Criminal Charge Weighed For Failure To Report Montville High 'Fight Clubs'

The state Department of Children and Families has referred Montville school officials to the state’s top prosecutor for failing to report that a substitute teacher allowed — and even encouraged — students to hit each other in one-on-one fights in his high school math class last year.

The agency made the referral to the Chief State’s Attorney’s office in January, DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said Friday.

It’s not clear whether any action will be taken. The office’s policy is to refrain from commenting on referrals, although all are reviewed and acted upon “as appropriate,” spokesman Mark Dupuis said late Friday afternoon.

State Child Advocate Sarah Healy Eagan said the failure of officials to report the fights at Montville High School is “egregious.” The school system knew about the fights in October, but didn’t tell DCF or police — including its own school resource officer, police said.

“It should have been a priority to make sure authorities were contacted and that families were in-the-know about what was occurring,” Healy Eagan said.

School employees are among the professionals required to report suspected child abuse under the state’s mandated reporter law. The crime is classified as Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. Under certain circumstances, it could be considered a Class E felony, Dupuis said.

Brian Levesque, Montville’s superintendent of schools, said in a telephone interview Friday that he and other school staff members saw a video clip of a fight on Oct. 10, the Tuesday after Columbus Day weekend. It showed what Levesque referred to as “slapping or horseplay” that apparently took place the Friday before, on Oct. 6. The substitute teacher, Ryan Fish, 23, of Bozrah was fired later in the day.

While what he saw on the video was “inappropriate,” Levesque said it didn’t rise to the level of alerting authorities. It wasn’t until December — when police started investigating — that he saw other video clips, he said.

“If I had known in October what I knew in December, I would have [reported it],” Levesque said.

His assertion that he saw one video conflicts with the warrant for Fish’s arrest. Assistant Principal Tatiana Patton told School Resource Officer Karen Moorehead in December that “multiple cellphone videos had surfaced” on Oct. 10, not just one, according to the document.

Levesque also said no one was injured in the fight, although the warrant alludes to a student who suffered a bloody nose, one who vomited during a fight and a third showed signs of emotional trauma.

The superintendent pointed out in a written statement that the school system took “immediate action” by firing Fish.

Fish couldn’t be reached for comment Friday morning. A woman who picked up the phone said he was sleeping and hung up.

When interviewed by investigators, Fish told police “I’m an idiot” who just wanted to be friends with the students, according to the warrant for his arrest. He also told them, “I will admit that I did at one point egg them on.”

He was arrested Thursday and charged with four counts of second-degree reckless endangerment, two counts of risk of injury to a minor and one count of breach of peace.

Montville police began investigating reports of what they called a “fight club” at Montville High in mid-December. They learned that the fights happened in a classroom under Fish’s supervision and that four boys, ranging in age from 14 to 16, were involved, police said.

In interviews with police, Fish said that the fights started in September, and that he thinks there were four all together, according to the warrant. Police said they have evidence — students’ cellphone videos — of two fights.

Levesque said he has no comment on why school officials didn’t know about the fights earlier except to say, “I was quite surprised that the students didn’t share that.”

The boys who squared off seemed to be unevenly matched, police said, with one much smaller than the other. Fish’s involvement ranged from passively allowing the timed fights to counting down to a face-off, the warrant said. He also cleared the floor so students would have room to fight, it said.

According to the warrant, a DCF social worker and juvenile court liaison told police on Dec. 14 that a student who showed up in court with “real and identifiable symptoms of having been traumatized.”

The boy, whom police called Victim 1, reported that he had been robbed and beaten at Montville High by other students. He was taken to the hospital for a mental health evaluation, the warrant said.

The next day, Moorehead, the school resource officer, talked to Patton, the assistant principal, and learned that the school system had known about a “fight club” since Oct. 10, the warrant said.

On Dec. 18, Sgt. Mark Juhola, the resident state trooper, met with the superintendent and showed him a cellphone video from a concerned parent. The video “clearly showed a classroom and two students swinging full force at each other’s heads with open-handed strikes,” according to the warrant. It also showed an adult employee, identified as Fish, standing in the background.

Police began getting details about the fights from students. One fight ended when a student began vomiting into a trash can, another stopped when a student stumbled. Fish restarted the second fight when the student was able to stand up straight, the warrant said.

Juhola on Friday called it “disturbing” that fights were allowed, and encouraged, in class.

“It bothered me quite a bit. I was appalled,” he said. “It gets into a mob mentality, and that is absolutely scary. It just makes the hair on the back of my neck completely stand up.”

Eagan said it’s troubling that if the DCF social worker and juvenile probation officials hadn’t noticed Victim 1’s condition, no one would have known about the fights.

“I think DCF did a really good job of noticing what occurred here, and being really sensitive to the needs of the student and of the family.”

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