Consultant hired to help Easthampton schools investigate complaints of racism

  • Easthampton High School Principal Kevin Burke addresses the Easthampton School Committee. 04/25/2017 —GAZETTE STAFF/Joshua Murray

  • Deb Lusnia, Nancy Follansbee and Stephanie Martinez at Tuesday's Easthampton School Committee meeting. 04/25/017 —GAZETTE STAFF/Joshua Murray

  • Safire DeJong addresses the Easthampton School Committee about the feedback she and her colleagues at the Collaborative for Educational Services received from students. 04/25/2017 —GAZETTE STAFF/Joshua Murray

  • Board member Peter Gunn and Chairwoman Debora Lusnia are shown at the Easthampton School Committee meeting Tuesday night, where officials spelled out their plans for dealing with complaints of racism and harassment at the high school. GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

@kate_ashworth
Published: 4/26/2017 12:31:05 AM

EASTHAMPTON — To investigate alleged racism at Easthampton High School, the district is working with an external agency to determine facts and develop a three-year plan of action.

The Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton has started gathering information from students and plans to have a data analysis and recommendations for the school completed by the end of May.

On Tuesday, the School Committee and Superintendent Nancy Follansbee did not go into detail about the issues documented in a packet that was delivered to school, city and law enforcement officials. While the statements are anonymous, there are complaints of swastikas, racial slurs and multiple incidents of harassment.

Follansbee said what Easthampton is experiencing is similar to problems faced in other school districts across the state and communities across the country.

“We can consider this a problem or we can consider it an amazing learning opportunity,” Follansbee said. “And I choose to consider it an amazing learning opportunity for all of us.”

School Committee member Peter Gunn said students’ privacy rights are paramount, as well as due process rights of faculty at the school. Gunn said some correspondence received will be processed internally and school officials will hold letters until they have done their due diligence.

Chairwoman Debora Lusnia said anonymous statements are not considered factual and school officials need students to come forward if they have personal experience of harassment or racist behavior. At Tuesday’s meeting, Lusnia asked the audience of about 100 people to refrain from reading anonymous statements and not allude to information that is not personally known to be true or factual.

“Once the investigation is complete, a detailed report will be provided to the entire School Committee,” Lusnia said, reading from a School Committee statement. “Once the committee has the report, all of the factual information will be shared with the community.”

CES facilitated two student forums earlier this month and staff member Safire DeJong said the agency was able to listen to more than 100 students and received over 100 school climate surveys. DeJong said surveys will be available to students over the next two weeks.

The collaborative plans to hold multiple forums for “transforming school culture at EHS” geared toward parents, students and EHS staff.

DeJong said CES will gather themes from what has been learned in the forums and present those themes to a group of stakeholders — parents, students and teacher — and create a plan for moving forward.

After-school forums for EHS students will be on Tuesday and Thursday next week from 2:05 to 3:05 p.m. Forums for parents and guardians of EHS students will be on Friday and next Thursday, May 4, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the school. And a forum for EHS faculty and staff will be Monday from 2:15 to 3:15 p.m.

The School Committee also announced a list of plans which includes creation of an advisory committee at EHS for parents, teachers and administrators to “ensure voices (are) heard, and issues continue to be brought to light.” The committee also plans to provide training for teachers and staff members on how to address and respond to issues of bias and prejudice.

“Know that we are all trying our best to do our very best,” Follansbee said. “But this is hard work and we can’t do it alone.”

Mayor Karen Cadieux said “we have been listening, we will continue to listen and we always will listen.”

Principal Kevin Burke shared personal experiences. He said was raised Orthodox Jewish and remembers walking to the temple with his family, wearing a yarmulke. Burke said that on occasion some people driving by would make anti-Semitic remarks to him. In another incident, Burke walked into a school in the Midwest and said there was anti-Semitic graffiti on the wall.

“I still remember it and I still remember the feeling I had,” he said of seeing the graffiti.

While Burke said he can’t put himself in the shoes of his students, he said he is “deeply sorry” that some students who walk into EHS feel unsafe.

“That is not the type of school I want to run,” he said.

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




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