A group of concerned parents is calling for additional measures to combat what they described as a recent increase in violent incidents and threats against students in the local public school system.
Stephanie Luce, of Topsham, told the Maine School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors during its meeting on Sept. 14 that her son, a sophomore at Topsham’s Mt. Ararat High School, had a gun pointed at him by another Mt. Ararat student during an incident at the Topsham Fair in August.
“It’s unnerving for him,” Luce said about her son, whose name is being withheld by the Harpswell Anchor because he is a minor. “He hears people talking about this often. I just hope this is taken with the utmost seriousness and that my child, as well as his friends and all of the other students that go here, can come to school and feel safe, because right now my kid is not even going to school because he doesn’t feel safe.”
Jessica Damon, of Bowdoin, told the school board that her son who attends the high school also feels “unsafe and insecure” following the incident, as do several of his friends.
According to Damon, the fair incident involved a Mt. Ararat freshman who allegedly assaulted four kids, all of whom attend MSAD 75 schools. The district covers Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham.
“He punched two of them, put his hands around the neck of another and held a lighter to his face, and one (student) had a gun cocked and pointed at him,” Damon said. “You heard me right — a freshman here at (Mt. Ararat) pulled a gun on another (Mt. Ararat) student and assaulted three others. He also threatened the same student with knives on their return to (the high school) this fall.”
She criticized school officials for not suspending the alleged perpetrator despite parents expressing “grave concern for the safety of the threatened student and all others.”
“That student, however, was allowed to go to school, and he is attending school with your kids and mine,” Damon said.
Topsham police Lt. William Collins did not return multiple calls seeking to confirm details of the incident, but district officials have sent two recent letters to parents, one of which references “a violent incident involving MSAD 75 and other students at the Topsham Fair several weeks ago.”
That letter, issued Aug. 27 by Mt. Ararat High School Principal Chris Hoffman, says in part: “We take such threats very seriously, and have spent considerable time … investigating these incidents and threats as they relate to the start of the (Mt. Ararat) school year. We thank the Topsham Police Department for their collaboration in this matter. We have worked hard to determine all of what happened, who was involved, what was said, and ultimately to evaluate if any risk exists. At this time, I reiterate that we do not believe that there is any elevated risk to our students and community.”
But Luce, Damon and parent Tracy Gregoire, of Topsham, told the school board their kids don’t feel safe. They asked for greater transparency from school officials and additional safety and security measures to prevent future threats.
“I recently heard of three people being threatened by one person at the school, separate from this (the alleged Topsham Fair incident),” Gregoire told the school board. “It’s just not acceptable. We all know that kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe.”
In a letter dated Saturday, Sept. 16, MSAD 75 interim Superintendent of Schools Heidi O’Leary sought to alleviate parents’ concerns.
“First and foremost, we want to reassure our community that the safety and well-being of our students are of paramount importance to us,” O’Leary’s letter states in part. “From the moment we became aware of the incident at the Topsham Fair, we initiated a thorough and diligent investigation into the allegations. Our commitment to safety remains unwavering, and we will continue to be vigilant in addressing any emerging concerns.”
In her letter, O’Leary said the district is considering additional security measures such as adding metal detectors and/or an additional resource officer at the high school. She also said the district would continue to review its policies to ensure they are “up-to-date and responsive to the needs of our students and the community.”
Two days later, Topsham Police Chief Marc Hagan issued another letter, posted to MSAD 75’s Facebook page, about a bomb threat aimed at Mt. Ararat Middle School, also in Topsham.
The Monday, Sept. 18, letter says a bomb threat had been left on a school staff member’s voicemail over the prior weekend, and that students and staff were re-routed to the high school early Monday while police contacted the Maine State Police Bomb Squad.
“A search of the school by two State Police K-9 units was completed without locating any explosive devices,” the letter says, adding that middle school students were released and sent home for the day. “The Topsham Police Department will continue to work with MSAD 75 officials to investigate the bomb threat and attempt to determine its origin.”
The Times Record reported that a second bomb threat against the middle school was made via voicemail around 7 p.m. on Monday, but classes resumed Tuesday with a heightened police presence at the middle school and the nearby high school.
At the Sept. 14 school board meeting, Damon, the Bowdoin parent, said the Topsham Fair incident was only one recent example of “escalating violence” within the district, and that school officials need to do more to ensure students’ safety.
Damon said a no-contact order has been imposed on the alleged perpetrator of the fair incident, but that the student violated it “after only a week.” She acknowledged that school officials have met with concerned parents several times in recent weeks but said more needs to be done.
“We’ve essentially been told not to worry, that there are measures in place and there’s no risk,” Damon told the school board. “That’s not enough.”
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