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After Brawl, Push on for Safer Lowell High

September 25, 2018

Sgt. David Peaslee describes recent threats and violence involving Lowell High School students to parents at a meeting organized by the district Monday night. Watch for a video at lowellsun.com.

LOWELL -- At a meeting regarding the downtown brawl on Sept. 14 and two other recent incidents involving Lowell High School students, a parent and recent Alabama transplant raised her hand.

“Is this typical this time of year?” she asked.

Sgt. David Peaslee, who runs the Student Resource Officer program for the Lowell Police Department, described the downtown fight where police arrested 11, mostly juveniles, and called for backup from nearby towns as an “aberration.”

“That is not the norm,” he said. “That is not the Lowell I know. ... I have to believe that’s not what we’re all about.”

Parents at the Monday night meeting organized by the district discussed recent events at the school with a mixture of fear, shock and hope for improvement.

“I think it’s a good thing for us to get together and interact with you guys and trade ideas,” said Mike Maxwell, a Lowell High graduate who has an 18-year-old son at the school.

Acting Superintendent Jeannine Durkin attended as well as Head of School Marianne Busteed.

Busteed started the meeting by presenting the facts of the recent high school incidents to the roughly 30 parents who attended.

The first and most significant was the downtown brawl, which she said built up over the week despite attempts by police to calm the situation.

Smaller fights, unrelated to each other, broke out Thursday and Friday afternoon, Busteed said. After the Friday afternoon fight by the Freshman Academy, 100 to 200 students walked downtown together.

“When they got down there, they refused to disperse, they refused to listen to police, they got out of hand and when the police were trying to move them on, they started getting even more feisty,” she said.

Peaslee said police increased the presence of law enforcement that afternoon, but fights still broke out, including some that started within feet of officers.

“These kids still felt comfortable enough to fight within 10 to 15 feet of us,” he said.

Teens from a charter school in Lawrence -- which was closed that day due to citywide gas explosions -- were also involved in the brawl, he said.

Busteed described the incident as “disgusting” and said she was shocked by students’ disrespect toward the police officers.

“Students felt like they didn’t have to move,” Busteed said. “They felt that they had every right to be there regardless of yelling at the cops or punching the police or not dispersing. So we’re working on that.”

She said she met with every student involved and their parents after the fight and, while some “adjusted” their attitude, some did not.

In some cases the school also needs to “get education to the parent,” she said.

“The safety of everyone in our school trumps any rights any student has,” Busteed said. “If we’re trying to keep a safe environment our rights are no longer going to be listened to if we’re trying to move students along, if we’re trying to keep students safe.”

Monday marked the first day back for some of the students suspended after the fight, according to Busteed. She said overall statistics for incidents of violence at the school are on par with previous years.

The following Wednesday, the district and police responded to a photo of a BB gun with the message “don’t go to school,” according to Busteed.

Police went to the student’s home before 7 a.m. and confiscated the gun. The incident was resolved by 9 or 10 a.m., according to Peaslee.

“It was posted by someone who thought he was being funny, but unfortunately (the law) is going to come down hard on him,” he said.

The district called parents again on Friday afternoon after a female student said someone in a black SUV with tinted windows approached her and asked if she wanted to “go smoke,” according to Peaslee.

Police have been unable to locate the vehicle, but Peaslee said he does not believe the driver intended to kidnap the student.

He pointed to both incidents as examples of success of “see something, say something,” which the district has promoted since the brawl.

The day students returned following the fight, Busteed said student leaders made a motivational announcement on the intercom responding to the incident. The announcement did not detail what happened, frustrating some parents, though Busteed said students were instructed to go to administrators if they had any questions.

Following the fight, police increased their presence, particularly downtown. Sydney Cheboryot, a senior at the high school who attended the meeting, said since this change patrols have broken up groups who were “just talking” outside.

“I think the police presence has created more of a fear in students,” she said.

Peaslee described the situation as a “balancing act” that will require ongoing conversations. He said he does not want to create an “us versus them” situation.

“It was uncomfortable for me to see that many police in our school,” directly after the fight, he said. Police presence has since decreased, but not to the level of before the brawl, according to Peaslee.

Since the brawl, Busteed said school administrators are greeting students at the door every day as they enter the building.

“We can check the pulse of the school as students are walking in,” she said.

Safety precautions like strictly enforced rules about wearing IDs, emergency training for staff and banning earbuds are also in place, according to Busteed.

″(Headphones) are a huge safety issue if we’re trying to give instructions to students,” she said.

Finally, the district staff are working on building relationships with students, which will increase respect and communication, she said.

“These kind of things happen in high schools all across the United States and I know you don’t want to hear that, but it does and we go through cycles,” Busteed said. “But we will get through this.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.

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