Easthampton School Committee raps mayor’s ‘racist, unacceptable’ remarks in school, refusal to discuss matter

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Staff Writer
Published: 4/27/2022 8:48:14 PM

EASTHAMPTON — The School Committee is calling Mayor Nicole LaChapelle’s controversial remarks to a student in a high school civics class “racist and unacceptable,” and her use of profanity in a school as a public official “unprofessional,” according to an email the committee sent to parents and guardians on Wednesday.

The statement, signed by committee Chairwoman Cynthia Kwiecinski, also says that the committee intended to hold a closed-door meeting Tuesday night to discuss complaints concerning the mayor’s comments in the We the People class, and that she 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.

“The School Committee was surprised and dismayed at her refusal to address this issue with the Committee, as we had held off talking about this until the Mayor had a chance to return from her vacation and could meet with us,” the communication to parents and guardians states. “The Committee wanted to ask her a number of questions, but we continued without her after her refusal to attend.”

The mother of the high school student alleged in a public Facebook post that LaChapelle made “racist remarks” to her daughter in front of a class on March 30 and “used the F-word” before she left the class. The Facebook post has since been taken down.

The post quoted the mayor as saying, “You are different … you don’t talk like a white person.” And then the mayor later said, “No one f---ing cares … I had a rough morning,” according to the post.

Kwiecinski said April 12 that the committee would undertake an investigation into the exchange. Kwiecinski has not responded to requests for comment on the investigation.

In the statement to parents and guardians, the committee said upon review of events, the mayor’s response to the incident was “not timely.”

“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 Tuesday, 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 Kelley Brown on April 1 was the first time she became aware of any concern about her visit to the school.

“That same day, she 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 last night.”

LaChapelle publicly addressed the matter at the City Council’s April 21 meeting, stating that “At the We the People practice session, I intended to share my perspective about implicit bias that might factor into the judges’ decision,” referring to an upcoming competition for the class. “Yes, I swore. Yes, I had a rough morning. Not excusable at all. But human.

“As soon as I learned of the effect my words had on the student and family, I reached out directly before I left on vacation,” she continued. “I met with the parents, superintendent, principal and We the People instructor, and I wrote letters to the family and the class that was present.”

The School Committee’s statement to parents and guardians calls for the mayor to further address the matter.

“We understand the mayor has apologized for her action, however, the Committee strongly believes that more restorative work needs to be done by Mayor LaChapelle and that she needs to do this work with both the School Committee and the Easthampton Community as a whole,” the committee wrote. “We believe it is possible for her to do this restorative work and we urge her to do so as quickly as possible.”

Public comments

During the School Committee’s regular session Tuesday, the issue was on the minds of the public who offered suggestions for how the committee should handle its investigation into the matter.

“What will the investigation involve? What will that mean? … I would like to really see something come out of this investigation that means something,” resident Jean Frances said. “What we need is for Nicole, our mayor, to be taking a deep look at implicit bias — some would call it overt racism — wherever it is on the scale, we need to be looking at it seriously.”

Frances spoke of the city’s history with racism, citing an incident with racist remarks that took place with the City Council 20 years ago as well as a student-led walkout, protesting racism at the high school in more recent years.

“I have to say that I’m really ashamed of this town. I know that people of color move out of town and people of color don’t want to move into town, and white people who have some awareness don’t want to live here either,” Frances said. “I know, Nicole, that you apologized and you didn’t intend it to come out the way that it did, but it did. And it was hurtful and it was painful, not only to that student, but to all of us.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, city resident Shelby Lee said that there was a need for “openness” in the investigation. She also questioned the mayor’s apology.

“I don’t know if it was intended to be an apology … it really came off as ‘I’m sorry what I said was taken the wrong way,’ and I think that’s something we need to address as not an acceptable resolution to the situation,” she said.

Shawn Sheehan, a science teacher at the high school and president of the Easthampton Education Association, had urged both the City Council and School Committee at past meetings to investigate the interaction. He told the School Committee on Tuesday that he had come before the members on behalf of his students. He also indicated that he spoke with the mother of the student and intends to relay more information to the committee to aid in the investigation.

“At the April 20 City Council meeting, two people of color, who support the mayor, said I should not be reporting racial incidents because I’m white and I’m using my white voice.

“I acknowledge my white privilege and my white voice. I’m also using my educator voice and feel qualified to do so given my two master’s degrees and have been teaching in this district for 22 years. I’m also here on behalf of my students who wanted me to speak out on this issue,” Sheehan said, adding, “What the mayor said is serious and shouldn’t be minimized or glossed over. I acknowledge the mayor’s apology. If the mayor was an educator in the Easthampton school district, she would have still been put on paid administrative leave, investigated and her employment would have probably been terminated.”

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

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