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AG: Easthampton district ignored ‘serious’ warnings of racism, tension last school year

  • Easthampton School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee speaks during a School Committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building. gazette staff/jerrey roberts



@kate_ashworth
Tuesday, August 29, 2017

EASTHAMPTON — Black and Hispanic students face more severe discipline than white students at Easthampton High School, a scathing civil rights investigation by the attorney general’s office has found.

“Our investigation revealed substantial racial and ethnic disparities in how student discipline has been administered at EHS,” wrote Jon Burke, assistant attorney general of the AG’s Civil Rights Division. “EHS administrators and staff have not been provided with sufficient training on how to implement disciplinary policies in a consistent, fair, and equitable manner.”

Investigators also found the school administration ignored serious warning signs of racism and tension that led up to a physical assault where three students of color were arrested — a March incident that sparked the subsequent controversy that played out at the school and in the community last spring.

The AG’s investigation, released to the Gazette on Friday, concludes that the district needs to review and change the manner in which it handles issues related to diversity, discipline and bias-related conduct.

The report comes on the heels of a School Committee meeting Thursday in which Superintendent Nancy Follansbee unveiled findings from her investigation into alleged incidents and spelled out a 10-step plan to improve the school’s climate and culture for the upcoming school year. She also outlined findings from an external review conducted by the Collaborative of Educational Services, which collected data through multiple forums and surveys.

On Friday evening, Follansbee said she had not yet received the AG’s report and could not comment about its contents.

The AG’s report also included a memorandum of agreement in which the school district voluntarily agreed to ensure the high school is a “safe and inclusive environment for all students.”

As part of the agreement, the district is required to appoint a diversity and inclusion officer who will monitor complaints of bullying and harassment.

The district is also required to provide an annual report to the AG’s office, which will include an overview of the racial climate at the school, documents of complaints and investigation reports of bullying and harassments, and copies of discipline records.

Some of these items are included in Follansbee’s 10-step action plan, which the AG’s report noted.

“We are confident that, in compliance with our agreement, EPSD and EHS will take the steps necessary to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in discipline and foster a school environment that is positive, welcoming and inclusive for all students,” the report said.

The attorney general’s office began investigating the high school in March after receiving complaints from parents, community members and civil rights advocates that the school was not properly handling bias-related incidents.

Other findings resulting from the five-month investigation include:

Between the 2012-2013 and 2015-2016 school years, black students were disciplined at approximately four times the rate of white students.

Hispanic students were disciplined at approximately three times the rate of white students between those same years.

Black and Hispanic students have been disciplined more severely than other students for engaging in similar types of conduct.

Easthampton High had 471 students last school year, of which 15 percent, or about 70 students, were black and Hispanic, the AG’s report said. As of last school year, nearly all of the district’s staff were white, according to the report.

The three probes — through the AG’s office, superintendent and collaborative — all found problems with discipline policies and procedures, as well as issues with the culture and climate at the high school. All three contributed to the steps outlined in the action plan, which includes anti-bias training for students, parents, teachers and staff, an annual external audit of discipline records and updating polices and procedures related to discipline and conduct.

The incident that brought attention to the issue of racism incidents at the school was a March 29 physical altercation where three students of color each punched a white student who had used a racial slur in a message, which was shared on social media. The three students of color were arrested on assault and battery charges.

The following day, students held a walkout protesting how the administration handles bias-related incidents.

The AG’s office reported there is a procedural concern with the school’s decision to recommend criminal charges against the three students, which the AG’s office considers to be a component of school discipline.

“We found that (the school district) does not have sufficient guidelines or policies in place to assist administrators in their interactions with police or to ensure that decisions concerning potentially criminal conduct are made in a fair, appropriate and consistent manner,” the report states.

The altercation and walkout brought to light other issues of racism and hate at the school, which parents began bringing to the School Committee in April.

Some of those incidents include a student taunting a student of color with threats of deportation and a student waving a Confederate flag and yelling “white power.”

The AG’s office investigation found a small number of white students were responsible for the majority of bias-related incidents at the school.

After the physical altercation and walkout, tensions at the school escalated, the AG’s office reports. In the following months, there were reports of a Confederate flag on school grounds and an Instagram account “Make.EHS.Great.Again” which featured a number of “disturbing” images of the Confederate flag, weapons, the EHS building and students, the AG’s office reports.

The AG’s office found that the administration failed to adequately investigate and respond to the Instagram account. A new account was created with the same posts and more “disturbing” images, the report states.

“EHS did not review the comments associated with the page, attempt to determine whether it had been shared with other students or examine what impact it had on the school environment,” the report states.

Findings of the report say that most students interviewed reported viewing the flag as an intimidating, racist symbol.

However, the AG’s office said there were warning signs leading up to the March 29 altercation.

Between September 2016 and March 2017, investigators looked into six documented incidents that involved students using racial slurs and students expressing racist or bigoted opinions.

Along with tension at the school, tensions were also high in the community, and the report states that the administration was aware.

The report noted that rocks on Mount Tom were vandalized with racist and anti-Semitic graffiti; the debate over whether to designate Easthampton as a sanctuary city was heated and some residents voiced racist opinions; and pro-diversity “Good Neighbor Signs” welcoming immigrants into the community and “Black Lives Matter” signs were stolen.

At EHS, an adult came onto school grounds, making racist and threatening comments to a student of color, according to the report.

“We found that (the district) and EHS could have, and should have, identified and responded to bias-related issues before the altercation,” the report states. “An earlier more forceful response could have prevented both the altercation and the escalating disruptions that followed.”

By the end of the school year, students felt anxious and intimidated about going to school, the report states, and some reported they no longer wanted to go to school.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at cashworth@gazettenet.com.