Mahar responding to online videos of student fistfights

  • Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 1/24/2020 9:23:15 PM
Modified: 1/24/2020 9:23:02 PM

ORANGE — In one video, a Mahar student is thrown to the tiled floor. He crumples into a ball. Covering his face with his arms, he is helpless as he is repeatedly punched.

More than 30 videos of real fights have appeared on an Instagram page, “” With more than 200 followers, the page featured fistfights between students at Ralph C. Mahar Regional School, many on school grounds, as well as fights outside of school, and at other high schools, like Athol or Gardner.

That page has been set to “private” by the unknown owner, so it’s unclear if there are any videos up currently.

“I was disgusted by it,” said Mahar senior MaryAnne Prescott, of Orange, who viewed the page in November after hearing about it from a friend.

In the videos, Prescott saw her own classmates fighting, or crowding around a fight as spectators, or filming with their cellphones. She recognized past classmates, too, and in another, teachers and the principal attempt to break apart a fight between two girls, who continue punching.

Even more disturbing, Prescott said, were the numerous comments, likes and views each video garnered, and the hundreds of page followers. Captions like “Who do you think won?” encouraged a culture of violence, she said.

“I knew fights happen in high school,” she said, “but this had captions trying to get people to talk and debate the fights, promoting violence.”

Prescott’s article, “Instagram Account Humiliates Mahar School Culture,” appeared in the school’s media outlet, The Red & Blue Review, Wednesday, prompting a response from students and, possibly, from the page’s anonymous administrator. Within an hour of releasing the story, Prescott visited the page to find the videos were being deleted, and the comments being “washed away.”

Now, the page’s settings have blocked any outside viewers.

Mahar Principal Scott Hemlin, in a phone interview Friday, said that he and School Resource Officer Chad Softic were made aware of the videos several weeks ago, and have attempted to have them taken down. Unfortunately, Instagram was unable to abide the request.

“We wanted it removed,” Hemlin said. “It’s promoting violence.”

Hemlin said he doesn’t know which student — if it is indeed a student — administers the page, though he and Softic have had some suspects. Fighting aside, the videos themselves could be a violation of school policy, with the Mahar handbook disallowing videos being posted online that create a “disruption” at school, he said.

Hemlin said he met with other staff today and they are planning a “social media awareness night” for parents. He said viral fight videos, as well as viral online challenges, like a “light socket challenge,” have dangerous consequences, as well as leave a lasting digital “footprint” that could make it harder for students to find jobs or housing in the future.

It would be a “positive outcome,” Hemlin said, if the videos simply stay offline and the anonymous owner learns from his or her actions.

But what’s frustrating is the videos give a “false impression,” said Hemlin, who has been at Mahar since 2007 and has been principal for the last six years.

“It’s just frustrating that this is not an accurate portrayal of this school,” he said.

Hemlin said the page was misleading, too, because not all of the videos were from Mahar, and some were several years old. He said he has talked with educators at other schools, and believes Mahar, in reality, has “considerably less” fights than other schools.

“We’re just like every high school in America,” he said. “There are fights, but we’re fortunate to not have as many as some other places.”

Fighting at Mahar is one of the reasons the school has closed all but one of its bathrooms in the high school and middle school each. Hemlin was clear that fighting wasn’t the only reason, with issues like vaping and the viral “slapboxing” phenomenon — where students take turns slapping each other until one gives up — also informing his decision, but the bathrooms were closed a few weeks ago.

“We thought of what types of steps we could put in place immediately,” Hemlin said. “Safety is the most important thing.”

According to Prescott, the majority of fights she saw on took place in the boys bathrooms. She said the school has implemented other rules, like only three people being allowed in a bathroom at a time, and often has teachers posted outside of bathrooms.

“From past years at Mahar, it was never like this,” said Prescott, who has been at the school for all six years offered. “The atmosphere has slumped, big time. … I will get out of lunch and go to the bathroom but have to wait in line.”

Prescott said she agrees with Hemlin that fights do not seem to be specifically a problem for Mahar, and that “you never really see them.” On the other hand, Prescott said she realized “there was plenty more than I thought was going on” when she saw the bathroom videos.

In any case, the page’s videos and comments reflect poorly on Mahar’s culture, Prescott said.

“Since the last senior class left, the culture has really gotten worse,” Prescott said. “It’s not the teachers’ fault, it’s the students’ fault, and it’s up to us to take back our school.”

“It’s not just fights,” she added. “It’s just as simple as school spirit at football games and at basketball games.”

Principal Hemlin said he thinks educators are “slowly” starting to get the right messages across about social media, but more work needs to be done to ensure students don’t post things online that could damage reputations or inspire violence or dangerousness.

He said there are a large number of students at Mahar, like Prescott, who want to do the right thing, and that pieces like Prescott’s article can affect change.

“It’s the students’ school. The school belongs to them,” Hemlin said. “We are here to help and support them.”

The superintendent and chair of the School Committee did not respond to an email requesting comment by press time.

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