The last time Haille Engesser saw her best friend Adriana Kuch, they hugged and said how much they loved each other.
Haille, 16, told The Independent in an interview on Friday that Adriana was a gentle soul who didn’t talk much about her problems, and didn’t let on that she was being bullied.
“She would always just say she was fine. I think she was scared of saying something,” Haille said.
Days later on 1 February, Adriana, 14, was viciously attacked in a hallway at Central Regional High School (CRHS) in Berkeley Township, New Jersey.
A video of the gang attack was later posted to TikTok. It showed the freshman walking down a hallway with her boyfriend when a student launched at her and hit her over the head with a water bottle.
As Adriana fell to the ground and lost consciousness, the student continued to punch her in the head and pull her hair, drawing cheers from a watching crowd.
The footage went viral on social media, with some taunting Adriana in comments.
Two days later, she was found dead in her family’s Bayville home.
In previous public statements, Adriana’s father Michael Kuch blamed her suicide on the school’s inaction in dealing with bullying and its failure to file a police complaint.
He told NJ.com that had the school opened an investigation into the attack after it happened, the video of the incident might not have been posted to social media.
District superintendent Triantafillos Parlapanides responded to criticism of the school’s handling of the bullying by pushing the blame for Adriana’s suicide onto drugs and her parents’ marriage in a statement to DailyMail.com.
His remarks drew a furious response from Mr Kuch and Adriana’s classmates, who staged a walkout in protest. Last week, Mr Parlapanides resigned suddenly after 14 years in the job.
More alarming stories emerged at a heated board meeting on Thursday night of students being threatened and beaten. Several students said when they took their claims to teachers, they did nothing.
Furious parents, including Mr Kuch, are now taking legal action against the school district and its administrators.
‘I wish the school had stepped in’
Haille told The Independent that she was no stranger to bullying, having been called “anorexic” or “pencil” at middle school. She decided at an early age not to put up with it, and said she had gotten in trouble for confronting her tormentors.
After she enrolled at CRHS last September, she said a male student had made unwelcome advances towards her. When she told him she wasn’t interested, she said he threatened to bring a gun to school and shoot her, and stab her with scissors.
Haille said she was aware of the same student making similar threats to other students, and lodged a formal complaint with administrators. She claimed that they “laughed in her face” about it.
She and her mother Cherice Anthony filed a police report with Berkeley Township Police over the threats. Police went to the school to do a wellness check on the boy. Haille alleged the boy left the school soon afterwards.
“I wish the school had stepped in. It’s scary, because nowadays students actually do bring guns to school,” she said.
Haille added that she had seen Instagram accounts that glorified bullying and fighting at the school. She said her own image had been posted to another Instagram page which showed pictures of students taken while they were asleep without their consent.
“People should not feel scared and humiliated to go to school,” she said.
Haille left the school in January.
A plea for help
Since Adriana’s death, Haille has organised protests outside the school to raise awareness about what she alleges is its disdainful response to bullying allegations.
Haille also gave an emotional speech at a school board meeting attended by hundreds of fellow students, parents and community members.
“It’s actually really, really hard to be going to school because of all the bullying and everything that’s been going on,” she said.
She told the board that Adriana had asked for help multiple times from the school, but “you guys just sat there and did nothing”.
Several other students spoke out at the meeting about their own suffering at the hands of bullies – and claimed that their pleas for help had also fallen on deaf ears.
Junior Milo Luga told the board that she has been left “suicidal” after being bullied “every day” since seventh grade over her sexuality, according to the New York Post.
Emma Smith, a fellow freshman, said students were “scared to walk in the hallway of Central”, according to NJ1015.
“We’re terrified we’re going to get picked on and jumped because that’s all that’s been happening,” she told the publication.
At one point in the meeting, tensions reached a boiling point with parents, students and community members shouting at the board – and the board president threatening to shut the meeting down altogether.
Haille’s mother Cherice Anthony told The Independent that she was “disgusted” at the way the school had treated her daughter throughout her bullying ordeal.
At Thursday’s meeting, Ms Anthony said the entire school board “showed no emotion, no remorse, nothing”.
She told The Independent she was proud of Haille and the other teens for speaking up and protesting. “The whole board needs to be fired and held accountable for all of the bullying in that school.”
In a statement released after the meeting, the new acting superintendent Douglas Corbett said the school was working on an action plan aimed at preventing bullying at the high school. There are currently 1500 students enrolled in grades 9 to 12 from Berkeley Township, Island Heights, Ocean Gate, Seaside Heights and Seaside Park.
The statement also said the district would be reviewing their cell phone policy, establishing a hotline for students to call if they feel threatened, and hiring an outside party to examine the school’s policies and responses to bullying.
“We are committed to learning from this tragedy and listening to our parents, students and our community,” Dr Corbett said.
Board secretary Kevin O’Shea told The Independent the school was unable to comment further on student matters.
“We took notes on all the public comments that we recieved last night and Dr Corbett will follow up on them and investigate further,” he added.
‘I want Adriana to get some justice’
Four students identified as carrying out the attack on Adriana were suspended by the school in the days after the assault.
On 10 February, Ocean County prosecutors filed criminal charges of aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, and harassment against four female students who were accused of carrying out the attack.
Adriana’s heartbroken family have said they believed that one of the students had bullied and threatened her on social media for months.
In a statement to The Independent, Mr Kuch’s attorney William A. Krais said he had begun the process of taking legal action by filing a tort claims notice against the school district and administrators, which the state requires before a public entity or its employees can be sued.
“In the meantime, we will investigate not only the vicious bullying by Adriana’s classmates at the school, but also the administration’s lack of intervention and supervision leading up to this attack, and its failure to engage law enforcement immediately after the attack,” Mr Krais said. “The administration’s role in Adriana’s tragic death will be brought to light, and Mr Kuch will use every legal avenue possible to get to the truth, for his family and the community.”
It’s not the only legal action the school is facing.
Rachael O’Dea filed a lawsuit against the school district last year after her daughter Olivia was beaten and humiliated at CRHS in January 2022.
Ms O’Dea told ABC6, that Olivia was targeted by two fellow students and that a video of the incident was shared online.
The incident was reported to school authorities, who took no action, according to Ms O’Dea.
“It’s a travesty that it’s continuing,” Ms O’Dea told NJ.com after Adriana’s death.
When contacted by The Independent, Adriana’s family said they had been told not to comment on legal advice.
An online obituary shared by her family said that she adored animals, helped children with special needs and loved skateboarding, riding dune buggies and dirt bikes.
Haille Ensenger told The Independent that she was planning another protest at the school on Saturday, and would continue to be a voice for her best friend.
“I want Adriana to get some justice, because the school has failed her completely,” she said.
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email email@example.com, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are in another country, you can go to befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.