HAMPTON FALLS, New Hampshire — School officials are clamping down on a culture of sexual harassment in Lincoln Akerman School’s seventh-grade class, believed to have existed since at least the last school year.
Incidents of sexual harassment and bullying were reported by seventh-grade girls to school staff Nov. 9, according to LAS Principal Mark Deblois. School Administrative Unit 21 Superintendent Dr. Robert Sullivan — who oversees education in Hampton Falls, North Hampton, Seabrook, South Hampton and the Winnacunnet Cooperative School Districts — was notified that day, Deblois said. The following Monday, parents were notified and some seventh-grade boys admitted to the harassment and were disciplined.
Deblois declined to provide many details about the harassment and bullying, how many boys were disciplined and the specifics of their punishment. However, he said all of the girls in the class are believed to have been harassed in some form since a pattern of harassment, bullying and intimidation first manifested in the classroom. Girls said they felt intimidated by boys who harassed them, scrutinized for the clothing they wore and made to feel uncomfortable participating in class activities, according to Deblois.
Parents of seventh-graders said this week that one incident of harassment involved a photo edited to depict a sexual act being committed, and the picture was posted on social media. Deblois confirmed harassment has involved a photo being digitally altered by one of the students.
Hampton Falls police were notified of the harassment, and Deblois said it was determined there was no “sexting” in the school. Sexting is the sending of indecent images and messages by text.
Guidance counselors talking with the students about the harassment in the coming weeks hope to chart a timeline of how far back the behavior goes in the class’s history, Deblois said. An incident of sexual harassment occurred last year involving some of the same boys who admitted to harassment and bullying last month, according to Deblois. He said the fact those boys were involved in both incidents factored into how they were disciplined in the most recent case.
School Board members apologized to dozens of parents and community members who came to the board’s Nov. 30 meeting in the LAS gymnasium for what occurred in the school. Board member Greg Parish called the discovery “embarrassing.” They said they hope to identify whether a “breakdown” in reporting or identifying the harassment and bullying occurred. Board member Greg Morrow, also a parent of a LAS seventh-grader, said he wants the board to conduct its own investigation of how the administration handled the harassment.
Parents said they were shocked the harassment was not identified sooner and some suggested the administration was to blame. One parent of a seventh-grade girl said they were aware of the incident reported last year and asked why the issue was not “dealt with” then, considering it involved some of the same boys.
“What broke is up here,” said the parent, pointing toward school officials during the meeting. “It’s not us. We need to know what broke and I’d like it for you to tell us, and if there’s consequences of it, we’d like to know what the consequences are.”
School Board Chairman Mark Lane asked Deblois how the harassment escalated, to which Deblois replied, “I’m not sure I have an answer.” Deblois said the students involved did not tell their parents or teachers, meaning there were “no direct opportunities” to identify the harassment.
“We didn’t know. You as parents didn’t know,” Deblois said to parents. “Certainly, the staff members were surprised as anybody that these things were going on … that was not on their scope.”
Deblois said he was not without fault, saying he should have notified parents the day the harassment was reported Nov. 9. Some parents of seventh-grade girls said they learned from their daughters about the harassment when they came home from school.
The parent of one seventh-grade girl described learning from their daughter about the harassment that was reported that day. Their daughter had been coming home consistently irritable, sometimes red in the face and saying she did not want to go to back to school. On occasions, the daughter told the parent another classmate had been “annoying” at school, but until that Thursday in November, they were unable to learn from her what was truly bothering her at school. After the information became known, the parent asked again why the daughter didn’t tell anyone initially. She replied, “I thought it was normal.”
“Here it has become, I think, a climate that sort of was… chronic or systematic,” the parent said of the harassment.
Some parents said school staff need to more clearly communicate when incidents occur and explain more of what happened in “black and white” while still respecting the privacy of those involved. They said that would help them with conversations about harassment in their home.
Lane said he agreed the school “potentially” needed to “eliminate some of those gray areas.”
Deblois said the school is making plans with an outside agency to have them work with all the middle school classes before the end of the year to help address social issues like sexual harassment, domestic violence and positive relationships. He said a program for parents regarding harassment is also in the works.
Parents and school officials alike commended the girls for reporting the harassment, Deblois saying in one email to parents they should be recognized for “bravery and assertiveness” in “eradicating an environment that has had a severe and negative impact on each of them.”
The situation at LAS comes as a movement of women across the nation have been challenging men at all levels of power for sexual misconduct. Time magazine called those women “the silence breakers” and named them the publication’s choice for “Person of the Year 2017.”
“I looked at that and I said, ’That’s my seventh-grade girls right there,” Morrow, the school board member said Wednesday, pointing to a picture pulled up on his phone of this week’s Time magazine cover. “I think that they really need to see this and understand what they did was right… I think the girls should be very proud of their courage.”