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Backstory: Officials cite racial harassment in Facebook post incident that closed Amherst Regional High School



Wednesday, January 29, 2014
AMHERST — An Amherst Regional High School senior who allegedly posted a Facebook claim Saturday that he is bullied and routinely carries a weapon into school, prompting the daylong closing of the school Monday, will not face criminal charges, according to Police Chief Scott Livingstone.

But school officials, who said the comments stemmed from racial harassment, expect to discipline the student for his social media comments.

“He will not be in circulation in the building,” Principal Mark Jackson said, speaking to a community forum Monday night at the Amherst Regional Middle School auditorium attended by approximately 100 people.

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Officials closed the high school building at 21 Mattoon St., as well as the building on South East Street that houses its alternative program, after Superintendent Maria Geryk discovered the message on a Facebook page aimed at Amherst high school students. The middle school and the town’s three elementary schools remained open.

Posted at 7 p.m. Saturday, the note read: “tbh im packin modtly everyday at school. but since im calm and am able to keep my composure noone dies. i have it for protection yet ppl still think they can bully me.”

Jackson assured those at the forum that the student, described as attending the high school through the school choice program and thus not from Amherst, Leverett, Pelham or Shutesbury, had never brought a weapon to school.

Geryk said she is conservative around issues of safety and wants all students to feel comfortable when they return. She said she got “100 percent” support from police to close the school and do a thorough investigation.

“First and foremost is to say we took the necessary steps,” Geryk said.

Police interviewed the family and student, Livingstone said, and a search of the home yielded weapons that were under lock and key and that will be removed permanently. He said there was no evidence to suggest the student ever brought a weapon to school.

Jackson said police also concluded the student had no intention of bringing a weapon to school.

Two investigative officers from the Worcester Police Department and the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, along with dogs, were at the high school Monday, conducting a search inside the building. Nothing suspicious was found, according to an agent from ATF, who was on hand. Geryk and Jackson were also at the scene.

Geryk said the search was precautionary. “I want to be sure I can stand in front of parents and tell them we followed this to the point where we feel secure in opening the schools,” she said in an interview outside the high school.

Katherine Appy, chairwoman of the Amherst School Committee, who has a ninth-grader at the high school, said she is confident the school will be secure and ready to welcome back students.

“I know that she (Geryk) wouldn’t let them come back into the schools if they weren’t safe,” Appy said.

Trouble brewing

For some parents, though, the issues of bullying and race, and whether the school is dealing with these appropriately, remain troubling.

Jackson said the incident prompting the school closure began as a racial issue. “Our intent is to be explicit about that,” Jackson said.

Jamie Sadiq, a parent of a high school student, said the situation has been “utterly out of control” and she is concerned that administrators will try to sweep these problems under the rug.

“Why is the school failing to tell families about these precipitating events?” Sadiq asked.

Jackson said officials have been aware of the feelings among students, including postings on social media in which racial epithets have been used, and have been working to mediate and intervene.

“It wasn’t as successful as it needed to be because it re-escalated Friday afternoon,” Jackson said.

But at no time prior to Saturday’s Facebook post was there a reference to a gun.

“That was a separating event,” Jackson said.

Geryk said school officials weren’t surprised such a threat could happen. “Rarely do you have a student coming out of nowhere with this kind of statement,” Geryk said.

Gennesee Wright, a high school senior, said she and other students have been worried that racial tensions among some students could be an issue. Wright said there has been growing use of the “n” word by both black and white students.

“I just hope things don’t end up in a bad way,” said Wright, who added that guidance counselors and other professional staff will provide the necessary safety.

Though the schools will reopen Tuesday, several parents worried about how they could ensure the safety of their children. Geryk acknowledged that this fear is palpable.

Marla Jemate said she wants to know that her pre-school child, who attends the program housed within the high school building, gets the same level of protection as the high school students. Other parents asked that there be guarantees there wouldn’t be a copycat.

Geryk said she puts safety foremost, pointing to her decision to lock school doors after the Newtown shootings. But she’s not sure parents are ready to embrace the use of wands or metal detectors. “They’re teenagers, they’re children,” Geryk said.

Collaboration

Jackson plans to address Amherst Regional High School students over the public address system to explain the chronology of events, assure them of their safety, offer counseling services and express the importance of sharing information when potential danger surfaces, Geryk said.

Geryk spotted the troubling message on the Facebook page Amherst Regional High School Confessions Sunday. She said she routinely checks the page, which is hosted by an anonymous ARHS student.

Geryk contacted Jackson, who knows who the host of the site is, but not the person who wrote the message. She said she then contacted Livingstone, who called Town Manager John Musante. The town’s information systems’ specialist, Kristopher Pacunas, was called in to help identify the person. She said by 3:15 a.m. Sunday officials had a name. Police then interviewed the student and his family and searched his home, she said.

The school building search by the canine unit Monday was arranged as a safety measure, according to Geryk. Officials had no reason at that point to believe an explosive or weapon was planted in the school, she said.

“This was a great collaboration among the town manager, Mark Jackson and the school staff,” she said. “We’re very fortunate that we were able to get the information very quickly.”

Geryk said the Facebook page in question was brought to her attention by parents earlier this school year. She said initial posts on the page are anonymous, but those who comment on them are identified. She said the content is generally focused on who is attracted to whom and where the parties are. “Some of the posts are reasonable teenage-issue posts and it’s used as a forum for people to write supportive comments, but sometimes it’s fodder for things you wouldn’t want to see.” She said she has never seen a threatening message or a disturbing message before this one.

“I greatly appreciate the cooperation of out students, staff and families during this unfortunate event,” Gerk said in a statement late Monday afternoon.

While the investigation was going on early Monday morning, school officials sent a robocall and an email out to parents and guardians at 5:30 a.m. Monday stating that the two school buildings were being closed “due to unforeseen circumstances.” That notice was updated later in the morning on the school department’s website.