EASTHAMPTON — Hundreds of Easthampton High School students staged a walkout Thursday morning in response to what one organizer called the school’s indifference to addressing racism — and less than 24 hours after a fight involving students in the high school parking lot.
School officials said the fight, which resulted in injuries, was preceded by a post on social media that included a racial slur.
The incidents prompted a quickly organized protest by students, who marched downtown Thursday shortly after 9 a.m. School officials later had the whole school body gather at an assembly to address the incidents.
Principal Kevin Burke said he could not comment on the extent of the injuries resulting from the fight but said no one was taken to the hospital.
He said the students involved in the physical altercation were initially told they were suspended for the day, but the suspensions might be extended when school officials finish their investigation. School officials declined to say how many students were suspended or involved in the fight on Wednesday.
Police Chief Robert Alberti said police are also investigating the fight and he expects the Police Department to bring charges.
Alberti said he told the students at the school assembly Thursday that “vigilante justice will not be tolerated.”
“It’s never good for kids to think they can take matters into their own hands,” Alberti said later in the day. March for acceptance
The students took to the streets focusing their message on coming together rather than the previous day’s violence.
“We’re out here to promote diversity, to promote acceptance, especially love,” senior Zach Crisafulli, 18, said. “We want everyone to know that at Easthampton, we don’t support hate.”
Leaving from the building just after 9:15 a.m. the group looped around the school parking lot before making its way down Williston Avenue to the Municipal Building on Payson Avenue.
Sophomore Tyler Miwa, 16, said he was out to protest for equal rights.
“It’s important because everyone should be treated equal — no discrimination based on skin color or where you’re from,” Miwa said.
For junior Jade Mitchell, 17, the march was more personal. Mitchell said a fellow student had been using derogatory slurs in school.
“I was sick of it,” she said.
After she posted about the incidents on Facebook, she said, some of her classmates took notice. Walking among the crowd, Mitchell said the numbers showed just how many people were supportive and would not tolerate such things.
“I’m glad to have a student body that doesn’t put up with racism,” she said.
At one point, Easthampton Police tried to direct the crowd down Lake Street saying if they went into the downtown intersection at Nashawannuck Pond, they could be arrested.
The students were undeterred and moved to the sidewalk, ending their march in the parking lot of the Municipal Building, chanting “We are one!” as they walked past police.
Outside of the Municipal Building, senior Sreyleak Pek said the group came together in response to “a lot of racism and discrimination” that goes on.
“No matter what race or background you are, we are all one,” Pek, 18, said.Dialogue
After the students spent a few minutes outside the Municipal Building chanting, School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee and Mayor Karen L. Cadieux came out and spoke with some of the student leaders.
“We’re very interested in hearing what they say,” Cadieux said of her brief discussion with students. “Our administration — my administration — as well as the superintendent’s, definitely represents diversity.”
Both women said they would meet with students later that day at the school to discuss their concerns. Cadieux, Follansbee, Burke and Alberti all attended the all-school forum held in the afternoon.
“We had an opportunity for as many students as we had time to voice their concerns, ask their questions. We addressed them as we were able to,” Follansebee said by phone. “The tone was respectful. Some very important things were shared on both sides and I think we all learned from the experience.”
During the forum, Burke said he spoke to students on the importance of making sure the information they are hearing and acting on is correct and true.
“Just because it gets put on social media doesn’t make it true. Be careful what you act on and what you make your decision on,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with taking action, but making sure you do it based on truthful and informed decisions are really important.”
In a written notice to students, endorsed by the mayor, superintendent and police chief, Burke reiterated his message.
“Let me be clear both hate speech and violence in all of its forms will not be tolerated here at EHS nor in the Easthampton community,” Burke wrote. “Right now there is misinformation regarding past and present events that have occurred at EHS. I want to caution everyone to make decisions and formulate opinions based on fact.”
In the statement, Burke also wrote that the school would be reaching out to the community to find ways to address these issues and begin “the healing process” and would continue to work together to address intolerance.Parents on board
A few parents also attended the march in support of their high school students. Among them was Noreen Nardi who said she was proud of the students for standing up for what they believe in — equality, non-discrimination and non-tolerance for hate.
According to Natalie Poirier, another parent, there has been racial bullying at the school. After one student had gone to multiple school officials and didn’t feel a lot of support, he took it into his own hands, which resulted in students being suspending for fighting, Poirier explained.
“All the kids say they don’t agree with the fighting and bullying,” Poirier said.
Nardi said there was an earlier incident at the school in which a student pointed a fake gun at a poster of a woman wearing an American flag as a hijab and said “kill the terrorists.”
Both Follansbee and Burke said they were aware of that incident.
“All appropriate actions were taken by Principal Burke,” Follansbee said.
The administrators declined to comment on what exactly those actions were, citing student confidentially. Burke did say that the school’s vice principal spent three days working on that issue.
At the end of the day, senior Éamonn Graeme said the walkout was necessary.
“In my four years of being at the school, nothing has really escalated to this point,” he said. “We didn’t want to make it about politics. We wanted to make it about the people and the actions. It wasn’t a liberal versus conservative argument. It was about everyone coming together against intolerance.”
Graeme called the all-school forum “a step in the right direction,” thanking the superintendent and mayor.
“I think they heard our message loud and clear and I think it was necessary ...” he said.
At the march, sophomore Ish Akanour said there have been a few incidents with some people “putting down other groups of people.”
“I took it really personally,” he said.
Akanour’s mother, Meriam Elgarf, also came to the walkout.
“It’s important to me because my son is part of this community and this school,” she said. “We are not with violence but we are with equality.”
The walkout comes at a time of heightened debate on immigrant issues nationally and locally, as the city recently considered becoming a sanctuary city. The discussion turned heated before the City Council ultimately dropped the idea.
The city is also considering putting together a human rights committee. Both of those ideas came after popular hiking destination Mount Tom was vandalized with anti-Semitic and other racist messages.
Emily Cutts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.