Attorney general probes Easthampton High School amid racial tensions

  • Easthampton High School, 70 Williston Avenue. KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dozens of students, parents and community members staged a demonstration at Easthampton High School Monday, May 8, 2017, to show a "disruption of education" after a student had worn a Confederate flag sweatshirt to school the previous week. Caitlin Ashworth

Published: 5/24/2017 11:02:58 AM

EASTHAMPTON — The state attorney general’s office has launched an investigation after months of racial tensions at Easthampton High School.

During an update on race-related incidents and the school district’s response, Superintendent Nancy Follansbee told the School Committee on Tuesday that Attorney General Maura Healey’s office has requested “copious” documents from the school.

A spokesperson in Healey’s office confirmed that there is an ongoing investigation, but declined to provide further details.

“My understanding is that since the election there is heightened monitoring by the Civil Rights division of the Attorney General’s office of communities across the state for potential civil rights violations,” Follansbee said in a statement emailed Wednesday to the Gazette. “And due to the recent incident at our high school we are being asked to submit discipline records and any complaints that have been submitted concerning our high school.”

The request for documents comes after students, parents and teachers have complained of hate speech, harassment, intimidation and violence among students at the school this academic year, including one student holding up a Confederate flag and yelling “white power,” the defacing of school property with swastikas, racial slurs directed at students and two anonymous Instagram accounts with threatening posts that officials brought to police.

In March, three students were arrested in connection with a physical assault that police said was prompted by another student’s racist comment posted on social media days earlier. Hundreds of students staged a walkout after that incident, responding to what organizers said was the school’s indifference to dealing with racism.

Earlier this month, students, parents and community members staged a protest over a student wearing a Confederate flag sweatshirt to school. That protest resulted in the School Committee banning the Confederate flag on school grounds at least until the end of the year.

‘Culture of division’

During Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, a group of parents presented a timeline that they said demonstrates “an ongoing culture of division, racism and intimidation that has gone unresolved by those in leadership positions: school administrators and the superintendent.”

Some other parents expressed that their children felt criticized for not participating in the school walkout, or for having conservative viewpoints. One parent, Dan Broadhurst, seemed to suggest the School Committee should also ban the Black Lives Matter slogan from the school, calling the activist movement against police brutality “offensive” and “a black, hateful group promoting violence against police officers.”

The Easthampton School Department has hired the Collaborative for Educational Services, of Northampton, to independently investigate the allegations of racism, and to assist in the creation of a three-year plan of action for the district.

“There is no quick fix for what’s going on in our high school,” Follansbee said at the meeting. “But we are devoting ... all of our energies to work with as many organizations as we can to help provide support for us in our quest to take care of these issues and to heal our school.”

As part of those efforts, the district has also reached out to the U.S. attorney’s office in Springfield for assistance in addressing the problems, and is organizing a community forum which has yet to be scheduled.

“The goal was to go to them and say, ‘What guidance can you offer us?’” School Committee member Peter Gunn told the Gazette Wednesday.

Instagram posts

Follansbee also addressed the appearance of threatening accounts on the photo-sharing website Instagram, which she said police were alerted to as soon as the accounts were brought to the attention of administrators. She said the students responsible for setting up the accounts were identified and disciplined.

One of those posts, made to an account titled “make.ehs.great.again” featuring a Confederate flag profile picture, shows the high school and Confederate flags, with the words “Targets Locked” displayed over the school’s front door.

Elizabeth Cole, an Easthampton High School parent, told the Gazette she was happy to hear that officials took swift action and communicated clearly and frequently with the community about the posts.

However, she said school leadership has consistently failed to act early enough when such incidents occur, and that the quick response to the most recent Instagram posts does not reflect officials’ overall handling of racial tensions at the school.

“If that was their standard performance, we wouldn’t be talking about all this today,” she said. “This has become a crisis of leadership as much as a crisis of bigotry.”

In addressing the Instagram posts, Follansbee said Tuesday that the school held a cyberbullying program, together with the U.S. attorney’s office in Springfield, though she said few parents attended. The program was presented to students in the high school as well, she said.

Gunn, the school board member, told the Gazette that the best suggestions for moving forward have come from students who in conversation with administrators and the School Committee have detailed the problems and possible solutions.

“Much of the progress that we’re going to make in Easthampton is going to be due to the credit of and the good faith of the students,” Gunn said. “I’m really impressed with them.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.




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