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Northampton police discontinue ‘High-Five Friday’ at elementary schools after complaints

  • Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper fields a question during a meeting in April at Northampton City Hall held for Ward 3 residents concerned about recent fires in their neighborhood. Beside her is Ward 3 City Councilor Ryan O'Donnell. JERREY ROBERTS



@JackSuntrup
Monday, February 20, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — Since early December, Northampton police officers have greeted elementary school students with “high-fives” on Friday.

The event was called “High-Five Friday” — billed as a way for officers to connect with students and show support for schools. But no longer. High-Five Friday was canceled last week following complaints from the public, Police Chief Jody Kasper said Sunday.

“It’s a little bit frustrating for us to not be able to continue on with the program, quite honestly,” she said.

Kasper said a group of officers rotated to one of the four district elementary schools every Friday to greet kids. She said the weekly event was designed to foster positive relationships between police and young people in an era when community policing tactics are encouraged.

“We thought it was a great way to start building relationships with young kids,” Kasper said. “We liked that it was something that was seemingly — seemingly — simple, but has turned out not to be.”

The complaints, according to a police department Facebook post on Saturday, centered around the questioned effectiveness of the program and some students who “might respond negatively to a group of uniformed officers at their school.”

The post mentions children of color, undocumented immigrant children or other children who may have had negative encounters with law enforcement.

Kasper said there were two meetings to discuss community concerns. The first was at a Jan. 12 School Committee meeting. The second was weeks later at a community meeting that drew 12 to 15 people, the department wrote in its Facebook post.

At the January meeting, Kasper told the School Committee the department sought approval from the district superintendent and the four elementary school principals beforehand. She also said officers weren’t forcing their high-fives on any student, and said administrators let parents know in advance about the event.

At-large School Committee member Molly Burnham said at the meeting the program “came up very suddenly for a lot of us and that was a little upsetting.” She also wondered how the program would be assessed for effectiveness.

“It’s hard to measure impact without doing a widespread, sort of survey on that,” Kasper said. She did say that the department had received positive feedback on social media.

“You may be getting positive feedback but it may be really difficult for people who are having a negative reaction to come to you and say, ‘It really upset my child to come to school and see the police because the police have been at our house three times this month,’” said Ward 2 committee member Laura Fallon.

Kasper said High-Five Friday was “paused” following that meeting. After the follow-up community meeting last week, High-Five Friday was effectively finished, Kasper said.

R. Downey Meyer, Ward 7 committee member, said he supported the program but said the district had to take into account concerns that some students were uncomfortable.

“That was something we couldn’t ignore,” he said in an interview.

Blogger weighs in

The news stirred up social media over the weekend, with the Worcester-based blog Turtle Boy Sports characterizing the move as a loss for the well-intentioned police department at the hands of adversarial “social justice warriors.”

Kasper said the post contained at least two errors:

The anonymous blogger quotes an email Kasper supposedly sent to the rest of the police department.

“I never sent out any emails,” Kasper said. “There was an email sent out from our captain, which simply said the program is not going to be going on any longer.”

The blogger also singles out Heidi Nortonsmith as a ringleader behind the resistance to High-Five Friday. Mayor David Narkewicz, who serves as chairman of the School Committee, Kasper and Superintendent John Provost all said Heidi Nortonsmith was not involved with the High-Five Friday issue.

“The person that they identified, to my knowledge, I had never had any contact with that person,” Kasper said.

When reached by phone Sunday, Nortonsmith said her involvement with the issue was “fake news.” She said she never attended any meetings in which the issue was discussed.

“I was randomly plucked and put into a story and beyond that I don’t want to have anything to do with it,” she said. “All I can say is I was misidentified as the person at the meetings.”

Her wife, Gina Nortonsmith, did speak at a Dec. 8 School Committee meeting against High-Five Friday.

Gina Nortonsmith told the committee the program was well-intentioned but “ill-considered, tone-deaf and potentially damaging.”

When reached via Twitter, the person operating Turtle Boy Sports’ account stood by the blog’s reporting, but did not offer any evidence to back up the claims.

“We don’t publish stories from sources that we dont (sic) trust,” the blogger wrote. “We don’t screw up stories.”

It’s unclear who authored the blog post, but according the secretary of state’s corporate filings, Aidan Kearney is the owner of Turtleboy Enterprises LLC.

Edward Zuchowski, vice chairman of the School Committee, said Sunday that the Turtle Boy article is divisive. He said district officials have been deliberate in how they are dealing with the situation, and said a revamped program in the future is possible.

“It’s creating an environment here among residents that I think is quite unhealthy,” Zuchowski said.

Provost said he is meeting with Kasper March 14 in an attempt to move forward with a new program.

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.