Recording sheds light on Easthampton mayor’s alleged racist comments to high school class

  • NICOLE LaCHAPELLE

  • The four-minute audio recording of Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle’s visit to a high school class last month provides context behind the alleged racist remark that has sparked controversy and led to a School Committee investigation. GAzette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 4/28/2022 7:57:31 PM
Modified: 4/28/2022 7:56:04 PM

EASTHAMPTON — An audio recording of Mayor Nicole LaChapelle’s remarks made to a student in a high school civics class last month that the School Committee has called “racist and unacceptable” provides a deeper look at the encounter the mayor had with students during her March 30 visit.

In the four-minute audio clip obtained by the Gazette, the instructor of the class, Kelley Brown, invites LaChapelle to offer her thoughts after watching two groups of students practice for the We the People: The Citizen and Constitution national finals competition, which tests students on their understanding of the U.S. Constitution and legal principles.

LaChapelle begins by detailing her perception of students’ elocution and praised their command and knowledge of the material. She then offers advice to a student on how “to be seen” and recommended using “the marble trick” as one such technique.

“Pretend there’s a marble in your bellybutton and you’re rolling it up,” she said. “Nobody even knows you’re doing it and … you’re making the marble push up with your breath, and instead of pushing back, push forward and put your elbows on the table. … You want people to see you’re commanding your space and if you can time that … you look completely different.”

At the 1:50-minute mark, LaChapelle tells a student, “Your cadence is a little, it’s … not white. You don’t talk like a white person. Right? And that’s fine. But what you have to do with your physical presence is say like, who f---ing cares?”

Just after that, at the 2:05-minute mark, she tells the class, “I had a tough morning, I’m sorry.” Her comments are returned with laughter.

The audio continues with LaChapelle complimenting another student for their tone of voice and hand gestures. She also lauded the class’s eye contact with the “judges” who were present in the practice session.

“The sheer knowledge, I thought you had too much to get out with the question. You got the material,” she said. “Nice job.”

Following this visit, the mother of the student wrote a public Facebook post that has since been deleted, alleging that LaChapelle made “racist remarks” to her daughter in front of the whole class.

LaChapelle later said the comment was intended to strengthen the students’ argument at the class’s upcoming competition by acknowledging factors that are out of their control, like the bias often faced by people of color, and the comment was interpreted differently by the student and family.

Nearly two weeks after the classroom visit, on April 12, School Committee Chairwoman Cynthia Kwiecinski said that the committee would investigate the exchange.

LaChapelle responded to the allegations at the April 20 City Council meeting, acknowledging that her comments were “wrong” and vowed to take steps to “break down barriers.”

In a statement to parents and guardians on Wednesday, the committee said it intended to hold a closed-door meeting in executive session on Tuesday to discuss complaints concerning the mayor’s comments, and that LaChapelle had been sent a letter in advance so that she could prepare. During the regular meeting, according to Kwiecinski, the mayor, who is a member of the committee, read a statement and then announced that the executive session was about her but that she would not attend.

Upon review of events, the committee also stated that the mayor’s response to the incident was “not timely.” The statement was signed by Kwiecinski, who has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the investigation.

“She let five days go by without addressing the damage she caused, even though she was contacted by both the parent of the student who was the target of her comment on Wednesday, March 30, as well as the Superintendent on Thursday, March 31 and Friday, April 1,” the committee’s statement reads. “She did not meet with the family, Superintendent LeClair and Teacher Kelley Brown until Monday, April 4, 2022. It is this committee’s belief … that it was inappropriate to let days go by without having a meaningful conversation with those involved in a heartfelt and healing manner.”

Kate Norton, a spokesperson for LaChapelle, said Wednesday evening that an email from Brown on the morning of April 1 was the first time the mayor became aware of any concern about her visit to the school.

“That same day, she (LaChapelle) exchanged calls, text messages and emails with the principal, superintendent, parent and teacher,” Norton said. “The School Committee knows this or they should know this based on their discussion (Tuesday) night.”

In an interview with the Gazette, committee member Marin Goldstein said the parent of the student reached out directly to LaChapelle the same day the incident occurred and she did not respond. Goldstein said the parent wrote the Facebook post when she did not hear back from the mayor.

“In her statement, the mayor said she dealt with everything immediately,” Goldstein said. “We know for a fact that her words were taken in a hurtful manner. The parent reached out to her (the mayor) that same day.”

Norton reiterated that the mayor was not contacted by the parent until April 1. Norton provided a text exchange between the mayor and the parent dated April 1, and said, “Marin Goldstein seems to think that the mayor and the student’s parent did not speak until five days later, and that is just blatanly false.”

Goldstein added that he felt that LaChapelle, by stating publicly afterward that her response had been immediate, had “undermined” some of the restorative efforts.

Goldstein said the investigation included a meeting with the students and teachers who were present during the We the People practice session. He also confirmed that he had heard a portion of the audio clip during the executive session on Tuesday.

“There were multiple days of no response — for her to say she immediately addressed people’s concerns is just not truthful,” he said.

The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 10.

Staff writer Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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