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Editorial: A questionable pledge

When a Northampton High School student found a threatening note in a school bathroom Dec. 19, school officials acted swiftly — without overreacting. We applaud that because in the days following the Dec. 14 Newtown massacre, responding to a potential threat at any school, without blowing it out of proportion, became tricky.

On that day in Northampton, we believe school and police authorities achieved a good balance by releasing students a little earlier than normal, floor by floor, under police supervision. Officials maintained calm and order.

What they did in the days following, however, leaves much to be desired. Two days after the note was found, NHS teachers asked students in their first-period classes to copy down and sign what the Northwestern district attorney’s office now refers to as a “blanket pledge.” We don’t know the wording of the pledge because none of the authorities involved — not Northampton police, not the Northwestern district attorney’s office, not the NHS administration — will release it.

We can see no rationale for such subterfuge.

Officials defend the pledge as a way to help the community feel safe, as well as an effort to protect students. We doubt that asking all students to sign a pledge makes them safer. But whether it does or not, if public officials think the pledge was a good idea, why not release its contents to the community?

When asked directly by the Gazette for a copy of the pledge, NHS officials referred us to the police; police referred us to the DA’s office; the DA’s office referred us to NHS administrators. Again we ask, why the secrecy?

Aside from the students who signed it, all the public knows about the pledge are vague generalities in a statement from the DA’s office. It said students were asked to sign a pledge “in reference to the Dec. 19 threat, as well as in concern for any future threats that may be made to the school ... 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.”

A top-down effort forcing students to promise to be non-violent or vow to provide information to authorities investigating a threat or an overt act of violence strikes us as an unsound educational approach to a serious social problem. The reluctance of officials to clarify what it was students signed makes matters worse and suggests authorities acted rashly.

Meanwhile, rumors were rampant around the high school that the pledge was a pretense to obtain handwriting samples from students as police conducted the investigation into the threat. A police captain confirmed that his department consulted with the DA’s office before deciding to use the pledge to collect handwriting samples.

Other authorities were cagey about this. The DA’s office said it could not comment about an ongoing investigation and the city’s police chief would only say the pledge was useful both in the investigation and to help restore a sense of safety at NHS.

We believe everyone involved should have been more forthcoming. We hope in the future they are.

It seems wrong for an educational institution to conscript students into an investigative process through deception. Of all public institutions, schools should be above that.

By all means, schools should teach nonviolence, integrity and honesty. But that is a process, not a quick fix. That teaching needs to be done in a way that ensures those values will flourish in all students, staff and faculty, for the betterment and security of everyone in the school community.

Legacy Comments4

I agree with this wholeheartedly! This was a creepy, underhanded effort which is obviously understood as such by the DA's office since they won't release the contents of the pledge. If it was all on the up and up no one would be reluctant to release it. I think they themselves recognize that this was a dishonest act perpetrated on the students and the community, with the only justification being it might help pinpoint the culprit who wrote the note, in what could easily amount to a witch-hunt. DA's office stop the cloak and dagger and be honest about this effort. You owe it to the community.

Thank you for this thoughtful editorial. I empathize with the difficult decisions that school administrators were confronted with, but I think coercing and deliberately misleading students into providing evidence that could be used against them in a criminal investigation crosses a line. The fact that police, school administrators, and the DA's office made a conscious decision not to inform parents of their actions and still refuse to release the pledge adds to my concerns.


The editorial has it just right.

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