NEW FOR THURSDAY: Parent, School Embroiled In Bullying Allegations

BERLIN — Both sides sought to clear the air this week after an ad published in this newspaper made allegations of misconduct against two Stephen Decatur High School (SDHS) coaches and a cover-up by its principal.

Last week, a full-page advertisement in The Dispatch claimed that SDHS baseball coaches Rich Ferro and Garrett Magaha have recently “verbally abused … and degraded” some of their players and invited parents to join a newly formed support group, Parents Against Bullying In Worcester. Magaha, an assistant coach, is singled out specifically for having “belittled” a member of his team in front of the rest of the players.

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Tony DiBuo, who purchased the ad, told The Dispatch last week that he believes bullying from coaches and teachers against students has been going on at SDHS for years and accused Principal Louis Taylor of not properly punishing those responsible.

“I truly believe that in my investigations, my personal investigations that Lou Taylor has purposefully covered things up there for years and not addressed the real problem of bullying at Stephen Decatur High School by coaches. Not only is it coaches, there are some teachers,” DiBuo said.

In an interview on Wednesday, Taylor defended the atmosphere of SDHS and pointed to the numerous programs and efforts the school takes to discourage bullying, both student-to-student and faculty-to-student.

“It’s a national problem we are facing,” said Taylor of bullying. “But we have all been very proactive.”

Citing programs like Maryland Safe, Supportive Schools (MDS3) and the STARS recognition breakfast, Taylor explained that SDHS takes bullying seriously and attacks it from two fronts: addressing negative behavior and reinforcing positive behavior.

“We recognize each kid with a breakfast and read some of the positive things that they’ve done,” he said, referring to STARS.

As for MDS3, Taylor said that the program’s “number one focus” is on bullying in schools and does address the less common issue of teachers or coaches bullying students.

DiBuo wasn’t impressed with the steps Decatur has taken so far and believes a new attitude is necessary.

“I want to change the culture of all the schools in Worcester County,” he said. “And I want them to join our group and be part of the solution.”

Dibuo’s accusations come at a time when SDHS and Taylor, specifically, have been succeeding. Principal of Decatur for 17 years, Taylor accepted a promotion to Assistant Superintendent for Administration on the Board of Education recently and will begin this summer. He is also one of four finalists currently in consideration to replace Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes after Andes’ retirement goes into effect this June.

According to DiBuo, the allegations he has made are not an attempt to in any way mar Taylor’s rise but simply coincide with a series of incidents involving his son and the baseball team.

“The thing that pushed me over the line was what happened with my son,” he said.

The specifics of what took place regarding DiBuo’s son and the baseball team run into disclosure issues both because of student confidentiality and because DiBuo and the Board of Education could be headed to court over the allegations, which have resulted in health issues for his son. What Dibuo was willing to say is that his son was, in his opinion, verbally belittled by Magaha in front of the rest of the team last month, the first instance of which DiBuo said he ignored since his son was nearing graduation. When it allegedly repeated, however, DiBuo went to the school demanding an investigation and a reprimand of Magaha.

“On the baseball team itself, there have been many incidents of verbal abuse, cursing,” he said.

Taylor confirmed that DiBuo came to SDHS with his complaints and that an investigation was launched. Because of student confidentiality, Taylor couldn’t divulge the exact findings of that investigation. However, he promised that the incident and any other allegations of bullying receive a personal look from either himself or a team of his vice principals.

“We always do what’s best for kids, first,” he said.

After DiBuo’s initial demand for a probe, another incident took place during a baseball game on May 4 between Decatur and Indian River, eventually leading to the lawsuit DiBuo has promised to lodge against the school after the coach involved was not disciplined.

During the game, DiBuo’s son was the only senior player who did not take the field. That was an act that DiBuo took as retaliation for his earlier desire to see Magaha and Ferro investigated.

While Taylor could not legally speak to specific students, he pointed out that SDHS has no rule promising playing time for any athlete during a given game.

