Back to the drawing board: Police, schools rethink outreach

  • Jeff Doak and his son Liam,5, of Northampton talk about the High Five Fridays while sledding Monday afternoon.

  • Jeff Doak and his son Liam,5, of Northampton talk about the High Five Fridays while sledding Monday afternoon.

  • Jeff Doak and his son Liam,5, of Northampton talk about the High Five Fridays while sledding Monday afternoon.

  • Joy Ohm of Northampton talks about the High Five Fridays while waiting in line at the Academy Of Music Monday afternoon.

  • Beth Adel talks about the High Five Fridays in Pulaski Park Monday afternoon.

@JackSuntrup
Published: 2/20/2017 11:03:53 PM

NORTHAMPTON — It seemed like a reasonable idea. Northampton police officers would visit a different elementary school every Friday and give out high-fives as kids walked in for class.

They called it “High-Five Friday.” It was a simple — and free — way to build bridges between the police department and the community it serves.

And who could be against that?

Reaching out, it turned out, would not be so simple.

The program started in early December. The School Committee began hearing complaints soon after. Gina Nortonsmith, a district employee, said at a Dec. 8 meeting the program was well-intentioned but “ill-considered, tone-deaf and potentially damaging” to children who had had negative interactions with police.

Police Chief Jody Kasper tried to address concerns at the Jan. 12 School Committee meeting, after which Superintendent John Provost asked the department to put the program on hold.

After a separate community meeting last week, Kasper and Provost decided to suspend High-Five Friday until further notice. The two are set to meet March 14 to discuss a possible alternative.

Provost said he has heard from parents who have specific concerns about their particular children. The complaints about children feeling uncomfortable were not just hypothetical, he said.

An anonymous blogger reported on the saga Friday, and the police department confirmed the cancellation on Saturday via Facebook. The department’s post generated 183 comments and more than 100 “shares” as of Monday evening. Many commenters were surprised. Many were angry.

Jean Fitzgerald, of Chicopee, who used to work in the Chicopee School District, was one of dozens of commenters on the Gazette’s Facebook page. She took issue with the suspension, but understood parent concerns. She said some middle school students she taught were “terrified” of the police.

“They were terrified of the police because they only saw them in a bad light,” she said. “I think they also need to see that the police are there to help them. There’s a positive side to policing. … Not all interactions with police have to be negative.”

The point many commenters made boiled down to this: If some parents and children are concerned about the police, wouldn’t these positive interactions help ease those anxieties?

Parents react

Downtown Monday, families were lining up for a free movie outside the Academy of Music. Opinion among parents there was mixed.

The concerns some parents had were due to what they said was a lack of consultation with them beforehand. Other concerns centered around how some children might be uncomfortable with a police officer posted at the door.

“I could see how some families wouldn’t be comfortable with it,” said Joy Ohm, who has two children who attend Jackson Street School. “I don’t know what the process was but it seems like they should’ve consulted the community first.”

“I was fine with it,” her daughter, Giselle, 10, said of High-Five Friday.

Beth Adel, who has a fifth grader at Jackson Street School, echoed Ohm’s concern about advance notice and planning. She also had concerns about the program itself.

“I do have concerns about children being pressured to high-five strangers,” Adel said, “because we teach our children to respect the police and also to have appropriate boundaries with strangers.”

Debra Junnila, who has two kids who attend Jackson Street School, had mixed feelings when told the program had been suspended.

“I guess I can understand some people’s concerns,” she said, “but overall it seems like a nice program and a good way for kids to interact with them (police) in their (the kids’) own environment.”

Sigrid Schmalzer, who has one child at Bridge Street School, said, “Generally speaking I don’t love mixing police and schools but this seems relatively innocuous.”

Officials push back

A story line pushed since the news broke is that the police department caved to pressures from adversarial and unreasonable “social justice warriors.”

Provost, in an email, said residents should not stoop to such divisive language. He said the district and the police department are working on outreach that works for everyone.

“I have had many conversations with parents and community members with diverse opinions about the program,” he said. “I have found all of those conversations to be positive and productive. It dismays me that much of the online discussion has been so hurtful. Children learn by observing adult behavior.”

Kasper said that since the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program was canceled several years ago, there has been no continuous police presence in district elementary schools.

She said she wants kids to develop relationships with police early on, so that when they are older they might not be so hesitant to approach a middle school or high school resource officer with problems.

Kasper said outreach efforts will continue.

“Our intention is not to pack up and go our separate ways,” she said.

Suzanne Farrington, of Northampton, was among a minority of commenters on the Gazette’s Facebook page who agreed with the pause on police-youth outreach at the schools. She noticed how angry the people posting seemed.

“People, especially on Facebook, tend to be polarized in their expressions but in real life they might be less so,” she said.

If they listended to a family’s concerns about High-Five Friday in person, maybe — just maybe — they would understand.

“Most of them would say, ‘wow, yeah, I really hadn’t thought too much about that.’”

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




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