Behind the scenes: The rise, demise of High-Five Fridays

  • JOHN PROVOST JOHN PROVOST

  • Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper. Gazette File photo

@JackSuntrup
Published: 3/10/2017 8:14:57 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The suspension of the police-school outreach program “High-Five Friday” in February sent waves nationwide.

Now, emails obtained by the Gazette from the Police Department and School District as part of an open records request chronicle the behind-the-scenes rise and demise of the program — and the backlash that followed.

In November, concerns from parents characterizing the program as well-intentioned but ill-conceived were not on anyone’s radar, emails show.

On Nov. 15, Police Capt. John Cartledge emailed elementary school principals about “High-Five Friday,” with the goal being to “strengthen the relationship” between children and the police through a monthly program where police would greet kids as they walked in to school on Friday.

“We wanted to reach out to the principals first, so that each of you could put this initiative out in a news letter if you are interested in having your school participate,” Cartledge wrote in an email on Nov. 15 to all four elementary principals, Police Chief Jody Kasper and Superintendent John Provost.

District principals seemed on board.

“This is the stupidest idea I have ever heard…just kidding,” Sal J. Canata, principal of Leeds Elementary wrote back to Cartledge. “You know me, I think it is a wonderful idea; creating positive relations, providing a sense of safety, community with a positive vibe is exactly aligned with what I think elementary school should be about.”

“Thank you so much!” Sarah Madden, principal of R.K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary wrote, adding she would let parents know in the Nov. 28 newsletter. “I love this idea, and it will be very nice to have officers join us any Friday.”

Gwen Agna, principal of Jackson Street School, had a positive reaction when the school’s first High-Five Friday was scheduled for Jan. 6.

“Great — see you then!” she wrote.

There was no email from Bridge Street Elementary Principal Beth Choquette among the copies of emails provided to the Gazette, but she indicated her support in later exchanges.

Provost and Kasper are scheduled to meet Tuesday in an attempt to move forward with a revamped outreach program.

Complaints start

Gina Nortonsmith, a district employee, complained about High-Five Friday at a Dec. 8 School Committee meeting a week after the first High-Five Friday at Leeds on Dec. 2. Provost let Kasper know in an email that night.

“She said that the High-5’s were not substantive [and] were traumatizing to children of color who have learned to fear police,” Provost wrote, in part, adding that he had offered to set up a meeting between Kasper, Nortonsmith and parents who were offended by the program.

“She said she would have to think about it,” Provost wrote. “I will keep you posted.”

Kasper wrote back the next morning.

“This is the first complaint that I have heard,” she said, in part. “On the flip side we heard very positive feedback from staff, parents, and kids up at Leeds elementary.

“I do disagree with her contention that it is not substantive, but I am respectful of her perception on this matter,” she said. “We’ll see how today’s High-5ing goes over at Bridge Street School.”

In an email Dec. 8 to Provost, after the School Committee meeting, Ward 2 committee member Laura Fallon wrote: “I think tonight was the first time I heard anything about this new collaboration with NPD. For what it’s worth, I agree with what Ms. Nortonsmith said during public comment period tonight and I’m wondering if you might reconsider this initiative or at least delay it until there have been more conversations with the community. Thoughts?”

Provost said he would check with district principals to see if there were any concerns.

“I will keep you informed of their responses,” Provost said. “If the High-5’s are having the paradoxical effect of making students of color feel more intimidated, that’s the last thing Jody or I would want, but I am not ready to conclude that that has been the outcome based solely upon a three-minute speech from someone who never raised a concern to her building principal and who still hasn’t agreed to meet with me.”

On Dec. 13, Provost sent members of the School Committee feedback from the four principals he received on Dec. 9.

Madden wrote: “All was positive at Ryan Road.”

Choquette put her reaction in an email stating, “It was fabulous! Especially because to wrap up our Inclusive Schools Week, we are all dressed like our superheroes. It was great for the kids to see the NPD because they are true superheroes. The kids loved it, some even got to sit in the police car. Thank you so much NPD….”

Cantana wrote: “We had one phone call because during drop off there was a police car parked out front which they were worried about.

“Overall, though High 5 Friday was absolutely awesome. … I put it in the newsletter as well and have heard nothing.”

“I want to continue this program at Leeds for the very concerns she has so children don’t feel they have to fear the police.”

Agna, whose school hadn’t yet had a High-Five Friday, wrote: “I plan to prep our students in the week before our day (Jan. 6) so they won’t be surprised to see a police officer in front of the school,” adding that she included a message in the school newsletter.

Others raised red flags after the initial Dec. 8 complaint as emails obtained refer to specific concerns from parents. One parent wrote, in part on Dec. 11, to Agna: “this sure is a problem for our family.”

Demise

Fast-forward a month after the Dec. 8 meeting and winter break. At that point, Kasper had spoken at length at the Jan. 12 School Committee meeting defending the program.

On Jan. 26, Provost sent an email to Kasper with the subject line “A Pause?”

“I feel that pronouncements coming out of Washington are pouring gasoline on the fire,” Provost wrote. “I spent a lot of time today settling things down around the district. What do you think about pausing High-5 until we have that meeting with the parents?”

A meeting for Feb. 13 had been scheduled, which Nortonsmith and other parents attended.

“High-5 Fridays may simply be too much for our community,” Kasper wrote back to Provost. “There wasn’t one scheduled for today. I’ll talk to John [Cartledge] about cancelling the others that are currently set to occur before the community meeting.”

On Feb. 15, two days after Kasper and Provost met with community members, Cartledge sent an email announcing the “stopping” of High-Five Friday.

“There have been some recent meetings regarding this program, where some parents brought up some concerns regarding their children specifically,” he wrote, in part. “There was nothing done wrong with this program, but due to the parent concerns we will be stopping this program for now.”

On Feb. 19, after an anonymous blogger caught wind of the suspension and the same day the Gazette first reported on High-Five Friday, Provost asked Kasper to schedule a time to talk about whether “any special precautions are warranted for the reopening of school?”

“What a mess this has become,” Kasper told Provost in a email. “Yes, I’d be happy to chat with you.”

“We will get through this,” Provost wrote back. “24 hours from now, no one will care.”

Backlash

Of course, the story didn’t end that Sunday. Out-of-town news media, including the Boston Globe, the New York Times, a slew of conservative and “alt-right” outlets picked up the story — and the school district and police department fielded many angry emails.

“I cannot believe you stopped this effort,” a man wrote to Provost on Feb. 22. “The police try to do the right thing and we have people like you that stop it. No wonder kids grow up to be thugs.”

Not all the emails were critical.

“I can’t begin to imagine the outpouring of opinions you have likely received in the last few weeks,” one woman who said her children attend Jackson Street School wrote on Feb. 22. “The (now national) scrutiny and hyperbolic armchair quarterbacking is utterly infuriating and ultimately fails to make any real contribution to the situation.”

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.


Jobs



Support Local Journalism


Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy