Northampton school panel works to tweak policy on hate symbols as students demand action

  • On Monday, Oct. 4, students at JFK Middle School in Northampton held a silent protest against the School Committee’s decision not to adopt a proposed policy against the display of Confederate flags, swastikas and nooses on school grounds and at school functions. Submitted photo

  • On Monday, Oct. 4, students at JFK Middle School in Northampton held a silent protest against the School Committee’s decision not to adopt a proposed policy against the display of Confederate flags, swastikas and nooses on school grounds and at school functions. Submitted photo

  • On Monday, Oct. 4, students at JFK Middle School in Northampton held a silent protest against the School Committee’s decision not to adopt a proposed policy against the display of Confederate flags, swastikas and nooses on school grounds and at school functions. Submitted photo

  • On Monday, Oct. 4, students at JFK Middle School in Northampton held a silent protest against the School Committee’s decision not to adopt a proposed policy against the display of Confederate flags, swastikas and nooses on school grounds and at school functions. Submitted photo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/18/2021 9:03:09 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The subcommittee tasked with crafting a policy on hate symbols for the city’s public schools met Monday to rework the language, about six weeks after a draft was pulled back on the advice of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The School Committee’s Rules & Policy Subcommittee discussed the legal barriers to a proposed districtwide ban on Confederate flags, swastikas and nooses, and how to proceed with the policy in a new form that takes the ACLU’s concerns about the First Amendment into account.

Subcommittee member Dina Levi of Ward 5 suggested passing the policy in its current form and defending it in court, if necessary.

“I get that we might be legally challenged, but I think we’re on the right side of, sort of, justice here,” Levi said. “I don’t want to be a lawbreaker, but this is perhaps an opportunity to make some change.”

Member Laura Fallon, a law student, said that approach is “very risky” because, if the city loses, the case would establish precedent that would prevent other districts from enacting similar bans.

Ultimately, the subcommittee assigned Levi to write a new draft before its next meeting on Nov. 1.

Under the policy as originally proposed, a “symbol of hate” was defined as “a symbol, image or object that expresses animus on the basis of” a protected status, such as race, sex, religion, gender identity, disability, pregnancy, genetic information and more. The policy would have applied to students, students’ families, faculty, staff, contractors and all visitors.

The draft policy also established new procedures for reporting incidents of bias. A bias incident was defined as “conduct, speech, images or expression … that demonstrates conscious or unconscious unfair or prejudicial distinctions about people” based on “any status protected by law or District policy.”

Fallon said she showed the draft policy to three education law professors, along with a Sept. 8 letter outlining the ACLU’s position against the hate symbols ban. She said all three professors agreed that the policy infringed on students’ free speech rights.

Fallon said the law professors had a problem with banning so-called hate symbols that students might not understand are disruptive to the learning environment, and that an anti-racist curriculum should be put in place to set expectations first.

But Levi said the goal of the policy is to use “restorative practices” like education, rather than punishment, to help the offending student learn the impact of their behavior or speech.

Other district policies are already in place to address intentional acts of racism and bias, including the use of racial slurs.

ACLU declines to attend

On Sept. 9, the day after receiving a letter about the policy from Bill Newman, the director of the ACLU’s western Massachusetts office, the School Committee voted not to adopt the anti-hate symbol and bias policy, and to send it back to the subcommittee to be rewritten.

Newman wrote that “the policy has the potential to disrupt the ability of students to learn and teachers to instruct. … (It) is substantially overbroad and provides inadequate notice of what speech is prohibited, which creates a chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech.”

Newman advised that the policy was unlikely to survive a possible court challenge.

Attorney Layla Tayor, the subcommittee’s legal counsel, said the ACLU takes the strongest possible stance against restrictions on free speech, and that Newman’s letter is not the final say on the policy’s legality.

Superintendent John Provost said the ACLU declined a request to send a representative to the subcommittee meeting on Monday night, saying they wanted to let Newman’s letter speak for itself.

“They are happy to poke holes, but not to help us construct. Awesome,” member Emily Serafy-Cox said.

The full School Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday at 6:45 p.m. All meetings will be held virtually via Zoom at least through the end of the year.

Direct action at JFK

A group of JFK Middle School students concerned about the district’s response to racism and bigotry are demanding changes to the policies that are in place to protect them.

About 30 to 40 students at JFK held a silent protest on Oct. 4 against the School Committee’s decision not to adopt the proposed policy against the display of swastikas and nooses on school grounds and at school functions.

An eighth-grade student who helped to organize the sit-in outside the main office said that she and her friends are subjected to racial slurs at school, and although using such language violates the district’s code of conduct, the consequences are not enough.

“There have been a lot of microaggressions, a lot of racism in our school community and in Northampton,” the student organizer said. “Myself and some of my friends have been called the N-word, and the S-word for Hispanic people. … We wanted to hold the school officials accountable.”

After the sit-in, students walked around the building and silently hung posters calling for “a safe school” and a “non-judgmental environment.” One sign read “Stop Asian Hate” in response to stereotypes that blame people of Asian descent for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mareatha Wallace, an educational support professional at JFK who was present for the sit-in, said the protest was organized entirely by students who feel that the policy banning hate symbols and establishing a new procedure for reporting incidents of discrimination is “urgently needed.”

“Students feel unsafe. We need to know how to actively interrupt racism, homophobia, xenophobia,” Wallace, the facilitator of the Students of Color Alliance, said. “I do think there will be more direct action.”

Wallace argued that, in the best interest of the students, the School Committee should adopt the anti-bias policy as it was originally written and let the city defend it in court, if necessary. She said that advocates have “lobbied the School Committee for three or four years to pass this, and we can’t wait three or four more years.”

The student organizer said that racism and bias are not just behavioral problems, but they are evident in the curriculum, as well. Wallace, providing an example, said that students are “learning about Mount Rushmore, but they’re not learning that George Washington’s teeth were not made of wood: they were slaves’ teeth.”

Wallace said that “there are a lot of hard conversations to be had, and we’re not having them.” She said that some students “do wear Confederate flags” on their clothing, despite the ban, and defend themselves by saying that they want to show “Southern pride.”

“It’s disruptive, but nobody has stood up and said, ‘Nope, we’re done,’” Wallace said.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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