Easthampton settles racial bias lawsuit

  • Joshua Brown, at center, takes a photo of fellow students at the Easthampton High walkout in support of diversity in March 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Easthampton high school students in front of the mayor’s office after walking out of Easthampton High School on March 30, 2017, in protest to what they claimed was a lack of response from administrators to several racial actions at the school. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/26/2021 1:26:36 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Two former Easthampton students have reached a settlement with city and school officials after a lawsuit was filed over the school’s failure to address racism in connection with a 2017 physical assault involving students on school grounds.

The lawsuit was filed in 2019 by a former Easthampton High School student, Joshua Brown, against the City of Easthampton, then-Easthampton Principal Kevin Burke, Easthampton police officer Rick Rogalski, then-Superintendent Nancy Follansbee and Easthampton Police Chief Robert Alberti. The settlement also names Zade Jenkins as another plaintiff but does not specify this individual’s involvement in the case, according to federal court documents.

In the five-count lawsuit, Brown’s Northampton attorney, Peter Lane, alleged that Easthampton school administrators demonstrated an “absolute failure to protect students of color” surrounding a 2017 altercation involving Brown, a student of color, and a white student in the school parking lot.

When reached for comment, Lane said that the settlement terms “are confidential and neither our clients nor our firm can comment on it.” With the settlement, the case will not proceed to a jury trial, which Brown had previously pursued seeking monetary damages for alleged racial discrimination, violation of his civil rights, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Attorneys for the city and the named officials did not respond to calls seeking comment this week.

On March 30, 2017, Brown, then 18, and two other students of color, who were juveniles at the time, were arrested on assault and battery charges for allegedly punching a white student who had used a racial slur in a message that circulated on social media.

The white student in the parking lot altercation “had been a perpetrator of acts of racial hostility inside and outside of the school and was regarded as an instigator of hostile interactions with students of color,” the complaint alleges and was the son of Easthampton police officer Alan Schadel. who was also the school resource officer at the time and had been on medical leave.

The Northwestern district attorney’s office agreed to suspend prosecution of the case and Brown was ordered by a judge to complete a restorative justice program as part of pre-trial probation in May 2017. The matter also led to an investigation by the state Attorney General’s office, which found “‘a number of significant concerns that required immediate attention regarding bias-related problems in the EHS environment, as well as ‘significant racial and ethnic disparities in EHS’s administration of student discipline.’”

The Attorney General’s report also found that Burke and the school’s administration “treated physical incidents involving white students less severely than incidents involving students of color.”

The day after the altercation, around 200 Easthampton students walked out of school to protest against the administration, which they said was indifferent to racism and harassment.

Throughout his time at Easthampton High School, Brown “regularly witnessed and was the victim of racist comments and innuendos and was subject to multiple incidents of racial discrimination and harassment,” according to the court complaint, including taunts and provocations that intensified during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Other acts of racism, including racist graffiti and “flagrant displays of racist paraphernalia,” such as a confederate flag that a student flew in the school parking lot, were also not addressed by the school until parents complained, the lawsuit alleged.

Around the time of the altercation, a group of students created two Instagram accounts that featured “a number of disturbing images of the confederate flag, weapons, the EHS building and EHS students and staff,” according to the Attorney General’s Office.

The complaint alleges that Brown was “the victim of Principal Burke and the EPSD’s administration of a racially discriminatory disciplinary policy that led to Josh’s arrest and prosecution for a racially motivated schoolyard altercation,” and that their actions “resulted in Josh’s prosecution as an adult.” Additionally, it states, Brown faced an intensely “uncomfortable and frightening” experience at school due to this incident.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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