Ban on Confederate flag urged in Northampton schools

  • Desmond Caldwell, principal of JFK Middle School, addresses a crowd that gathered to denounce racism on Wednesday February 24, 2021.

Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2021 9:39:44 PM

NORTHAMPTON — JFK middle schooler Willa Polin has seen the Confederate flag in school hallways and on Zoom, she told the School Committee on Thursday night.

“This is a symbol of hate in a place that is supposed to be safe,” she said. “It doesn’t belong in our schools. I believe that a better world is possible, and I believe banning the Confederate flag is one step closer to that better world.”

Though it wasn’t on the committee’s meeting agenda for discussion, many spoke during public comment about the need to ban the Confederate flag in the city’s schools.

The meeting came after a rally was held outside the JFK Middle School on Wednesday in response to a Facebook page, “JFK White Student Union,” that was recently created and pictured the Confederate flag as its profile photo. One post included a video middle school Principal Desmond Caldwell made last month in response to students bringing images of the Confederate flag to school. The post on the Facebook page stated “we will not be intimidated by this anti-American tyrant.”

The Northampton Association of School Employees, the union that represents teachers, cafeteria workers, and others who work in the schools, wrote on its Facebook page that it “asked the School Committee to put our request to ban the confederate flag in all our schools on their agenda for tonight’s meeting. They agreed to put it on the March 11 meeting agenda.” The March 11 meeting agenda is not posted online yet.

During public comment Thursday, Haliyah Kassis, a student at the middle school, also called for a ban. “It terrifies me to see this really hateful imagery where I am learning, and I can’t even imagine what it must be like for other people affected by it more,” Kassis said.

Jose Adastra, a city resident who grew up in the area, said one of his “first outright racist experiences” was when someone with a Confederate flag yelled a racial slur at him in downtown Northampton.

Jacqueline Johnson, who went to the Northampton schools and now lives in Springfield, asked for a ban of the flag “because I have been able to thrive as a Latina Black woman coming from this community because Northampton poured in so much love and care into my identity and who I was and it allowed me to trust the process.” Students need to feel supported, Johnson said.

Northampton High School Principal Lori Vaillancourt read a statement in support of Caldwell from the district’s adminstrative leadership team. “This is not Desmond’s work alone but is our collective responsibility to stand up and say, not in our cities and not in our schools,” she said.

“A ban on displays of the Confederate flag should be the low bar of what happens now,” said Amy Martyn, a parent in the district.

About a year ago, she asked the district “to more fully respond to the tragic death by suicide” of a high school student “and to the environment of racism and bullying that are part of the high school environment that she lived in every day.” Martyn advocated that the district work on measurable goals toward racial equity.

Karen Hidalgo, who works at the high school, spoke about racism in the school. “One of the ways systemic racism plays out is our students end up being separated a lot. At the high school, I think some of that has to do with honors and AP classes.”

Mareatha Wallace, an education support professional at JFK Middle School, said “this has been a hard week for Black and brown folks.” She added, “silence is not an option any longer. It can’t happen. It has happened so many times.”

The Facebook page appeared to be taken down on Wednesday, but was up again on Thursday.

“It appears the intention of the page is to recruit our students into White Supremacist groups,” Caldwell and Superintendent John Provost wrote in a message to families on Thursday. “We will be providing time in flex block tomorrow to educate our students about the tactics extremist hate groups use to try to lure in impressionable youth.”

They have notified the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI. They added, “we would like to reiterate that it is not our desire to add any level of notoriety of this page.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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