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BERLIN, Md. (DelmarvaNow.com) A racist Instagram post that surfaced on social media networks last week was not an isolated incident.
The post was in response to a fight between black and white Stephen Decatur High School students that occurred Jan. 21 in the hallway at dismissal time, said an anonymous Stephen Decatur student, who provided video of two fights to The Daily Times.
"The post was started because someone was jumped during school," said the student, who The Daily Times is not identifying because of the volatility of emotions at Decatur.
Racial slurs filled the hallway during the Jan. 21 fight as two black students and a white Stephen Decatur junior tussled while a cluster of people surrounded the fight, the cellphone video shows. A second fight, also recorded, involved a black student and white student in a McDonald's parking lot in Berlin. That ended with a white student on the ground, grabbing his head after he was punched several times, the video shows.
Both Stephen Decatur High School Principal Tom Zimmer and Worcester County Superintendent of Schools Jerry Wilson said Wednesday there is not evidence the two fights were fueled by race.
"I don't think there's an issue. I think people have issues," Zimmer said. "Whatever their background happens to be, but if you're asking me, 'Do I think we have a racial issue in my school?' I'm saying no."
And the school is safe, Zimmer said.
"It's a safe environment for all kids," he said. Nonetheless, law-enforcement authorities have beefed up their presence inside and outside the school.
And the student who provided the videos believes race is a factor in the tensions.
"I disagree with him very strongly," the student said about Zimmer's statements. "I do agree that the whole school was not involved because that is completely true, because the whole school was not involved. But it was definitely racial at this point."
Decatur is cliquey, the anonymous student said. And it grew to this clique disagreeing with this clique, and there happens to be a color difference.
"But now, it's getting to the point where people in the cliques are saying, 'It's race against race.' "
The Instagram post that went online after the fights depicted a noose and was posted by another Decatur student. The user under the same name made a tweet using the hashtag #RaceWarWeek.
In the video taken at the school, the two black students attack the white male student from multiple angles. Numerous punches were thrown as the fight moved from walls to lockers on each side of the hallway. Near the end of the video, a female black student charges toward the white male, landing a punch to his head that pushed it into the wall.
The white male removes his jacket as the students exchange slurs, and students seem to disperse as the video ends.
Zimmer and Wilson have both seen videos of the fights, and the one that happened in school was recorded on school surveillance.
"I was disturbed by what I saw," Wilson said, adding, "You don't want to see that happening in our school or in our environment around our schools and with our students."
Following the school fight, the Instagram post hit the web on Jan. 21. The following day, another fight ensued as a friend of the white student wanted to talk it out, the anonymous student said.
After a half day on Jan. 22, students met in the parking lot between the Berlin McDonald's and Stephen Decatur High School. Another fight ensued.
This one was much shorter, between one black student and one white one. As the fight began, the black student tackles the white male and lands seven hay makers to the white student's face while sitting on his chest.
Other students rush to the injured student on the ground, who is still for a few moments before grabbing his head.
"The first one wasn't as bad because the person who was attacked knew how to defend himself. But the second video, it was vicious," the anonymous student said, pausing. "It was cruel, and I can't even find the words to describe it."
A Worcester County Sheriff's deputy responded to the Berlin McDonald's at about 12:14 p.m. Jan. 22, according to a Worcester County Sheriff's Office incident report.
The victim, who is only described as a white juvenile male, "was extremely uncooperative and stated he did not want any police involvement or charges filed," the report states.
The suspect is listed as a 16-year-old black juvenile male. The names were redacted in the report.
The victim had red marks on his face consistent with being assaulted, the report states, but he declined medical attention. An adult female, who is not named in the report, said she would take the boy home.
"Deputy Clarke spoke with Cpl. Mumford on the scene, who advised there was no further action to be taken if [redacted name] did not wish to press charges," the report states.
"Since then, we've taken extra steps — extra people in the parking lot before school, after school and walking through the school," Sheriff's Office Lt. Neil Adams said Wednesday.
The victim in the second video is learning from home for now, but it's not because he wasn't safe at the school, Zimmer said.
"He's staying home because he's had an injury as a result of that fight. He's had an injury, and he'll be home for a couple weeks," Zimmer said. "We as a school system need to provide him with the appropriate education, and then he'll be back."
