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After assaults, soul-searching over towns’ rivalry

Swampscott teens hurt in Marblehead

By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / February 10, 2011

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Even before three Swampscott football players were struck down with a metal pipe in front of about 40 Marblehead teenagers, there was little love between the two towns. But after the Jan. 20 attack that sent the Swampscott High students to hospitals with head injuries, tensions escalated further in the two-town rivalry that usually plays out on athletic fields and in gyms.

Marblehead police are still investigating the bloody brawl that has led to one arrest: a 16-year-old Marblehead High student who was arraigned last month in Lynn Juvenile Court on two counts of aggravated assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Marblehead Police Chief Robert Picariello said detectives are still interviewing students who were on the scene and would not rule out further arrests.

Swampscott High School junior Dan Copeland, 16, said some students are still shocked by the attack, and that it has caused some to reexamine the meaning of the competition between the towns.

“I think it made kids take a step back and think how ridiculous the actual rivalry is, and that kids are just taking it too far,’’ he said.

In these communities, where residents take pride in student achievement — this year six Marblehead students were accepted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Swampscott regularly sends students to Ivy League schools — tempers traditionally boil over around Thanksgiving, when the towns’ football teams play.

For decades, fistfights have occurred before and after those games, and on occasion after events such as dances or parties. But as details of the most recent assault have become public, many longtime residents acknowledged that these two small, relatively upscale coastal towns are not insulated from the violence that plagues teenagers in larger urban cities.

“I don’t think there are towns where this can’t happen,’’ said Ken Weinstein, the Marblehead High School principal who lives in town.

Although Picariello and educators said the brawl had little to do with the rivalry, students and parents said it helped flame the dispute, which began over a Facebook comment, according to Marblehead Superintendent Paul Dulac. The online argument — which several people said centered around a comment about a girl — escalated into threats, and a fight was planned behind Marblehead High School. Marblehead educators learned about the planned altercation beforehand and notified police, who dispersed a large group of students from behind the school, according to the police report.

Picariello declined to comment on the details, but according to the police report, the brawl took place about 3:30 p.m., an hour after police left the high school. According to a relative of one of the three victims, who declined to be named, the mob targeted a student who earlier in his senior year had moved to Marblehead but continued to attend Swampscott High.

When the group arrived at the 17-year-old’s house on Rowland Street in Marblehead, he walked outside with two friends from Swampscott. The three teens were quickly set upon by at least one pipe-wielding boy from Marblehead, according to the police report. The victims were found “bleeding profusely from their heads.’’ The three victims — two of whom are 17 and the third 18 — were brought to North Shore Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital.

All three were treated for concussions and have returned to school, said the relative of one of the victims. He said the teen he is related to required stitches in his forehead and 14 staples in the back of his head.

Dulac said nonviolence training is included in the district’s antibullying curriculum and that the recent attack is reflective of an increasingly violent society. “I think that there is excessive violence exposure on a daily basis to our kids, and that’s why I ask parents to engage in governing their activities and censoring when they have to,’’ Dulac said.

The bloody brawl marks the second event in two years that involved Marblehead students. In 2009, two former Marblehead students targeted a 16-year-old outside of a convenience store, dragged him into a nearby cemetery, and beat him until one of his eyes was swollen shut. After the attack, they stole his cellphone and forced the victim to allow them into his house, where they also stole an iPod. Last July, the two attackers, both 18 at the time, pleaded guilty to two counts of assault and battery causing serious bodily injury, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, larceny, and witness intimidation. Michael Elhert was sentenced to 3 1/2 years; Michael Leoni was ordered to serve 18 months of a 2 1/2-year sentence.

Since the street fight in January, officials from the two school districts have met, along with the town’s police chiefs. At Swampscott High School, educators led a schoolwide assembly to stress the need for nonviolence. In Marblehead, Weinstein has spoken to students between classes on the public address system about the importance of making good decisions, and has also urged students to send anonymous e-mails to school administrators about anything that could endanger the school population.

“It’s about helping kids become more aware when they’re about to make a destructive decision,’’ said Weinstein.

Earlier this year, Swampscott introduced a new year-round “chemical health’’ policy that calls for banning students from extracurricular activities if they are caught with drugs or alcohol. When asked if Swampscott was considering a similar policy for students involved in violence, Superintendent Lynne Celli said the district follows the existing disciplinary policy in its student handbook. That policy allows the district to expel students who have been convicted of a felony.

Regarding the three Swampscott students who were injured in the January fight, Celli said: “There is no discipline for the Swampscott High School students necessary, based on what I know from the police report.’’

Dulac and Celli stressed there had been no fights or disputes at recent athletic events. Still, Dulac said there will be extra police on duty, along with teachers, at the next boys’ basketball game between the two schools on Feb. 18 in Marblehead.

Picariello, the Marblehead police chief, declined to say if his department has stepped up its surveillance of teens in town.

“Everybody’s safe in my town to the degree I can make them safe,’’ he said.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com.

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