OCHS Image

NOTE: The Cape May County Herald is offering full coverage of the COVID-19 / coronavirus emergency to all, with no payment required. We are committed to ensuring our readers can make critical decisions for themselves and their families during this ongoing situation. To continue supporting this vital reporting, please consider a digital subscription or contribution. For more coverage, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

OCEAN CITY - Ocean City High School alumni initiated a petition (http://chng.it/vvbDmpWH), calling for the New Jersey State Police, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), state Attorney General's Office, and Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office to investigate “unsafe and unjust practices” of the high school staff.

Rebecca Reade, a 2018 graduate from Upper Township, recalled being in an abusive relationship for two years with a classmate while attending the school, but said the school staff refused to help her when she asked for it. 

The petition has more than 60 anecdotes of alleged bullying, substance abuse, abuse of powers, mental health issues, suicides, and harmful ideas or traditions shared by about 20 people, who, Reade said, were willing to work with investigators. 

Eleven others shared stories but were not willing to make a statement to investigators.

Capt. Mike Emmer, of the County Prosecutor’s Office, would not say if anyone came forward to help with the investigation, but asked that if anyone believes a crime occurred to contact the Special Victims Unit, at 609-465-1135.

Emmer said the office is aware of the petition and is reviewing it. He indicated the statute of limitations may come into play, depending on whether a crime was committed, what it was, and when it occurred.He said the office is working with the Ocean City Police Department.

Reade, Brianna Thomas, of Ventnor City, and Jazmine MacDonald, of Somers Point, recently spoke with the Herald about their experiences while they were Ocean City High School students. All are involved with the petition, which, as of April 30, had more than 3,000 signatures.

Thomas, who dropped out of school during the 2011-2012 school year, said she was the victim of severe bullying and discriminated against by teachers after being outed as a lesbian in middle school. For four years, she said she “did not feel safe in the classroom."

“In middle school, I was the victim of severe bullying, and in one instance, a teacher participated in the bullying,” she said. “I had an Individualized Education Plan that said I should be accommodated for class placement, and after two months of fighting to switch classes with guidance and administrators, one of the administrators said, ‘Just do it.’

“At the end of the year, because I had poor attendance from missing so many days, from missing gym classes because of bullying, and because they would not let me change in the locker room, I was given three options,” she recalled.

“I could transfer to another school, but my parents couldn’t afford a private school,” Thomas said. “I could have a special class where I was with one teacher all day and doing college prep work, or I could drop out, which was encouraged.

“After four years, I was drained,” she admitted, breaking into tears. “I decided to drop out, which I think saved my life.”

She obtained her high school equivalency diploma (GED) and is working in the area.

“I am willing to speak out now for those voices who feel they can’t,” Thomas said. “We are willing to cooperate with any investigation. My experiences are 10yearsold now and long past taking any legal action, but as an adult, I am getting more and more upset about what went wrong, and this is an opportunity to change things.”

Reade said the petition’s goal is to have the school’s administration resign. She recounted instances of name-calling, bullying, and verbal abuse by members of the school’s staff during her time there. Tearfully, she said she was physically abused by another student in the school’s hallways, in a section where cameras did not record.

She also said students were not permitted to file complaints about harassment, intimidation, or bullying (HIB), as allowed under state law (https://bit.ly/332iM0F).

In an April 23 statement released by the school district’s Business Administrator Tim Kelley, the district said it first became aware of the allegations when the petition was published April 22. 

They reached out to the Ocean City Police Department requesting their review of the allegations and offered to cooperate.

They corrected the statement April 29, indicating they were made aware of the petition April 22, but have been addressing mental health and other issues referenced in the petition for years.

“The physical safety and mental well-being of our students have always been among the district’s foremost concerns,” the statement reads. “The district has consistently maintained and enforced all anti-harassment, intimidation, and bullying policies required by the (state) Department of Education, as well as all reporting obligations for any student who is suspected to have been abused, neglected, and/or missing. 

"Any alleged incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying are taken seriously and investigated consistent with the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act.”

During the 2014-2015 school year, 41 HIB incidents were self-reported at the high school; the following year, 26 incidents were self-reported, according to state reports. 

For the 2018-2019 school year, the district graded itself at a score of 75/78 for the state Department of Education’s School Self-Assessment for Determining Grades Under the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights District and School Grade Report(https://bit.ly/3eN64bs). 

According to a state report for 2018-2019 (https://bit.ly/330cKO2), the district confirmed one HIB investigation for “disability,” two for “other,” and two not identified.  

In its first statement, the district outlined “proactive steps and innovative programs” to help students and staff feel included, secure and comfortable throughout the school day. 

In 2015, the district said it formed an ad hoc committee on youth mental health to support student wellness. The committee developed a “layered plan,” including the adoption of the Lifelines curriculum into health and physical education classes, and implementation of the STOPit app, enabling students to anonymously ask questions or report someone in need of intervention.

Separately, Aimee Schultz, communications coordinator for the district, explained that the Lifelines curriculum focuses on staff learning signs of escalating risk in students, identifying at-risk students, and referring to appropriate resources.

“Students learn to recognize protective factors, including connecting with a caring adult, developing positive self-esteem and coping skills, and access to care,” she explained. “The program aligns with state Department of Education comprehensive health and physical education standards for community health services and support.”

The district also pointed to wellness centers in the high and intermediate schools, where students can seek respite or confidential advice and assistance from trained staff members.

