While screening the first episode of A&E Network’s “Undercover High” about six weeks ago, Beryl New said she remembers feeling sick to her stomach, seeing firsthand how young people use social media to inflict hurt on each other.
“What it did was illustrate how cruel kids can be,” said the former principal of Highland Park High School, where the docuseries was filmed from January to May of this year. “That was just disturbing to me because that is an area of their life that I don’t see. To imagine that someone would have all these negative comments, taunts even, it just left me feeling sick.”
New said the first episode focused mainly on Facebook posts about one of the female embedded adults who posed as a student for the series.
The posts were written, New said, by people older than 18 years of age. She said she looked through some databases and discovered the people who posted the comments weren’t Highland Park students and were never USD 501 students.
While she didn’t believe the comments rose to the level of a criminal threat, New said she thought they were “so ugly and evil” that she alerted a Highland Park school resource officer to look into the matter.
“It’s almost like there’s this subculture of behaviors that is very active in social media where people can hide behind a computer or cellphone and say things that are horrid,” New said. “When you start connecting that, you can see how kids will say, ‘I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,’ or they go the extreme and say, ‘they said this about me so maybe it’s not worth being alive’ “.
The network and the district have said the adults who posed as students were part of the series to help shed light on what goes on a typical American high school.
“The whole scope of the series is about what teenagers in America face,” New said. “What we hoped to find out was there are things that kids aren’t telling us. As an old person who’s raised eight kids and a grandma of 12, I thought I’d seen it all, I thought I knew it all.”
New served as Highland Park’s principal from 2010-11 to 2016-17 school years. She is currently a certified personnel manager for Topeka Unified School District 501 with a focus on equity. Shana Perry was hired as principal at Highland Park High School this past spring.
The 12-episode “Undercover High” series was to begin airing on Tuesday but A&E recently announced the show has been indefinitely postponed due to “scheduling and post production” issues.
New said she didn’t recall details about the second episode she watched but remembers it focused on Highland Park’s winter royalty. She said the series producers have been receptive to comments about the content of the episodes she has been allowed to see so far.
“If I looked at it and said, ‘Oh, that’s going to make Highland Park look really bad, you know, take out this, take out this,” she said. “They’ve been very cooperative in screening in such a way that it would be something that would represent our city and our school and our district well.”
Misty Kruger, USD 501’s spokesperson, said she also viewed the first two episodes of “Undercover High” in August with New, along with deputy superintendent Larry Robbins and former USD 501 attorney Cindy Kelly. She said superintendent Tiffany Anderson viewed portions of the episodes but didn’t think Anderson had seen both episodes in their entirety.
Kruger said the district representatives viewed the episodes with executive producers from Lucky8 Productions, which she said took the USD 501 staff members’ comments about the episodes into consideration.
“We could comment on whatever we wanted to,” she said, “but we didn’t have any kind of editorial rights. We had the ability to edit for factual content.”
Even though the premiere of “Undercover High” has been postponed, The Topeka Capital-Journal has requested to watch the first episode. An A&E publicist hasn’t yet responded.
Contact reporter Angela Deines at (785) 295-1143 or @AngelaDeines on Twitter.