Allegations relate hate speech, race prejudice at EHS to November election

  • Middle, Isbelle Poinier, a Easthampton high school student walked out with other students March 29 in protest to what they say is a lack of response from administrators to several racial actions at the school.

  • Natalie Poirier, right, speaks beside Amy Pybus during a rally April 11 at the Easthampton Municipal Building prior to an Easthampton School Committee meeting. The rally was held in the wake of Easthampton High School's recent walkout, when hundreds of students marched and voiced concerns about how school administrators handle racism.

@kate_ashworth
Published: 4/24/2017 7:52:50 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Superintendent Nancy Follansbee says she will respond Tuesday to alleged incidents that a group of parents say represent “examples of harassment, intimidation, hate speech, race prejudice, destruction of property, and even violent acts which have been occurring in the school since the fall of 2016” at Easthampton High School.

Those allegations — detailed in a packet of materials delivered last week to school, city and law enforcement officials — include statements from unnamed students and teachers. Those sources complain about incidents including a student holding up a Confederate flag and yelling “white power,” swastikas, racial slurs and other episodes of hateful speech and behavior.

“A student has called me a n-word to my face and told me I was going to be deported to Africa because Trump won,” said one statement in the packet. “Another student told me he got me a direct flight to Africa and that I needed to go pick cotton like the good old days.”

Follansbee said she will respond to all the allegations contained in the packet at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting. The meeting is at 6 p.m. in the second-floor meeting area of the Municipal Building, 50 Payson Ave.

Mayor Karen Cadieux said all issues that have been brought to the city’s attention are being thoroughly investigated.

“On Tuesday, the School Committee will be laying out a plan for continuing to move forward in an investigation of concerns that have been brought forward,” Cadieux said. “However, there are concerns about the quantity of anonymous information that is being shared.”

Natalie Poirier, a parent who helped assemble and distribute the packet, said “we need names” — people to come forward and cite their issues directly to the superintendent or School Committee.

Of the roughly 450 students at the school, Poirier said, it’s a small group of students — referred to in the packet as the “Bayou Boys” — who are causing many of the problems.

According to the packet, one student said a poster at the school was defaced with a swastika, and students have also overheard people say, “I’m so glad Trump is like Hitler maybe he’ll get rid of the Mexicans like Hitler did the Jews.”

Many of the hateful comments reported in the packet pertained to statements involving President Donald Trump. The packet reports students chanting “build a wall” and taunting ethnic students with threats of deportation.

“I feel like this is more of a national problem and it’s happening here in little Easthampton,” said EHS parent Noreen Nardi.

Some disagree with claims of widespread racism and other forms of hatred at the city’s high school.

EHS parent Lisa Doney said her daughter, who is a junior at EHS, has never heard racist remarks in the school and feels the current discussion has been exaggerated.

“It’s an amazing school,” Doney said. “Every single teacher has been kind and caring.”

For the 2015-16 school year, Easthampton High did not report any bullying incidents to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, according to spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis.

“In the state as a whole, districts reported 2,120,” Reis said. “To put that in some perspective, we have approximately 400 districts, so that 2,120 translates to around five incidents reported per district.”

The allegations and some email correspondence were compiled in a packet addressed to city councilors, School Committee members, Mayor Cadieux, Police Chief Robert Alberti and District Attorney David Sullivan.

More than 60 parents and community members signed a letter attached to the packet, requesting that Principal Kevin Burke be placed on administrative leave until an external investigation can take place.

In a previous interview, Burke said students normally report an incident to a teacher or administrator, who would then tell the student to fill out a “Bullying Prevention and Intervention” form available at the school and on the school’s website.

Under district policy, Burke said, the administration then investigates the incident, interviewing all students involved to see if bullying has occurred.

If there is a local problem, it may have some national roots. Shortly after the 2016 election, the Southern Poverty Law Center administered an online survey to K-12 educators across the United States titled “The Trump Effect: The Impact of the 2016 Presidential Election on Our Nation’s Schools.”

According to the 10,000-teacher survey, the center reported that harassment had “skyrocketed” from spring 2016 to the fall and that the data indicated the results of the election were having a profoundly negative impact on schools and students.

“Over 2,500 educators described specific incidents of bigotry and harassment that can be directly traced to election rhetoric,” the center stated. “These incidents include graffiti (including swastikas), assaults on students and teachers, property damage, fights and threats of violence.”

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at cashworth@gazettenet.com.




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