By Reuven Fenton and Patrick Reilly
(MAINNEWS) – Tempers flared at Central Regional School District’s first board meeting since 14-year-old Adriana Kuch was bullied into taking her own life earlier this month, leaving outraged parents and classmates to wonder if the tragedy will bring any real change.
Hundreds of emotional parents, students and community members packed into the auditorium of the Ocean County, NJ, high school, demanding answers from officials on how this could have happened and why more has not been done to address past bullying incidents.
Ninth-grader Hailie Engesser, a close friend of Kuch, told the board that she had two gun threats and filed a police report after a scissor threat.
“It’s actually really, really hard to be going to school because of all the bullying and everything that’s been going on,” she said. “I’m still grieving over Adriana. It’s been really hard. But it’s the fact that you didn’t notify the police about that or about Adriana. She was on the floor blacked out. … You guys could have prevented that.
“[Adriana] already reported numerous reports about how she was being bullied, and you guys just sat there and did nothing,” Hailie continued.
Roman Velez, a 16-year-old sophomore said Thursday he’s been desensitized to all of the racist comments thrown his way at school.
“I have been called multiple racist things, multiple slurs, to the point where if I hear [them], I don’t bat an eye. I’m used to it,” he said.
Despite reporting past incidents to officials, Velez said they were “swept under the rug.”
“I know multiple people who’ve been sexually assaulted at this school and … the school just does not care. And this proves that you guys do not care, because I have made multiple reports to the school, to guidance, to the office, to everywhere, and it’s just been ignored and swept under the rug, and we’re tired of that,” Velez continued.
“When people ask me what my experience at Central Regional is, it’s not, ‘I went to CR.’ It’s ‘I survived CR,’ because coming to the school, it’s like being in a prison.”
Junior Milo Luga said she’s been bullied “every day” since seventh grade because she is gay, and revealed that bullies had posted photos of her on social media.
“I’ve been to mental hospitals, and I’ve been suicidal, and I’ve self-harmed in the past because of what happened to me in the school,” she said.
Luga said her mom has called the school “on so many occasions” and spoken to “everyone single person you can think of,” including the superintendent, but “was never given any genuine help.”
“I’ve just been told to ignore it, to be the bigger person, walk away,” she said, adding that her bullies have avoided any serious punishment.
“The people who have made fun of me are still here. I don’t know what happened to them. They can’t tell me.”
The meeting began with a moment of silence for Kuch, who died by suicide on Feb. 3, rocking the small, 1,600-student district as many accused officials of ignoring complaints of bullying for years.
“I’ve been to mental hospitals, and I’ve been suicidal, and I’ve self-harmed in the past because of what happened to me in the school.”
As soon as the meeting began, the rowdy crowd began shouting at the board as they moved through regular business.
“We don’t care about your agenda, we want to get to what we’re all here for!” one woman screamed.
Board President Denise Wilson threatened to shut down the meeting as she conducted a board vote to appoint new superintendent Douglas Corbett to replace former superintendent Triantafillos Parlapanides, who resigned on Saturday.
“No no no!” one person shouted.
“What’s his background?” another yelled.
“If you can’t take the heat you shouldn’t be on the board!” cried one spectator as Wilson begged the audience to let them get through the vote.
Kuch died just two days after she was brutally beaten by four other students in a school hallway. The bullying continued for days after the attack as video of it spread on social media, the teen’s family said.
The sickening video shows Kuch’s assailants throwing a drink at her, kicking and punching her and dragging her down the hallway. They pushed her into lockers, pulled her hair and hit her with a 20-ounce water bottle as onlookers laughed. The cops were not called, and her attackers initially only received a suspension.
Four New Jersey teenage girls were charged with the beating. One was charged with aggravated assault, another with harassment and two others with conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer said. Their names have not been released due to their age.
Dozens of students staged a walkout last Friday to protest the district’s failure to act, and former pupils, parents and faculty have publicly shared similarly violent and humiliating stories since her death.
Crystal Mayo, of nearby Toms River, addressed the board on behalf of her niece, whom she said left Central Regional because she was bullied so badly.
“It shouldn’t take a child taking her own life for us to change. It should never get to that point,” she said. “A child should never have those thoughts. A child should be able to enter a school and feel safe. We should be teaching our children tolerance and love and respect. Everybody’s different.”
“You talked about the policy being a state policy and you have no regards to change it — Well, why aren’t you speaking up if you think it’s wrong? Why are you being silent?”
“Why am I hearing that the policy hasn’t changed in 30 years? Students that were bullied 30 years ago, and it’s still the same today,” she continued, to loud applause from the audience.
Former superintendent Parlapanides resigned over the weekend after he tried to shift blame for Kuch’s suicide to her family, claiming her father’s “affair” and her own drug use caused turmoil in her life.
The former district head revealed personal family information, telling the Daily Mail that Kuch’s father, Michael, was having an affair when Adriana was in sixth grade causing, his daughter’s “grades and choices declined in 7th and 8th grade.”
Michael Kuch told The Post Saturday he wanted “the entire administration gone.”
He said Adriana never received drug treatment and said she had merely been experimenting with THC pens like other teenagers.
At a press conference with reporters before the meeting, Corbett vaguely responded to questions on how he plans to ensure that a tragedy like this doesn’t happen again.
“I think the biggest problems we’ve had is communication, and one of the things that I’m definitely going to do better is to communicate the good things that we’re doing, the services that we provide, the responses that we already have in place, so parents mostly, most importantly the students, understand that we’re here to help always.”
Corbett said the district’s current Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying [HIB] policy complies with all state law and Department of Education requirements.
When asked how he will assure parents that if their students are bullied they will not be bullied again, Corbett said saying “there’s a range of consequences” in those kinds of situations.
“What we can speak to and I think what can be aggravating at times, is of course consequences follow but I can’t tell the victim’s parents what those consequences are.”
He said the school does have a resources officer and two safety officers on campus if violence breaks out at the school.
Corbett said he disagreed that there was an ongoing culture of violence at the school, as some parents and former students have claimed.
“That has not been my experience at all. Based on our data alone it doesn’t indicate that we’re a culture of violence. We don’t condone that. We actually do everything in our power to dissuade that. I don’t want to argue with parents that I’ve never had a productive and positive conversation with but no I’m sorry I don’t agree that we have a culture of violence.”