Democracy Dies in Darkness

True Crime

A substitute teacher hosted a ‘fight club’ at school so kids would like him, police say

April 13, 2018 at 1:18 PM


A few months after Ryan Fish was fired last year, police began to investigate stories they’d heard of the substitute teacher’s unconventional math class at Montville High School — to ask about certain classroom videos officers had obtained.

Fish was an extremely laid back teacher, some boys from the Connecticut town told the police. He had been a popular sub with a certain crowd.

A 16-year-old said he considered the 22-year-old teacher to be his mentor. Another boy said he’d leave his civics class early and duck into what Fish called his “kick back class.”

Whatever students wanted to do there, the boys said, Fish was “cool with it.”

Police wrote much the same in their report. Fish reportedly let his students draw obscene pictures on the whiteboard, and told his classes stories about smoking marijuana and other drugs, and even shared his Snapchat address in a gesture of friendship.

“I just try to be the teacher that the kids could come to and actually express themselves and actually work through their issues,” Fish told police when they first interviewed him in January. “Kind of have a social thing.”

Ryan Fish in his mug shot. (State of Connecticut/)

Fish was arrested on Thursday on multiple charges of reckless endangerment and risk of injuries to a child. What he called his “social thing” was actually a “fight club,” according to police, in which Fish refereed as students beat themselves to the point of blood and vomit, while other children cheered and took cellphone videos.

Police collected at least eight videos over the course of their investigation, which chronicle several fights between students aged 14 to 16 last October. The videos have not been released, but are described in detail in Fish’s arrest affidavit.

In one video, the report states, Fish sits at his desk “looking through some paperwork” while a 15- and 16-year-old openly slap each other, and at least two students record.

Fish at first denied to police that he organized the fights, but videos, as described, tell a different story. In one, the teacher stands between two boys, separating them with outstretched arms.

Then Fish moves back “while thrusting his hands down and gets behind his desk, while smiling and laughing.” He watches as one boy charges the other, only to stop short at the last second. Police later interviewed one of the combatants, 16, who said in another fight he gave his opponent a bloody lip. Fish paused the fight to make sure the bleeding student was all right, the boy said, then resumed the match.

In many of the fights police watched on video, they wrote, one of the boys was significantly smaller than the other. In one, a student was seen trying to retreat from the blows, and in another the sound of hard slaps and students’ cheers can be heard — along with Fish allegedly saying, “Away from the door! away from the door!”

Police interviewed a 14-year-old who had been recording in a battle with a 16-year-old — “swinging full force at each other’s heads with open handed strikes,” according to the report.

Fish had initiated that fight by counting to three, the 14-year-old told police. It ended when the older boy began throwing up into a trash can, then dry heaving over a desk, as seen in one video.

When the 16-year old “was done throwing up Mr. Fish tried to start the fight by saying ‘Round Two,'” police wrote, but the bell rang so the match ended early.

An assistant principal at the school learned of the videos in early October, according to the police report, and had security escort Fish to her office.

“Boys will be boys,” the substitute allegedly told her. He was fired the same day.

But no one at the school told police about the “fight club,” according to the arrest affidavit. They only learned of the incidents in mid-December, when a social worker reported that a clearly traumatized 16-year-old had just been sent for a mental health evaluation, after reporting being beaten and robbed at school.

Investigators soon learned that the school had at least half a dozen videos of incidents on its servers, in addition to some sent to police by parents.

Before police were allowed to view the school’s videos, they wrote, Superintendent Brian Levesque made them get a search warrant, citing Montville Public Schools policy.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Levesque said he understood some police were frustrated that “we didn’t notify them of this so called ‘student slapping horseplay’ in a timely fashion.”

“I took immediate action in firing the substitute teacher that allowed this to happen,” Levesque said. “At the time, based on the initial video that I viewed and the information I was provided, I didn’t feel that this was a law enforcement matter. Had I known then, what I know now, yes, I should have contacted police.”

He said none of the students involved in the fights had been injured, though “this behavior is never tolerated in our district.”

“I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson here and our goal is to learn from our mistakes.”

Police interviewed Fish multiple times between January and his arrest this week, and wrote in a report that his explanations changed.

The former substitute initially said he was unaware of most fights, or considered them “horse play.” Later, the report states, Fish admitted that “I did at one point egg them on.”

In total, he recalled at least four open-handed slap fights between September and his firing.

“The truth is I’m an idiot and I wanted to befriend them,” Fish told police in January, according to the report. “I’m immature.”

Fish couldn’t be reached for contact after his arrest, but reporters interviewed him as he left a courthouse on Thursday, after being arraigned and released on $75,000 bond.

“I didn’t realize what was happening at the time,” he told Fox 61. “I didn’t have the training to see what was going on.”

He told other reporters that he had post-traumatic stress disorder, and at one point lamented with his hand on his head:

“I am so sorry. I’ll be totally honest with you, I was just trying to reach the kids. I thought, ‘These young kids are just being rambunctious.’ I thought they just needed an out.”

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Avi is a features writer for The Washington Post. He previously reported for the Dallas Morning News.

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