Racist social media post spurs rally to support JFK Middle School principal

  • Mareatha Wallace, an education support professional at JFK Middle school, leads a group in “Lift Every Voice,” when a crowd gathered in support of Principal Desmond Caldwell and to denounce racism. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Desmond Caldwell, principal of JFK Middle School in front of the school on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Desmond Caldwell, principal of JFK Middle School in front of the school on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Desmond Caldwell, principal of JFK Middle School, addresses a crowd that gathered to denounce racism on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Desmond Caldwell, principal of JFK Middle School, addresses a crowd that gathered to denounce racism on Wednesday in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Desmond Caldwell, principal of JFK Middle School, addresses a crowd that gathered to denounce racism on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/24/2021 4:55:30 PM

NORTHAMPTON —About 200 people gathered outside JFK Middle School on Wednesday, some holding signs in support of Principal Desmond Caldwell or with messages like “Hate has no home in our school,” and “yes there is racism here.”

Several high school student organizers shouted, “What do we do when Black lives are under attack?”

“Stand up, fight back,” the crowd responded.

Students, staff and others in the community came to the rally in response to a Facebook page titled “JFK White Student Union” that was recently created and pictured the Confederate flag as its profile photo. One post included a video Principal Desmond Caldwell made last month in response to students bringing images of the Confederate flag to school. The post stated “we will not be intimidated by this anti-American tyrant … We cannot allow these individuals to erode our constitutional rights.”

By Wednesday morning, the page appeared to have been taken down from Facebook, and city police are now investigating.

Outside the school on Wednesday, Caldwell addressed the crowd, telling those who came out to support him that he was “in awe.”

“Students should come to school and feel safe,” he said. “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean we get to harm other people.”

He noted the irony of the message on the Facebook page calling him an “anti-American tyrant.”

“My people built this country,” he said. The economic power of the U.S. “is on the backs of people who look like me.”

Caldwell said he doesn’t think a student set up the Facebook page and suspects a “very immature adult” did, as he put it.

Last month, Caldwell created a video addressing the presence of the Confederate flag in school. Students had been wearing, posting or sharing images of the flag “along with claims of it being their First Amendment right to do so,” he stated in the video.

“I will not debate the Confederate flag is protected under the First Amendment right. I will also not debate that the Confederate flag has ties to racist organizations, beliefs and systems.” Caldwell said of the flag. “I want to be clear: I am asking that the Confederate flag not be present in virtual or in-person school. I make this request not to step on your rights, but to help create a safer and less distracting learning environment. I hope everyone realizes that flag is hurtful and controversial at the very least to so many people.”

Students who shared images of the flag at school were not punished, Caldwell said Monday, and instead a restorative justice model was used, focused on education.

“The purpose of school is to educate. And we shouldn’t waste an opportunity to educate in order to punish or in order to give a consequences,” Caldwell said.

Since then, the flag hasn’t appeared in school, he said in an interview Monday.

“We haven’t had incidents of students sharing the Confederate flag since that point. And, certainly, I credit it to students, I think, and having a better understanding of not only the history of the flag but the impact it has on their classmates.”

‘Pretty outraged’

The issue of the Confederate flag in local schools is not confined to Northampton. In May 2017, the Easthampton School Committee banned any display of the flag on school property for the remainder of the school year unless it is part of the educational process, reasoning that it falls within the district’s discrimination policy. The committee’s motion described the flag as “disruptive and inappropriate.” The vote came after dozens of parents, students and community members held a sit-in at the school’s Cafe Commons after a student wore a Confederate flag sweatshirt to school, according to a Gazette report.

When Northampton High School senior Cecelia Ripley and others who organized Wednesday’s event saw the recent Facebook page, she said “we were all pretty outraged.”

Julia Albro-Fisher, a high school junior, added that organizers wanted to show their support for the school administration and principal “and show him this is not a representation of the entire community.”

Mareatha Wallace, an education support professional at JFK, and Erica Caron, the choir director at the school, sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which Wallace told the crowd is known as the Black national anthem. “Listen to the words,” Wallace said.

Caron said she came to the rally to support the principal and her students of color.

“I was upset about what was happening,” Wallace said. Until this year, Wallace said she was the only Black staff member in the school. Now, having a Black principal, Wallace said, “it’s amazing.”

Door open for communication

Before the rally, Superintendent John Provost and Caldwell issued a joint letter on Tuesday addressing the social media page.

Caldwell addressed the post about him in the letter, saying that “this is another example of the resistance that comes with change. In the video I did ask that the flag not be present in virtual and in-person school. I also opened a door for communication about this or any other topic. Communication is our best vehicle for understanding differences and uniting communities. Sadly, the creator(s) of the page have not taken me up on my offer to communicate.”

Provost commended Caldwell in Tuesday’s letter.

“As superintendent, I wholeheartedly support Principal Caldwell’s work to interrupt the racism inherent in displays of the Confederate flag.” He continued, “Our public schools may provide one of the last remaining spaces in our increasingly polarized and segregated society where young people have the opportunity to develop an appreciation for the humanity of others unlike themselves. For such a community to be possible, there are some prerequisites, including freedom from symbols that serve to dehumanize any members of the community.”

The district’s letter states that the Northampton Police Department has been made aware of the Facebook posting and contacted Provost, who said they are looking into the matter.

A call to Northampton Police about the investigation was not immediately returned on Wednesday.

Racial Equity and Learning in the Northampton Public Schools, an anti-racist group in the school district, denounced the page in a statement. “While in this moment many in our district are rallying in response to particular actions unfolding on social media, white supremacist ideology is not limited to online spaces, and it is enabled by the racism that is baked into our country’s foundation – racism that is alive and well in Northampton, as everywhere. What was initiated on social media may be the work of an individual or individuals, but it is not an isolated event, and it is a call to action for us all.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjohem@gazettenet.com.


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