Confederate flag banned at Easthampton High School

  • Peter Gunn and Deb Lusnia at an Easthampton School Committee meeting April 25.

@kate_ashworth
Published: 5/10/2017 12:46:10 AM

EASTHAMPTON — Until the school year ends on June 26, the Confederate flag is banned from Easthampton High School.

The School Committee voted 5-1 Tuesday to prohibit any display of the Confederate flag on school property unless it is part of the educational process, reasoning that the measure falls within the district’s discrimination policy. The motion states that the flag is disruptive and inappropriate.

“The Confederate flag is causing, and would cause, a significant disruption,” School Committee member Cynthia Kwiecinski said.

The committee will review the policy over the summer before deciding on a long-term measure for the school.

School Committee member Peter Gunn opposed the measure, saying he was concerned by the “heckler’s veto,” in which someone who doesn’t like a form of expression can create such a disruption that the speaker is silenced.

Last week, a student wore a Confederate flag sweatshirt to Easthampton High School. On Monday, dozens of parents, students and community members held a sit-in at the school’s Cafe Commons. Adults signed in for their visit as “disruption.”

Superintendent Nancy Follansbee placed a temporary ban on the flag until the School Committee could discuss it further.

School Committee member Debora Lusnia said a student who wore the Confederate flag sweatshirt to school Tuesday was ushered into the office and asked to leave the premises when he did not change his outfit.

But other committee members say the clothing has been considered inappropriate and disruptive to the learning environment prior to the sit-in. The issue of racial tension at EHS has been a city-wide concern, drawing crowds to School Committee meetings and prompting protests.

Kwiecinski said school districts limit freedom of expression to some degree in matters of dress code, discipline for certain actions, and prohibit foul language for the purpose of creating an educational environment and stopping disruption of learning.

“We need to protect freedom of speech, but also ensure that it doesn’t disrupt the learning environment for our students,” Lusnia said.

The meeting drew more than 50 people with lengthy public comment and, at times, heated remarks regarding situations at the high school.

Lynda Broadhurst read a letter from her son Jacob, a junior at EHS, who she said is on the other side of the situation. Broadhurst said her son has been bullied, getting dirty looks and some students say he’s a “racist” and “white supremacist.”

Attorney Bill Newman of the American Civil Liberties Union said the School Committee has been asked to embark on a “slippery slope.”

“Are you going to ban the Palestinian flag on a T-shirt because that is deeply offensive to Jewish students?” Newman said. “Are you going to ban a picture of Donald Trump that says ‘Support the Muslim ban?’”

Newman said students’ complaints about racism need to be investigated and addressed.

“This an issue that won’t go away over one flag,” Newman said.

City Council member Peg Conniff said, “I firmly believe that a strong school system is the engine that drives our city and our future.”

Conniff urged the committee to show all students they are safe in Easthampton schools.

Over the past month, the Collaborative for Education Services has been conducting various sessions for students, parents and the school’s faculty and staff to gather information and create a three-year plan on transforming the school culture.

But School Committee student representative Tess McCallum said those forums have not been enough. She said students just want a chance for their voices to be heard, and their opportunities to talk were limited at the forums.

Follansbee said students will have more opportunities to talk, but they can also report to guidance councilors, School Committee members and other school officials they feel comfortable with.

“We do not tolerate discrimination. We do not tolerate our students being treated in unfair ways. We do not tolerate bullying,” Follansbee said. “But, in order to act on any of those incidents we need someone to report directly what has happened and who has been involved.”

Mayor Karen Cadieux could not attend Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, but posted an update on her Facebook page.

“I am pleased to share that after meetings with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to discuss and request their services regarding the racial tensions at Easthampton High School, they are willing to assist us in scheduling a community forum with their Civil Rights Unit. More information will be forthcoming as that forum is scheduled.”

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at cashworth@gazettenet.com.


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