Haverhill High School brawl prompts family meeting on violence

HAVERHILL, Mass. — Days after a violent schooltime brawl in which a staff member was struck at Haverhill High School, concerned parents met with school leaders to discuss the violence Tuesday night.

School resource officers, security and staff members intervened in the fistfight that broke out in the cafeteria last Wednesday, Principal Jason Meland said in a letter to families. Seven students have been criminally charged by police and face further disciplinary action from the school, while others who recorded the melee on their cell phones also face punitive action by the district.

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A person who identified themselves as a school staff member sent video of the fight recorded from social media to Boston 25 News, calling the environment at the high school a “warzone” and saying they fear going to school. The video shows students punching each other and pulling hair as others stand by and watch.

School Committee Member Toni Sapienza-Donais said concerned students and parents sent her the video.

“It’s a real chaotic situation. Students standing on tables, videotaping and cheering on the fight,” Sapienza-Donais said. “It’s so unsettling. It’s disheartening. It’s not what should be happening. It frightens parents, it frightens students, it frightens our staff members.”

In the letter to families, Meland called the incident a “challenging” week for the community and invited them to send questions to the school to be addressed by him, Superintendent Margaret Marotta and other administrators at Tuesday’s “family meeting.”

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“As has been widely reported, across the state and nation students are having a difficult time readjusting to in-person school after 18 months of COVID restrictions and limited in-person schooling,” Meland wrote. “However, I want to be clear: this does not mean that behavior that violates our expectations or our code of conduct is acceptable. It is not and will not be tolerated.”

Jenn Hafford, a mother and an employee of the district, said Tuesday’s meeting was a step in the right direction, but she fears sending her freshman son to school each day.

“What concerns me the most is, when I talk to my son about it, it’s everyday, normal, behavior. ‘Oh, well. It’s just another day at school, Mom,’” Hafford told Boston 25 News. “My fear is him being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting hurt in the crossfire.”

Among the issues discussed are a need for more parental involvement, teaching respect at home, changes in security and addressing mental health, Sapienza-Donais said.

“I think the pandemic is being used as a scapegoat. There’s no excuse for this behavior,” Sapienza-Donais said. “If something’s not done soon, somebody’s going to get…seriously hurt.”

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Meland said the school has since increased hall sweeps to every period of the school day, updated its hall pass system and discipline referral system, and opened “structured conversations with students.” A Student Voice Forum will also take place Friday during school.

Both Hafford and Sapienza-Donais believe the violence is happening among a small population of kids and shouldn’t overshadow the education and positive programs the high school provides.

“It’s not something we’re proud of or want to promote. It’s really not the image we want for our schools,” Sapienza-Donais said. “Our schools are a lot better than that. We provide a top-notch education here. And many of our students are doing the right thing.”

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