The district updated its response at the April 28 Board of Education meeting, further detailing its position. See the full statement at the bottom of this article online.

“The wellness centers are a joke,” Reade said. “They are a hangout for the popular kids. Someone in need of help doesn’t feel comfortable to come in where others are playing video games to get out of class.”

Schultz said from its inception, the Wellness Center was designed to have a “student” safe place, “inclusive of all, hence, the large screen TV, comfortable moveable furniture, and adjustable tables. Wellness activities are also integral to wellness: yoga, therapy dogs, lunch hangout, domestic/dating abuse workshops, student real talk sessions, parent outreach, counseling, and outside providers support to mention a few.”

“The door is open for all students,” she said. “All student visitors are accounted for via the swipe attendance system, and a quiet place time limit is in place if applicable. If there is an emergency, students are permitted to visit the Wellness Center anytime. What the Wellness Center avoids is the impression of clinical services and/or stigmatizing those who visit the room as students with problems.”

The Wellness Center does not provide clinical psychological/psychiatric services, according to Schultz. It is a “jumping” off point for students to assess a need and receive additional professional clinical service or support from the mental health social worker if necessary. 

If a more private venue is needed, students may meet with faculty/support staff virtually or in student service offices.

MacDonald, a 2018 graduate, said she became involved with the petition to get “justice for former and future students."

“I was bullied very badly, and teachers witnessed it, knew it was happening, and even a few participated in it, or egged on the student,” she said.

“I sought help from guidance,” she added, in tears, “but was told they only helped with academics.”

Thomas spoke at the April 28 Board of Education meeting (https://bit.ly/3xB0sJX) about the pattern of behaviors tolerated at the school by the staff, about the goals of the petition, and rebutted claims that the district first became aware of the allegations with the initiation of the petition, in April. 

She said she addressed the board in October 2015, describing HIB activitiesoccurring at the school, saying students were not offered an opportunity to file complaints, and only verbal statements were allowed.

She asked the board to provide more “insight into how they were going to make the school safe” going forward, especially regarding faculty behavior, which is at the base of multiple allegations.

With the retirement of the superintendent, Thomas said she hoped there would be changes in the “clear patterns of behavior” allowed at the school.

Dr. Kathleen Taylor, who served as superintendent for 15 years, announced her retirement, as of Aug. 1, 2021, in a letter dated April 16, on the district’s website (https://bit.ly/3aPGv8y).

To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.

*******

The Ocean City School Board of Education released the following statement during its April 28 meeting:

“We have read the petition posted on Change.org calling for law enforcement agencies to investigate the allegations in the petition. We hear you and commend you for exercising your right to free speech and for the courage to petition to have the allegations investigated further. 

“The first action taken by the Ocean City District Administration and the Board of Education was to contact the OCPD (Ocean City Police Department) regarding the petition. We have and will continue to fully cooperate and provide access to the police department and/or the County Prosecutor’s Office for any impending investigation. For information concerning this matter, please contact the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Special Victims Office at 609-465-1135.

“While we can’t change the past, our District is committed to taking additional steps to build upon the programs, trainings, support and intervention services, along with providing the necessary resources, which we have put in place over the past decade to ensure enduring change. 

“Beginning in 2011, we brought in professional trainers, including a prosecutor, to educate our staff about teacher-student relationships, discrimination, boundary limits for staff and harassment.

“We have implemented the Lifelines Curriculum from the Society of the Prevention for Teenage Suicide and the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.

“Thanks to the generosity of the Sea Isle City Board of Education, we partnered with Cape Assist, a leading area and highly-regarded social service agency, to provide training for staff and support services for our students.

“We have implemented online tools for students to give anonymous tips about concerns, problems, or bullying and we have similar online tools for parents to inform them of ways to help their children when needed. Furthermore, we survey parents and students in the exiting grades in each school regarding the school climate and their overall experiences at that school.

“We support mental health of our students by establishing K-12 programs and wellness safe spaces for students in each of one of the three schools. In the past few years, we have Real Talk sessions, led by high school students, to discuss what is most important to them. Most recently we launched a Minds Over Matter Club at the high school. In addition, we send out and post on our website weekly wellness newsletters for each of the schools. 

“We have partnered with the Ocean City Education Foundation (OCEF) for wellness programs and positive experiences for our students. In addition, we collaborate with both AtlantiCare and the City of Ocean City for healthy and wellness living programs and presentations for our students. 

“We have an established Equity Committee, which is working to ensure that each student has access to programs, services and that we continue to meet their needs. Recommendations from this community and school committee will be presented to the Board and the community upon completion of this strategic planning process.

“Looking to the future, we will be instituting a Parent University for information on services and academic programs.

“Additionally, we are expanding K-8 summer school to all students and the needed support services during the summer months.

“We are offering our Rising Seniors Programs this summer to help them jump start their college and lifelong career plans.

“Through a collaborative effort with the OCEF, we are expanding our wellness program to outdoor spaces as well. 

“As understandings, knowledge and skills have evolved in the past in the areas of law, education, rights, and equity, so too has our District, and at times, we have led the way both in region and statewide. 

“We will continue to work on our challenges and opportunities for improvements. The Board, the District and the School Administration and staff are committed to ensuring that we continue to provide support services and a safe and healthy learning environment today and in years to come.” 

Get 'The Wrap', a new way to get the news.

We wrap up the news from the Shore you love, and deliver it to your inbox, weekly.

Load comments