Principal Zimmer spoke to each of the grade levels at the school on Tuesday about respecting each other, needing to get along and using social media responsibly.
"Clearly my message to the kids has been, 'We are a Decatur family. Much like my own family at home, sometimes you have disputes, sometimes you have arguments, sometimes you have disagreements and those things happen, but in a family, you work it out,' " Zimmer said.
Superintendent Wilson praised the Stephen Decatur High School administration.
"I think the administration's being proactive in this case in learning about what's taking place, in working with the situation, very challenging situation here at Stephen Decatur High School," Wilson said.
Stephen Decatur High School students Ben Cropper and Tyler Hall, who are both white, said they felt the incident was "blown out of proportion."
People have disputes no matter their races, Cropper said.
"Doesn't matter if he's white, black, blue, green, brown or orange," he said.
Jalen Mumford, a student at Stephen Decatur High School who is black, said he believes the fight has to do with a disagreement or argument.
He doesn't think the school has a race issue, and he doesn't feel threatened at school.
"I myself feel like there's nothing really racially going on at the school," Mumford said.
And a racist social media post may annoy others, but it doesn't have an effect on him.
"I, myself, I just look at it and laugh," Mumford said. "I think it's real corny, myself."
Cropper said everyone has their own take.
"In my opinion, people should just look at it and not care," Cropper said, referring to social media.
David Bernal-Clark, a Stephen Decatur High School graduate, said he can't stand racism.
"It's just a few kids," Bernal-Clark wrote in a Facebook message. "As a whole the school is good with diversity and everyone getting along. But all in all the school isn't a bad or dangerous place. Just like anywhere you're gonna have kids that don't like each other and this time they took it too far, and that's why all of this is happening."
Social media's effect
The anonymous student called the racist Instagram post idiotic and unhelpful.
"I thought it was stupid," the student said. "I thought it shouldn't have been posted, but they can post what they want and that's their choice."
Leland Ware, a University of Delaware expert on civil rights and interim director of the school of Public Policy and Administration, said the First Amendment rights, in this case, would allow students to post their opinion on Instagram.
The school would only be able to intervene in two ways — if the post happened on school property or equipment and if it caused a disruption to the environment.
Since the anonymous source said students received threats, and the social media aspect caused such a stir, Ware said the school reacted in the correct way by intervening.
"In that case, I think it was appropriate for the school to investigate this incident and decide what actions should be taken," Ware said.
When a school is made aware of social media activity that is disruptive to the school environment, the following actions are taken, according to the Worcester school system's protocol:
The student is immediately interviewed to investigate the activity. Parents are contacted and informed of the activity. Every effort is made to have inappropriate postings deleted. Consequences are determined based on a student's previous violations, the severity of the activity and the specifics gleaned from the investigation. If criminal activity is suspected, law enforcement is contacted. A student may be referred to school counseling or services available in the community, depending on the outcome of the investigation.
Last week, the user's Instagram account was deleted, as well as his Twitter account that had tweeted "#RaceWarWeek."
Said Zimmer: "I am confident we've handled the situation."
Before the Twitter account was deleted, the user sent one final tweet reading, "They made me delete my Instagram."
Ware also said the schools' step to have a grade-by-grade meeting soon after these disturbances was necessary.
These kinds of tweets and posts happen in schools everywhere he said. Social media allows anonymous arguing that would not occur in person-to-person conversations.
Most importantly, it can spread quickly, he added.
"It can heighten it," Ware said. "It can make it more than it should be. It can definitely cause an uproar."
Zimmer said he believes that the proactive response by the school has stamped out the possibility of this continuing to escalate.
Despite the racially charged language in the videos, Zimmer said all evidence and interviews with students point to it not being racially motivated.
"I would say social media has given it an extra boost and charge and is pushing it out there as (racism)," he said.
He added the school would do everything they can to stop any student from being further hurt.
Hall, one of the students, said Wednesday he doesn't feel threatened because of the incidents.
But, he added, some people might be scared, and he hopes it doesn't get out of hand.
"It could happen again," he said. "And it could be a lot worse."
Daily Times staff writer Phil Davis and WUSA9 contributed to this report.