×

Easthampton High School to create 3-year plan to deal with bullying, harassment, hate

  • Dana and Neal Salisbury, center, of Easthampton, hold signs during a rally Tuesday at the Easthampton Municipal Building prior to an Easthampton School Committee meeting. The rally was held in the wake of Easthampton High School's recent walkout, when hundreds of students marched and voiced concerns about how school administrators handle racism. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Noreen Nardi, front left, holds a sign during a rally Tuesday at the Easthampton Municipal Building prior to an Easthampton School Committee meeting. The rally was held in the wake of Easthampton High School’s recent walkout, when hundreds of students marched and voiced concerns about how school administrators handle racism. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Former Easthampton School Committee Chair Nancy Sykes, left, speaks beside Natalie Poirier during a rally Tuesday at the Easthampton Municipal Building prior to an Easthampton School Committee meeting. The rally was held in the wake of Easthampton High School's recent walkout, when hundreds of students marched and voiced concerns about how school administrators handle racism. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Natalie Poirier, right, speaks beside Amy Pybus during a rally Tuesday at the Easthampton Municipal Building prior to an Easthampton School Committee meeting. The rally was held in the wake of Easthampton High School's recent walkout, when hundreds of students marched and voiced concerns about how school administrators handle racism. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton High School student Isabelle Poirier, front, from left, Gus Morales, of Holyoke, and Easthampton High School student Samantha Garcia take part in a rally Tuesday at the Easthampton Municipal Building prior to an Easthampton School Committee meeting. All spoke during the rally. The rally was held in the wake of Easthampton High School's recent walkout, when hundreds of students marched and voiced concerns about how school administrators handle racism. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, of Springfield, speaks during a rally Tuesday at the Easthampton Municipal Building prior to an Easthampton School Committee meeting. The rally was held in the wake of Easthampton High School's recent walkout, when hundreds of students marched and voiced concerns about how school administrators handle racism. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A group of people attend a rally Tuesday at the Easthampton Municipal Building prior to an Easthampton School Committee meeting. The rally was held in the wake of Easthampton High School's recent walkout, when hundreds of students marched and voiced concerns about how school administrators handle racism. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton High School principal Kevin Burke speaks during a School Committee meeting Tuesday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee speaks during a Schoo Committee meeting Tuesday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



@kate_ashworth
Wednesday, April 12, 2017

EASTHAMPTON — In the face of another demonstration that drew about 200 people in advance of a School Committee meeting Tuesday night, school officials defended their actions in dealing with incidents of bullying and harassment at the school and vowed to keep working to improve the culture at Easthampton High School.

“We know it is hard work to confront the issues of systemic racism in any community, and we feel up to the task to meet the work with positivity and full engagement,” Kevin Burke, EHS’s principal, told the School Committee during Tuesday’s public comment session.

Over the course of 90 minutes, administrators, students, parents and others spoke about racial and harassment incidents at the school. Others spoke about moving forward, sticking together as a community and creating a positive environment for students.

The issue was brought to light when hundreds of EHS students organized a walkout on March 30, a day after a student who allegedly used a racial slur in an online message was physically assaulted in the school parking lot. Three students were arrested on charges of assault and battery for punching the student who allegedly used the racial slur.

The students were voicing concerns with the administration’s alleged indifference to hate.

A week later, at an April 5 School Committee meeting, a group of parents called for the removal of both Burke for failure to act on reports of bullying and harassment and School Resource Officer Alan Schadel for a conflict of interest.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Burke said the high school will create a three-year plan aimed to help the school become a more equitable and inclusive environment. The Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton will develop facilitation questions, surveys and processes used to collect data to develop the plan of action. There will also be multiple forums where students, staff and parents can share their thoughts.

“We are dedicated to ensuring that is an opportunity to include more voices in the collaborative community we are building at EHS, and we insist that this opportunity to grow will make us stronger, and will not divide us,” Burke said.

Twenty-nine members of the high school’s faculty and staff signed a letter of support for Burke, stating that they recognize the issues that must be addressed and that they believe Burke is up for the challenge. Teachers and the principal wore pins at the meeting that said, “EHS embraces all #nohatehere.”

Hate not new, some say

Many say the issues with racism and hate at the high school are nothing new.

City Councilor Salem Derby, who has children in the Easthampton School District, said he first notified the superintendent and principal on Oct. 8 about an incident at EHS that he found “greatly disturbing.”

Although he did not elaborate, Derby said “as a parent, as a city councilor, I was greatly mortified.”

Derby, a physical education teacher at Northampton High School, said he knows what happens in high schools but this was “beyond the pale.”

“There were clear signs that something was wrong,” he said.

Months later, Derby heard of another incident, which he said sounded like a threat to the school. He said he notified school officials again as well as the police chief.

In other comments Tuesday, parents and students spoke of incidents at EHS that raised concerns, such as a student teasing another about getting deported. 

In a classroom for English language learners and other courses, “We the people” art posters of diverse women were vandalized. One student was said to have pointed a toy gun at an image of woman wearing an American flag hijab and said “Kill the terrorists.”

“I’m very sad, I’m angry and I’m frusterated with how things have been dealt with. This has been going on for a year and a half,” said senior  Allison Christopher, 17. “To say the least, I’m disappointed with the administration.”

Isabelle Poirier, 17, another senior, read a statement from one of her classmates who wanted to remain anonymous. 

“Clearly there is a problem when I am seeing students making anti-Semitic signs in our school without further action to speak about this issue,” she read. “Clearly there is a problem when a swastika appears on one of the boards in one of my classrooms.”

While some students were punished for their actions, Poirier said the administration could’ve done more to prevent future incidents.

“See the problem isn’t lack of punishment, it’s more so the lack of attention to the deeply rooted issues we face in our school,” she read. “Had we discussed racism and fully brought light to the issue at our school, these incidents could have been avoided.”

Robert Meeropol of the Rosenberg Fund for Children spoke of an incident that happened about eight years ago at a New York high school where there was a series of racial epithets and swastikas were painted on some of the lockers.

“The superintendent immediately — with support of the principal — shut down all regular programming at the school,” Meeropol said. “They acted immediately.”

Members of the Easthampton High School Association signed a letter to the school committee stating “as a group, we condemn hate speech. We condemn violence… we will continue to foster a space in which all students feel safe and secure to focus on learning and on growing as individuals.”

Follansbee said “We can not change what has happened in the past, but we can learn from those experiences.”

Acting school committee chairman Peter Gunn said the committee plans to later delibrate in executive session to discuss concerns raised by parents and students.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at cashworth@gazettenet.com.