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Officials defend investigation of Northampton High threat

Northampton Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz, seen here in December, is among the local officials defending a decision to have Northampton High School students sign a statement pledging their support for school safety after a threatening note was found last month. Sienkiewicz says the tactic was useful in the investigation of the threat and to help restore a sense of safety at the school. 
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Northampton Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz, seen here in December, is among the local officials defending a decision to have Northampton High School students sign a statement pledging their support for school safety after a threatening note was found last month. Sienkiewicz says the tactic was useful in the investigation of the threat and to help restore a sense of safety at the school. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Purchase photo reprints »

On Dec. 19, a few days after the deadly school shootings in Newtown, Conn., a Northampton High student found an unsigned threatening note in a boys’ bathroom around 12:45 p.m. Police have not disclosed the contents or form of the note, saying the incident remains under investigation.

Students were dismissed under police supervision that day. Police were present the next day during arrival and dismissal times.

On Dec. 21, Northampton High students were asked to sign a “blanket” pledge, though they were not told it was linked to the investigation into the threat.

According to a statement released Tuesday by the Northwestern district attorney’s office, the student pledge was “in reference to the Dec. 19 threat, as well as in concern for any future threats that may be made to the school. In the statement, the students were asked to acknowledge that they take this and these types of incidents seriously and that they share the concern with the administration and the police department for the safety of the school. In an effort to provide the necessary protection for the students, the statements are also being used to assist in the investigation of the Dec. 19 threat.”

Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz said the pledge was useful both for the investigation and to help restore a sense of safety in the wake of the threat.

“Community caretaking is another one of our goals,” Sienkiewicz said.

Neither Sienkiewicz, Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan nor school officials would provide the exact wording of the pledge, or details about how many students signed it or its role in the investigation.

“Where there are credible threats or acts of violence in schools, our DA’s office works collaboratively with state and local police when investigating such incidents,” Sullivan said in an email statement Tuesday.

“The alleged threat at Northampton High School was of a serious nature,” he added. “However, we cannot directly comment on any ongoing investigations. The Northampton Police Department’s statement addresses what steps were taken to protect students at Northampton High School.”

Attorney William Newman, director of the western Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union, raised questions about the pledge.

“The high school administration and the police owe the community an explanation,” he said. “If the police are using teachers at the high school for law enforcement, parents should be informed. I’d like to know what teachers were told, what parents were told and whether students were misled” about the purpose of the pledge.

The pledge

On Dec. 21, two days after the threatening note was found, teachers distributed the pledge to the entire student body during first-period classes, according to high school administrators.

NHS students interviewed by the Gazette said signing the pledge was optional, and that it asked them to support school safety and help prevent threats to the school.

In an interview with the Gazette Tuesday, Northampton Police Capt. Scott Savino said police consulted with the district attorney’s office before deciding to use the pledge to gather handwriting samples during the investigation into the Dec. 19 threat. A decision not to notify school families directly about the pledge or its role in the investigation was a “joint decision made with all of the involved agencies,” he said.

High school administrators said Tuesday they took their cues from the police department.

“We were concerned with the safety of children in light of what had happened at Newtown,” said Principal Nancy Athas. “We were working in conjunction with the police on this and followed their lead.”

When asked for the wording of the pledge, Athas referred a reporter to the police.

High school teacher Ben Taglieri, vice president of the Northampton Association of School Employees, said he could not comment publicly on the pledge because of the police investigation.

Other Northampton teachers contacted by the Gazette on Tuesday were also reluctant to talk about it publicly, although a few said privately they had not been told that it would be used to gather handwriting samples.

City Council President William Dwight, an adviser to the Northampton Youth Commission, said some high school students on the commission had already come to that conclusion when they talked about the pledge at their Jan. 2 meeting.

He said they “mentioned signing the pledge and that they thought the purpose was to identify handwriting,” Dwight said. “They didn’t know any more about it. They were a little piqued about that.”

Sarah Moss Horwitz, one of two student representatives on the Northampton School Committee, said she had not heard students raising concerns about the tactic of using the pledge.

“There were rumors that it was about handwriting,” she said. “In light of the obviously serious stuff that was going on, people were relatively OK about it.”

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