We did provide an update to staff via email at 11:15 a.m. Many staff members shared this with students. When we completed the analysis, I made a whole school announcement and sent the same message home to families,” the principal said.

“We will never be able to communicate as fast as texts and instant messaging,” Perrin said. “Rest assured that we will communicate as quickly as we can and will communicate accurate information.”

Still, parents took to social media with a passion, many saying their children either were afraid to go to school on Friday or they were keeping them home.

Peter Siegel and Kelly Wright both said their children didn’t want to go to school, and Wright noted the “cops/cop cars all over the place” being “super stressful for them, and us.”

Tamara Stenn said her child was staying home, as going was “not worth the risk and they don’t want to go to school anyway.”

While many castigated school administrators for not being quick enough or even acting correctly, Eileen Arbel, parent of a high schooler here, said she’s worked in school and lived in areas where “threats are regular.”

“I think the school administration is responding the best it can,” she posted. “They have been keeping us in the loop with enough information. It is a terrible thing to have threats of this nature and very frightening for everyone. The administration and the authorities seem to be addressing issues and attempting to support students in maintaining calm. I hope we as a community can do the same.”

While he called Friday “a normal school day,” Perrin admitted that without having looked at the absentee rate, “I’d say we were down below 50-60 percent.”

Schoales said he couldn’t add much more than Perrin had stated.

“The administrators know the situation and where resources are needed,” he said. “Our work as a board is to clearly express our determination to provide whatever support the administration and staff need, short- and long-term, to overcome these challenges and strengthen the school community.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #634 (Wednesday, October 13, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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