District attorney defends Northampton High pledge use
Local law enforcement officials, including Northampton Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz, are defending a decision to use a pledge written by Northampton High School students as part of an investigation of a threat made there on Dec. 19. Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan issued a statement Monday explaining that "the solicitation of written pledges was a prudent and legally justifiable effort to protect the school population by identifying the note's author."
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, left, fields a question beside Easthampton Police Chief Bruce McMahon during a press conference Wednesday at the Easthampton Public Safety Complex to announce that Ryan D. Welch, of Easthampton, has been charged with murder in connection with the Feb. 20 death of Jessica Ann Pripstein
NORTHAMPTON — The Gazette on Monday obtained a copy of the pledge Northampton High School teachers asked students to write after a threatening note was found at the school last month in the days after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Meantime, in a statement, Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan defended the pledge based on what the threat stated.
“The particulars of the note cannot be provided at this time. Suffice it to say that the contents readily evoke comparison to the Sandy Hook massacre,” Sullivan said. “Due to the gravity of the threat, and the context in which it was made, this minimally intrusive action was reasonable and thus legally permissible.”
The pledge NHS students signed reads: “In the wake of recent acts in schools, including the school shooting in Connecticut and the recent threat here at the high school, I, (student’s name), with concern for myself, my classmates and my school, pledge that I take these incidents seriously. With this in mind I understand that it is not only important to be able to identify whomever may make any type of these threats, for the safety of the school, but also for the safety and concern of the individual making the threat. Any information I may have or may come across will be passed along to the appropriate school staff members.”
Sullivan said no students were forced to sign the pledge, which he called a “prudent and legally justifiable effort to protect the school population by identifying the note’s author.”
“The solicitation of a written pledge was a reasonable response both to quell the tension permeating the school and to try to identify the author of the threat to safeguard the entire school population,” Sullivan said.
NHS students have said the pledge was dictated to them by teachers in their first period classes Dec. 21, two days after a threatening note was found in a boys’ bathroom at the school. City police confirmed the pledge was used to gather handwriting samples to aid their investigation.
Northampton attorney William Newman, director of the western Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he considers the pledge “compelled speech.”
The pledge was improper, Newman said, because it was not truly voluntary in that it had students promise, “I will do this and I will turn in any information.”
“If a student doesn’t do that, can they be disciplined?” Newman asked.
“Participation in the pledge was not compulsory,” Sullivan said. “Although the students were not told that the pledges would be forwarded to the police, the exercise itself was minimally intrusive, simply asking each participant to provide a verbatim copying of a uniform pledge. These were reasonable actions in light of the circumstances.”