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Parents argue for removal of EHS principal over handling of racist incidents

  • Easthampton School Committee member Peter Gunn, seated at the head of the table, opens the public comment period of the meeting Wednesday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sindy Mojica, right, speaks during an Easthampton School Committee meeting Wednesday at the Municipal Building. Peter Gunn, left, a Committee member, listens. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Noreen Nardi, standing, speaks during an Easthampton School Committee meeting Wednesday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jonathan Poirier reads a statement from a group of concerned parents during Wednesday’s Easthampton School Committee meeting at the Municipal Building. Jonathan Poirier reads a statement from a group of concerned parents during Wednesday’s Easthampton School Committee meeting at the Municipal Building.

  • Meg Colenback speaks during an Easthampton School Committee meeting Wednesday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Landon Jenkins speaks during an Easthampton School Committee meeting Wednesday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee, seated center, speaks during an Easthampton School Committee meeting Wednesday at the Municipal Building. Seated beside her are, from left, Cynthia Kwiecinski, Sarah Hunter and Isabelle Poirier. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ann Rasmussen speaks during an Easthampton School Committee meeting Wednesday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



@kate_ashworth
Thursday, April 06, 2017

EASTHAMPTON — The alleged failure of school administrators to act on reports of bullying and harassment has led parents of Easthampton High School students to urge the School Committee to investigate Principal Kevin Burke.

Wednesday’s School Committee meeting at the Municipal Building was packed with about 60 concerned parents and community members as they discussed problems students face at the high school, many in response to last week’s student walkout. On March 30, hundreds of students walked from school grounds to the Municipal Building, accusing the school of indifference to addressing racism.

The day before, a student who allegedly used a racial slur in an online message was physically assaulted in the school parking lot. A screenshot of the conversation was shared on social media, according to police. Three students were arrested on charges of assault and battery for punching the student who allegedly used the racial slur.

But parent Jonathan Poirier said the assault was preventable and predictable. He said the incident occurred in response to many weeks and months of smaller incidents that were not properly addressed by the school’s principal.

Poirier represented a “group of parents concerned about the current administration at Easthampton High School” and read a letter that was given to committee members as well as the City Council.

“Our group has heard many stories about events involving Principal Burke during his administration that allege, to name a few, verbal assaults, bullying, and failure to follow school rules and procedures,” Poirier said.

Poirier said parents are requesting immediate action for Burke’s removal and “the prompt initiation of investigations into his alleged misconduct as principal of EHS.”

“We have lost faith in his ability to lead EHS and maintain a safe environment for our children,” Poirier said.

Burke, formerly a math teacher at White Brook Middle School, was hired as assistant principal at EHS in 2013 and became principal last year.

Parents are also requesting the installation of a new school resource officer, stating a conflict of interest now exists for Officer Alan Schadel. Schadel is currently on medical leave and two officers have been liaisons for the school, according to Superintendent Nancy Follansbee.

Follansbee sent an update to parents Wednesday morning, going over the events that occurred at the high school last week. She said Burke plans to have a diversity training for faculty in May as well as trainings and presentations for students and families before the end of the school year.

Burke, who didn’t attend Wednesday’s meeting, said in an interview this week that the administration follows the Massachusetts School Bullying Prevention and Intervention Law.

“We treat all students fairly and equally,” Burke said.

When an incident occurs and is reported to a teacher or administrator, Burke said, the student will fill out a bully intervention and prevention form. The administration will then investigate the situation, talking to witnesses and connected students, Burke said.

But parents say that is not the case, although students are not willing to discuss specific problems with the administration publicly.

Follansbee said one of the issues the school faces is the impact of social media. For the racial slur comment that led to physical assault, Follansbee said although the message was highly inappropriate and offensive, it was a private conversation and did not occur on school premises, and its recipient is not a student. She said had circumstances been different, the sender of the text would have been disciplined.

“This goes beyond the school,” parent Pete Crisafulli said. “We have lawn signs being stolen in our community — lawn signs that welcome people — and we have graffiti on Mount Tom that is hateful.”

According to Crisafulli, a peaceful demonstration is planned for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in front of the Municipal Building to voice unity and recovery for the health and spirit of the Easthampton community.

Follansbee said there will be ongoing meetings on the topic and group discussions in classrooms to hear from students.

“We are proud of the initiative that our students have taken … We want to hear from you,” Follansbee said. “If you feel like your teachers aren’t hearing you, go to your principal. If you feel like your principal isn’t hearing you, then come to me.”

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