After Teen Bullying Death, NJ District Hires $125/Hour Damage Control Firm
In the wake of a student's suicide, an embattled school district has contracted a high-powered public relations firm to clean up its image after the sudden resignation of the superintendent, who trashed the teenager and her family to the media.
Taxpayers will foot Central Regional School District's $3,000 retainer with Princeton Strategic Communications for 24 billable hours, plus an additional $125 per hour for additional consulting work related to the scandal surrounding the attack and death of 14-year-old Adriana Kuch.
The Trenton-based firm is an arm of Princeton Public Affairs Group, one of the state's top lobbying firms.
On Thursday, school officials held a news conference hours before a public Board of Education meeting. At least two public relations professionals from the PR firm were handling media inquiries.
The firm was hired on Monday, District Business Administrator Kevin O'Shea said.
The firm's website says that "each organization has its own unique set of strengths, challenges, and opportunities. Our role is to help organizations determine the best tools for telling their story, then utilize our experience in each area to help them achieve their goals."
Most school districts do not hire public relations firms, although they are allowed to under state regulations.
Death of Adriana Kuch
The death of Adriana Kuch shook the school community — which includes students from Berkeley Township, Island Heights, Ocean Gate, Seaside Heights and Seaside Park.
Outrage grew after a video spread on social media showing several students repeatedly assaulting Kuch with 20-ounce water bottles and kicking her as she lay on the school floor.
School district taking action
During a news conference Thursday afternoon, Acting Superintendent Douglas Corbett declined to directly discuss the specifics of the bullying case involving Adriana Kuch, just explaining that they're working to prevent further bullying incidents.
Corbett said the school board is considering updating its policies.
"In reviewing our protocols, we want to emphasize and clarify that our current harassment and intimidation and bullying policy and procedures are current and comply with all state laws and Department of Education's requirements," Corbett said.
He also said that bullying incidents that are reported are looked into but that they don't release the findings to the public.
"All complaints filed by students, family members, or others in our school community are documented and investigated," Corbett said. "The outcomes of these investigations are confidential as required by FERPA and the New Jersey Student Privacy requirements."
Throughout the course of a given school year, Corbett said that there are resources and services for physical and emotional health including those that relate to bullying. Students learn about these resources through programs, training sessions and assemblies.
Corbett said that the district has policies to address reported bullying incidents that include a committee comprised of parents and community leaders.
They've also brought on an outside party to review their bullying and cell phone policies.
'Culture of violence' at school?
"Prospective initiatives include organizing a standing committee including parents, and community leaders to evaluate and update our approach to bullying and other issues, retaining an outside party to examine our policies and our response to crisis, reviewing our districts cell phone policies," Corbett said.
They also plan to establish a toll-free hotline run by an outside entity "for students to call anonymously if they wish if they feel threatened physically or online."
Parents and students within the Central Regional Schools community have been calling for action and change of policy in wake of the recent tragedy, something that Corbett says the board plans to provide answers on.
"We also need to recognize and understand better the social pressures and interactions that could lead to and encourage malicious behavior. We need to observe, we need to listen and respond to pleas for help, diffuse tensions and where we can, identify ill will before it's carried out."
In addressing the claims by parents and students that Central has a "culture of violence", Corbett explained that there have been bullying incidents but disagreed with the phrase regarding the incidents.
"I disagree with that, that has not been my experience at all," Corbett said. "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."
When asked what the school district's plan would be with informing Berkeley Township Police and/or the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office to report any and all physical bullying incidents, so that law enforcement can investigate whether or not the incident rises to a criminal level, Corbett declined to answer directly.
"We have an excellent relationship with both those agencies you just mentioned, we're going to continue to work with them," Corbett said.
Students were suspended and charged
The four students seen on video physically abusing Kuch were all suspended indefinitely by the Central Regional School District and then criminally charged by the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office.
One of the students with aggravated assault, two with conspiracy to commit aggravated assault and the other with harassment, Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer previously told the Associated Press. All four were released pending a future court appearance.
Students and parents call for bullying policy change at Central Regional High School
Upon learning of her suicide and what led to it, students walked out of school this month to call for change, saying their previous calls were being ignored in trying to expose a problem with bullying incidents that's been taking place for years.
Central Regional Schools Superintendent resigns following bullying death of student
Central Regional Schools Superintendent Triantafillos "Tommy" Parlapanides resigned this weekend after making inflammatory statements about the 14-year-old and her father Michael Kuch, which were published by the Daily Mail.
Parlapanides was quoted as saying that the teen's mother died by suicide in 2016 during an affair and that Adriana had a drug problem and that she refused drug rehab and mental health services. Her father called the statements an "insane deflection" by the superintendent.
New Jersey getting involved in the investigation at Central Regional
Gov. Phil Murphy was pressed by reporters this week and later shared that a bullying investigative review of what happened at Central Regional High School is possible in the weeks to come.