Dozens recount years of harassment at Ocean County school following student’s death by suicide

By: - February 17, 2023 3:35 pm

Dozens of students, caregivers, and community members spoke at a school board meeting on Feb. 16, 2023, in Bayville to criticize the Central Regional School District’s handling of a student’s recent death by suicide. (Photo by Aedy Miller)

During the first Central Regional School District school board meeting following the death by suicide of one of the district’s students, hundreds of students, caregivers, and community members criticized the district for failing to address what they called pervasive incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

“I’ve been called slurs, had stuff thrown at me. I’ve had people try to jump me because I’m gay,” said Milo Lugo, a junior at the district’s high school.

Lugo said he’s experienced multiple mental health crises “because of things that have happened to me in this school.”

“I’ve just been told to ignore it, to be the bigger person, walk away,” said Lugo.

Sophomore Roman Valez said, “When people ask me about my experiences at Central Regional, it’s not ‘I went to CR,’ it’s “I survived CR.’”

Melissa Hickey, of Bayville, has a daughter who is a senior in the high school. Teachers are bullying students as much as students are bullying each other, she said.

“How are we supposed to expect the students to learn not to bully and to be better when they’re learning it from their educators?” said Hickey to applause.

Central Regional High School student Adriana Kuch, 14, died by suicide on Feb. 3. Days earlier, video circulated around the school and on social media showing her being attacked by classmates, her family has told the media.

Kuch’s death stunned people in the Ocean County district, a mood that turned to outrage after the district’s now-former superintendent, Triantafillos Parlapanides, made disparaging remarks about Kuch and her family in emails to reporters. Parlapanides resigned last week.

Four juveniles have been charged in the case, one with aggravated assault, two with conspiracy to aggravated assault, and one with harassment, according to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.

During a press conference before Thursday’s board meeting, acting Superintendent Douglas Corbett disputed the claim that there is a “culture of violence” in the district, which draws about 2,300 middle and high schoolers from Berkeley Township, Island Heights, Ocean Gate, Seaside Heights, and Seaside Park.

Corbett announced a preliminary action plan to improve the district’s ability to prevent and respond to cases of bullying. The plan includes retaining an outside party to examine its policies and response to this crisis, reviewing the district’s cell phone policy, establishing a toll-free hotline to report physical or virtual threats, and other initiatives.

Denise Cavone-Wilson, the school board’s president, said during Thursday’s meeting that the district is devastated by Kuch’s death and that it “does not condone fighting or bullying of any kind.” She said the board is unable to answer questions related to the student’s death and any ongoing investigations, citing student privacy laws. Nor could the board discuss Parlapanides due to employment protection laws, she said.

Emotions were raw during Thursday’s meeting. Family members told the board about their children’s mental health struggles due to bullying and online harassment, while many current and former students shared their experiences of intimidation and violence going back decades. Some parents said they’ve gone as far as telling their children to defend themselves if they get into a fight, even though their children would face disciplinary consequences.

Between the 2017-2018 and 2020-2021 school years, the district reported 130 unique incidents of violence, vandalism, harassment, intimidation and bullying, and substance offenses, according to New Jersey Department of Education data. This averages to 32.5 per school year.

The Department of Education notes that discipline data from 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 may be incomplete due to the pandemic. Several parents who spoke at the meeting said virtual schooling provided their children a reprieve from bullying they haven’t had since.

Sidney Mohel, who dropped out of Central Regional High School two years ago, said a teacher there continuously bullied him, leading him to look into an alternative education path outside of the school, such as getting a GED. He said when he told this to a guidance counselor, they told him, “Grow up, this is the real world, you got to suck it up.”

“I’ve been out of the school district for two years, and I’ve got to say, I’ve never met a single person who’s ever treated me the way those adults have,” he said.

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Aedy Miller
Aedy Miller

aedy miller is a multimedia journalist most often found in the Pinelands or at the Shore, writing about mental health and the climate crisis. They previously covered education and labor for the USA Today Network in South Jersey.