AG raps Easthampton schools for not getting preapproval for changes in wake of investigation

  • Director of curriculum and district diversity coordinator Julie Anne Levin’s room is marked with a sign, Dec. 21, at Easthampton High School. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • A bulletin board promoting inclusivity at Easthampton High School is one of many efforts made to improve the culture Dec. 21, 2017 following a critical civil rights investigation released by the attorney general’s office in August 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Dozens of student, parents and community members staged a demonstration at Easthampton High School during the 2016-2017 school year after a student wore a Confederate flag sweatshirt to school. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 8/30/2018 10:00:33 PM

EASTHAMPTON — The school district failed to comply last school year with terms of an agreement reached with the state attorney general to address problems with the culture and climate at the high school.

According to a July 23 letter, Assistant Attorney General Jon Burke states that school leaders did not get the required preapproval from the attorney general’s office before implementing revised policies and procedures relating to harassment and police involvement at the high school.

School officials, however, said they implemented revised policies and training to address the issues identified in the wake of an investigation that ended in August 2017, and that these changes began before the attorney general’s office sent a memorandum of agreement.

Burke’s letter, addressed to School Committee Chairwoman Cynthia Kwiecinski, states that the district did not meet many provisions spelled out in the memorandum during the 2017-18 school year, in particular a lack of compliant training for all Easthampton High School students on bullying and harassment, and a lack of approval from the AG’s office for new policies and training. This includes the district’s agreement with the Police Department concerning the student resource officer.

“After recently meeting with the new Superintendent Allison LeClair we are encouraged by her commitment to take the steps required to foster an environment that is positive, welcoming, and inclusive for all students,” the letter states.

LeClair, who started July 1, is taking steps to address the AG’s concerns. She said there are no repercussions as a result of the missteps.

“From my understanding, the Easthampton Public School District received the memorandum from the attorney general’s office right before the start of school last year … They hit the ground running after receiving the memorandum of agreement but did not submit everything for preapproval,” LeClair said.

She said that school administrators had scheduled presenters and training in the months before getting the memorandum from the attorney general’s office in an attempt to be proactive in meeting the requirements of the agreement.

“They’ve (AG’s office) articulated that while everything did not go as smoothly as they hoped for last year, we accomplished a lot,” LeClair said. “And they’ve acknowledged there was a lot of great work and we are planning to continue down that path.”

She reaffirmed the school’s commitment to inclusivity, civility and diversity in the district and said, “We know we are not alone in these issues and we hope to inspire and challenge other districts to focus on those areas.”

Kwiecinski and EHS Principal Kevin Burke could not be reached for comment for this story. Former superintendent Nancy Follansbee, who announced her retirement last October and oversaw the implementation of the memorandum in the district, also declined to comment.

AG’s investigation

The AG’s investigation found that school administrators ignored warning signs of racism and tension that led up to a physical assault where three students of color were arrested. The investigation concluded that the district needed to review and change the manner in which it handles issues related to diversity, discipline and bias-related conduct.

The memorandum required the district to update policies relating to how officials respond to harassment, develop procedures regarding when and how law enforcement will be involved with incidents at EHS, and update policies relating to the School Resource Officer Program.

“My understanding of what occurred last year is that the district failed to meet compliances … the district was supposed to request preapproval on any of the actions that they took,” School Committee member Marissa Carrere said. “Policies should’ve gotten preapproval before they were instated. Instead they sent all the materials for a review at the end of the academic year in a single delivery. Certain items did not meet compliance and they did not know because there was no preapproval.”

There was language missing from the School Resource Officer Program policy, Carrere said, to address the selection of the school resource officer. An agreement between the school district and the Police Department had to include language stating that there would be a preference in assigning a student resource officer who is not related to any current students in the district.

Additionally, the memorandum states that any school resource officer who is related to a current EHS student must notify a direct supervisor at the earliest opportunity. The school resource officer is paid and selected by the Police Department, according to Carrere.

“I think the takeaway is there were efforts made in good faith to do the things that had to be done in the district, but there were bureaucratic failures of getting preapprovals … We need to be working on building trust with the School Committee and slip-ups like this can undermine that trust and that’s a concern for me as a School Committee member,” Carrere said.

‘Compliance grid’

LeClair and Mayor Nicole LaChapelle held a conference call with members of the attorney general’s office on Monday to review the letter.

“Superintendent LeClair is very clear about wanting to comply fully and having open communication more broadly with the attorney general’s office,” LaChapelle said. “We had a conference call to go through the elements of the letter and go through the misunderstandings of when policies have to be submitted, as well as reporting on the effects of policies and the training that need to be done.”

LeClair said she has developed a “compliance grid” that details all the requirements of the memorandum, how the district is addressing those requirements, and who is responsible for each policy or procedure.

The Anti-Defamation League will visit the high school in November for anti-bias training for students to meet memorandum requirements, LeClair said. The exact dates are not set yet, she said, but the AG has been informed.

Additionally, all school administrators and staff received training on discrimination and unconscious bias by the school district’s attorney, LeClair said, and information pertaining to anti-bullying training and an audit of the high school’s disciplinary records were submitted on July 31 to the AG.

The bullying policy will still need revising and will be addressed at the next school policy subcommittee meeting, as well as the bully prevention plan that will receive input from the Stakeholder Advisory Committee, a group formed as part of the high school’s 10-Point Action Plan.

Luis Fieldman can be reached

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