BERLIN – Local students say they’re upset and angry about reports that paint a scene of racial tension at Stephen Decatur High School.
Many students and staff members at Decatur sported the school’s blue and white colors Friday as they worked to restore the school’s image in the wake of media accounts of racial strife at the Berlin school.
“We’re trying to show how we really are at Stephen Decatur,” senior Delilah Purnell said. “It’s a welcoming school. There may be differences. It happens. But to say there’s a race war at Stephen Decatur that’s not true at all.”
Purnell and fellow seniors Payton VanKirk and Jake Gaddis reached out to local media outlets Friday to defend their high school. Earlier in the week, The Daily Times published a story about two student fights and a racial social media post that reportedly related to them. The newspaper also shared videos of the fights and the recording of a 911 call that occurred after one fight. Later in the week local television news broadcast similar stories with the videos.
Gaddis said he was in disbelief when he saw the coverage. He says there is no race issue at Decatur and that the social media post, while disturbing, was an isolated incident.
“Everyone in school was upset that our school was portrayed that way,” he said. “It’s a great place to be. It’s a great place to learn.”
VanKirk agreed that the social media post, which appeared on Instagram, was just that — one post.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew it was going to be a problem,” she said. “It’s not representative of all of us.”
Purnell said the post and the rumors of a race war that came next showed students the power of social media.
“Once you post something, it’s on the Internet for good,” she said.
Decatur Principal Tom Zimmer also took the time last week to talk to students about the misuse of social media. In addition to the need to be respectful of others, he reminded them it was not appropriate to use their cell phones to videotape student fights.
“Back in my day when kids fought they fought and then people talked about it,” he said in an interview Thursday. “Now when they fight people want to videotape it and quickly send it out.”
Zimmer said students found videotaping a fight instead of getting help to stop it would be held accountable. He added that because of the two recent fights, there would be additional security at Stephen Decatur at dismissal time, when students tended to loiter.
VanKirk, a three-sport athlete at Decatur, said she has never felt unsafe at the school. She said she found the accusations of racial tension at SDHS particularly hurtful because she played on sports teams with students of various races and backgrounds.
“We all get along,” she said. “That’s what makes us Decatur.”
She said she spent the days after the news reports assuring friends and family members that nothing was wrong at her school.
“What’s upsetting is that the actions of a few students became representative of the entire school,” she said.
Nevertheless, Gaddis said the situation had created a sense of unity among members of the student body.
“We are united as one school more than ever now,” he said.
He believes there will always be the occasional dispute between students, but that there are no widespread tensions at the school.
“If you do feel threatened, talk to someone,” he said.