Northampton superintendent criticizes pledge strategy
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
Northampton school superintendent Brian Salzer said Friday that asking Northampton High School students to write a pledge aiding the police investigation of an anonymous threat was wrong.
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
Northampton High School assistant principal Bryan Lombardi sent an email to teachers Dec. 21 instructing them to have students write a statement that would be used to aid police in their investigation of an anonymous threat.
Northampton High School Principal Nancy Athas
NORTHAMPTON — Superintendent Brian Salzer said Friday that asking Northampton High School students to write a pledge to aid the police investigation of an anonymous threat was wrong.
“This was not our way of doing business, not our protocol,” Salzer said. “I believe had we had more heads together, we would not have gone forward with this.”
Salzer released the full text of an email sent to teachers Dec. 21 by NHS Assistant Principal Bryan Lombardi, which read:
“Good morning. We have been asked by (the Northampton Police Department) to gather a writing sample of all our students. You will need to dictate a planned statement to the students. They will need to print the statement, not cursive and print their name. The statement will be delivered to you prior to the beginning of first period. Please review each statement as you collect them. If you notice any student with clearly different writing than you usually see please make a note, also if any student refuses please let me know. Students are not to know that this is a writing sample!!”
Salzer said Lombardi did not consult with him or with Principal Nancy Athas before sending the email to teachers on Dec. 21.
Both Lombardi and Athas declined to comment on Friday, referring a reporter to Salzer’s office.
Salzer said had he been consulted beforehand, he would have been opposed to using the pledge in the police investigation of the threat. “A pledge to unify students is an excellent idea.” he said. “Using it as an investigative tool tarnishes that idea.”
Salzer said parents weren’t notified about the pledge “because it was an on-the-spot decision,” and that once the pledge was given out, he was reluctant to release information until he had all the facts.
“I think it’s important to note that our administrators make hundreds of decisions each day and do great things for our kids each day,” Salzer said. “Occasionally, one of us makes a mistake. It’s important to be honest and acknowledge when mistakes are made.”
The Dec. 21 Lombardi email appears to counter earlier assertions about the pledge in which school and police authorities suggested that it was given to the student body in part as a way to help them feel more safe and secure in the wake of the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
In Northampton on Dec. 19, an NHS student found an anonymous threat in a boy’s bathroom at the school. Police have not released specific details about the threat, which authorities say is still under investigation.
Students were dismissed under police supervision that day and police were present Dec. 20 during arrival and dismissal times at NHS.
Salzer said the idea of collecting writing samples from students was suggested in a Dec. 20 faculty meeting, “along with many other ideas.” Police officials also participated in that meeting, he said.
Early on Dec. 21, a police detective suggested a writing sample “protocol” to Lombardi, an idea that had the support of the Northwestern district attorney’s office, Salzer said. Lombardi responded by sending an email to teachers before their first period classes instructing them to deliver the pledge to students.
The pledge, which referred to both the school shootings in Connecticut and the threat at the high school, asked students to promise to “take these incidents seriously” and to pass any information about the threat to school staff.
Salzer said he and Athas were informed about the pledge after teachers had already “followed through with the activity.”
The superintendent, who said he has spent the past few weeks investigating how decisions about the pledge were made and communicated, said he has no problem with police suggesting that writing samples be gathered.
But Salzer said Lombardi acted too quickly on that suggestion and failed to consult with other administrators before asking teachers to give out the pledge.
“We rushed a decision we shouldn’t have rushed,” Salzer said. “We have a crisis team and an administrative leadership team we should bounce things off of. That morning, that was not done.”
Salzer noted that in the wake of the Newtown shootings, administrators and teachers had student safety uppermost in their minds. “The climate of that week, it felt urgent,” he said.
Attorney William Newman, director of the western Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Salzer delivered Lombardi’s email and the text of the pledge to him Friday in response to a Public Records Law request he filed Jan 16.
In a blog post on Friday, Salzer sought to reassure parents and others critical of the pledge strategy that, “now, and in the future, we will gather more people and perspectives around the situation, respect the trusting relationship we have with our students and families, and we will work to resolve future crises in a proper and respectful manner.”