Smith Vocational school leaders say peace group AFSC will be allowed on campus (updated with document)

Last modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — A dispute between leaders of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School and the American Friends Service Committee was resolved Tuesday after an eleventh-hour meeting brokered by the newly elected chairman of the vocational school board.

Trustees Chairman Michael T. Cahillane announced at Tuesday’s board meeting that the Friends group will be allowed to continue its long-standing practice of distributing literature to students on alternatives to military service.

Cahillane said those visits would be allowed even under a new policy the board adopted Tuesday that limits campus visits by outside groups to those that provide “secondary educational opportunities, employment or scholarship funds” to vocational school students.

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The Friends group had claimed the policy was designed to keep its literature tables off the Smith Vocational campus while allowing visits by military recruiters. AFSC leaders had urged supporters to attend Tuesday’s trustees meeting to protest the policy — a call that drew a group of about 15 supporters.

But in a statement that came as a surprise to many of those in the audience, Jeff Napolitano, director of the Northampton-based western Massachusetts chapter of the AFSC, rose instead to thank vocational school trustees and administrators for meeting with him to resolve the dispute.

“I’m thankful we had a chance to clear up miscommunications and to talk about what the AFSC does,” he said, during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s board meeting.

“I’m happy we have come to an understanding about the AFSC being able to table,” Napolitano said. “We’re looking forward to being able to interact with students and guidance counselors at Smith Vocational.”

Napolitano said he and Smith Vocational Superintendent Jeffrey Peterson planned to issue a joint statement on their agreement Wednesday — an announcement that met with applause from the audience.

In an interview before the start of Tuesday’s trustees meeting, Napolitano said Cahillane had reached out to him about an hour beforehand to “facilitate a conversation” with Peterson.

Napolitano said the three talked about “what we do and don’t do and we gave them examples of the literature we distribute. We came to an understanding that the AFSC will be allowed to table.”

Napolitano attributed the dispute over campus visits to “a misunderstanding” on Peterson’s part about the mission of the Friends organization.

“At the end of the day, we are just happy we can do the work we’ve always done,” Napolitano added.

When asked before the start of Tuesday’s meeting what he thought had been the cause of the disagreement with the Friends group, Peterson said, “I don’t know. I’m still confused about that.”

He made no additional comment on the matter during the board meeting.

The new policy adopted unanimously by the trustees Tuesday bans distribution of literature on “controversial issues” to students or class groups, and requires permission of the principal for visitors who make classroom presentations on such issues. Principal John Kelly has said previously that the policy would not exclude the AFSC.

Before the vote, Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz — who is a member of the Smith Vocational board — asked for assurances that it would allow visits by the AFSC and similar groups to campus.

Cahillane replied that it would. He emphasized that language used in the new policy came from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and was identical to rules in place in the Northampton schools and other districts across the state.

When reached by phone Tuesday evening, Glenn Koocher, executive director of the association, confirmed that the policy adopted by the Smith Vocational trustees was developed by his organization. But he could not say how many or which other schools statewide are using the same language.

William Newman, director of the western regional office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said he still has questions about Smith Vocational’s policy on controversial issues.

Newman — who did not attend Tuesday’s trustees meeting — said he was pleased to hear the AFSC will be allowed to continue visiting the vocational school. But he said the broader policy on controversial issues remains ill defined and open to dispute.

“I think that policy invites problems,” Newman said, in a phone interview following Tuesday’s trustees meeting. “I hope the school will revisit this issue.”

Smith Vocation-AFSC joint statement


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