Media Coverage Called ‘Despicable’; Race Not An Issue, School Says

BERLIN – Decatur Strong.

That’s the message on the Stephen Decatur High School marquee following two student fights that led to a local newspaper’s report of racial tension at the Berlin school.

Tom Zimmer, principal at Decatur, says the students, parents and staff are trying to move forward.

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

On Wednesday, The Daily Times published a story about two student fights that occurred last week and a racial social media post purported to relate to them. The newspaper also shared videos of the fights and a 911 recording of a call.

The school system hosted a press conference at Stephen Decatur Thursday to address the story and the incidents that led up to it.

Barbara Witherow, the Board of Education’s coordinator of public relations and special programs, said officials were aware of the fights, one of which occurred in school and one which did not, last week and had already taken measures to address the violence.

“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 their website and in addition published photos of students, including a close-up picture of the victim,” Witherow said. “I’ve been in communications 30 years and on a personal level I find this despicable. On a professional level, I’m deeply troubled by it because this is our community. These are our kids. We’re trying to teach them to grow and become responsible, healthy, productive citizens. We do not exploit them for the purpose of sensationalism.”

She said the fights were individual incidents and were not related to race.

“They were not generated by issues around race,” she said.

She said they led to some social media posts that were, however.

“We know there were some hateful postings,” she said, adding that Zimmer had since spoken to students about using social media respectfully.

Zimmer said he talked to the student body about the danger of social media and its misuse. He also addressed the role of the bystander—what an individual who witnessed a fight was supposed to do.

“Back in my day when kids fought they fought and then people talked about it,” he said. “Now when they fight people want to videotape it and quickly send it out.”

He said he let students know that if they were videotaping a fight instead of getting help to stop it, they would be held accountable. Because of the recent fights, he said there would be increased security at the end of the school day, when students tended to loiter.

Zimmer also wrote a letter to parents informing them of the situation and what had been done to address it.

“Because we’re in a partnership with them we need their help,” he said. “We’ll do our end on the school side but we need their help on the home side.”

Jerry Wilson, Worcester County’s superintendent of schools, said officials were “absolutely concerned” about the incidents that had taken place and that they would work to ensure schools remained a safe environment for students.

“Any school must be a safe place for all the students,” he said. “We have to make sure whatever we can do to provide a safe environment no matter what the circumstance.”