Editorial: Pledging allegiance to truth
We said Jan. 12 that Northampton school officials and law enforcement authorities owed the public a fuller explanation of why high school students were asked Dec. 21 to write out a pledge related to school safety. Those explanations are in. Superintendent Brian Salzer said last week the school was wrong to use subterfuge to enable a police investigation.
We agree. Letters on this page today take up the question of who served the public, or failed to do so, in the days after a threatening note was found in a school bathroom. This week, we’ve received mail from readers who support the decision Assistant Principal Bryan Lombardi made to help Northampton police collect handwriting samples from students in an effort to identify the author of the note. We will make space in the next few days for all the letters, many of which are critical of the superintendent for what people characterize as disloyalty to Lombardi.
Salzer took his time in clearing the air on this and released a copy of school records, including the email that Lombadi sent to teachers, mainly in response to a public-records request filed by attorney William Newman, director of the Western Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union. When Salzer did act last Friday to release details on how this incident unfolded, he acknowledged the school erred in misrepresenting the purpose of the pledge. It was in no way an attempt to restore a sense of safety at the high school, as the police chief earlier said, but a bid by police to gain evidence.
In explaining the mistake, Salzer could not help but detail Lombardi’s role in it — including the fact that he did not seek approval from either the school principal or Salzer.
In coming days, readers of the letters on this page will see many testimonials in support of Lombardi’s work at the high school, as well as criticism of Salzer for saying publicly that the assistant principal made the wrong decision. We don’t believe the superintendent created a scapegoat out of Lombardi and hope that this doesn’t become a personality dispute.
Still, as chief of the city’s schools, and having concluded that a mistake was made, Salzer might have taken personal responsibility and let it go at that.
Last week, Salzer pointed out that in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., just days before, student safety was on everyone’s mind. We understand why, that week in particular, the police request seemed reasonable. As Salzer noted, Northampton police were justified in asking for the school’s help in obtaining writing samples. But he concluded that the school, in this instance, should have declined to participate.
We think the ploy stood to gain little and risked a lot.
It was surely apparent to students that something was amiss with the pledge. They were told to use block letters, not cursive handwriting. And while the public was earlier led to believe that the pledge was voluntary, that isn’t the sense we get from reading the email Lombardi shipped out teachers. It said, in part, “if any student refuses please let me know.”
What was the message to students who submitted to the exercise? Sometimes, for reasons they are in no hurry to share with you, they just have to lie. As Salzer said, “A pledge to unify students is an excellent idea. Using it as an investigative tool tarnishes that idea.”
In four-page, single-spaced statement Jan. 14, Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan goes to lengths to explain why his office, because of Newtown, copy-cats and even the Mayan calendar, had the grounds to come into the school and mislead students. He called the exercise “minimally intrusive” and “reasonable ... in light of the circumstances.” The statement’s footnotes reference newspaper articles, a psychiatric journal article and the U.S. Constitution and cite several examples of law. The argument is sound, but when Sullivan campaigned for this office, he spoke of leading on moral as well as legal matters.
While he knows the law, we wish in this instance Sullivan would acknowledge that by being conscripted into a police investigation, students were blindsided.
Sullivan and Northampton police had the right to propose it. The school had the duty to oppose it. And in this case, student rights were sidelined.