“There is no policy that all seniors or any kid plays any part in any game,” he said. “Every coach handles their team differently but stays within the guidelines of what’s fair.”

However, it’s widely known at Decatur during the last game of the season senior players typically get a chance to play.

Taylor went on to say that, “unfortunately, there are usually some feathers ruffled” when an athlete doesn’t get playing time, with parents often taking it the hardest.

It should be noted that the game in question ended with Decatur winning 13-3 over Indian River.

Beyond the allegations concerning the baseball team and his son, DiBuo stressed that he would not have formed his support group if he hadn’t heard about similar issues on other teams and at other schools.

“Some of the people at the school think we’re blowing this way out of proportion,” he said.

However, DiBuo asserted that parents have been coming to him privately with at least 18 expressing interest in joining the group before his ad even ran last week. Since that ad ran, he has received a solid amount of interest, but has also been attacked by people loyal to the school, its teachers and coaching staff.

Besides direct cases of students being bullied by teachers and coaches, DiBuo slammed faculty who allow students to bully other students without reprimand.

“Whenever team members, the kids themselves, are bullying each other and the coaches don’t step in to stop it, what does that show? It just keeps going; it doesn’t stop,” he said.

Another big problem DiBuo said he wants to address is teaching coaches how to motivate without resorting to profanity or raising their voice.

“When you start cursing and yelling at the same time at a kid, I don’t see where the motivation comes in,” he said.

Even DiBuo, a coach for several years who donates to the baseball program and helps maintain the school’s field, said that he has made comments to his players that have crossed the line between inspiration to simply yelling and belittling. It’s something that he wants all coaches to be aware of now and in the future.

Taylor stood by the job that Ferro and Magaha have done in the classroom and on the field.

“I have never had any complaint about either one of these gentlemen,” he stated. “Not only do they care about the baseball program, but they care about young people. They pour their heart and soul into it.”

When asked how the coaches were reacting to DiBuo’s advertisement, Taylor admitted that they were “concerned and … somewhat upset”. Taylor opined they had every right to feel that way.

“It does bother them somewhat because they do the right thing and work hard each day to do what’s right for their kids,” he said.

Taylor’s support has also found a reflection in the community, with a Facebook page springing up last weekend in defense of Ferro and Magaha. Receiving 552 “Likes” as of the writing of this article, the page also shows dozens of comments from community members coming to the defense of Ferro and Magaha.

With both sides looking to draw support from teachers and parents in Worcester as well as clashing in the courtroom, the only thing that either camp seems to agree on is that bullying is unacceptable in Worcester, though who is bullying who is a matter still up for debate.

DiBuo said last week that he plans to pursue the case as long as necessary, though his ultimate goal is not to “punish” Magaha or Ferro.

“I won’t give up,” he said. “I will never give up. They have sparked something in me.”

According to DiBuo, who about 10 years ago created along with his wife, Wendy, an autism support group for Worcester County, his ideal scenario would be for coaches and teachers across the county to work with the support group to receive training and advice.

“What I’m really looking for is for these people to come forward. For us to train the coaches and teachers to work with them,” he said. “I’m not looking to punish anybody.”

In an ad that appeared in this paper this week seeking support group volunteers, DiBuo wrote, “our group will provide guidance and support for students and parents. We wish to embrace bullied children and offer ideas that will change attitudes throughout the schools.”

Taylor remains adamant that SDHS goes above and beyond what is expected of schools in programs geared toward providing a safe and fertile environment for study.

Decatur also received the support of Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes, who called the school “phenomenal” and expressed confidence that Taylor and the rest of his staff are models to be emulated when it comes to the war on bullying.

‘They take on every single concern raised,” said Andes, adding that Worcester is one of the few school systems to anonymously survey graduating seniors and that an “overwhelming majority” have described SDHS as safe and conducive to learning.

However, the case will continue on in court and in the community, according to DiBuo.