Easthampton: Fixing a school climate

Superintendent calls for discipline policy update, anti-bias training

  • Easthampton School Superintendent Nancy Follansbee speaks during a School Committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton School Committee member Sarah Hunter, right, speaks during a School Committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building. Kasey Corsello, another member, listens. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton Mayor Karen Cadieux speaks during a School Committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton City Councilor Margaret Conniff, at podium, speaks during a School Committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton School Committee member Marissa Carrere speaks during a School Committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Elizabeth Cole speaks during an Easthampton School Committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Noreen Nardi speaks during an Easthampton School Committee meeting Thursday at the Municipal Building. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS


Published: 8/25/2017 12:18:55 AM

EASTHAMPTON — Acknowledging “there’s a climate and culture problem” at Easthampton High School, Superintendent Nancy Follansbee said Thursday there would be a review and update of discipline policies and anti-bias training as part of an improvement plan.

Presenting the School Committee with findings from her investigation of allegations of racism and hate reported by parents, students and staff, she said she personally investigated every one.

Allegations included students taunting ethnic students with deportation, swastikas and racial slurs.

Follansbee found that teachers and students reported a change in the school culture and climate emerging during and after the 2016 presidential election.

She said she found each incident she investigated was treated by the administration as an isolated matter rather than being addressed as part of underlying culture and climate issues.

In addition to Follanbee’s report, Collaborative of Educational Services was hired to do an external evaluation by collecting data through multiple forums and surveys. The collaborative found that many EHS students experience incidents related to racism, homophobia, sexism and other forms of bias.

To eradicate bias, a 10-step action plan has been established for the first year of a three-year plan for the entire district. The plan draws from data gathered from Follansbee’s investigation and the collaborative’s report.

As part of the plan, students, parents, teachers and staff will participate in anti-bias training. The Anti-Defamation League will also work with the school to develop a bias incident response protocol.

Assault, protest

Issues at the high school were brought to light in late-March after an assault at the school parking lot where three students were arrested. The incident was sparked by a racial slur sent in a private message, a screen shot of which was shared on social media.

The following day, students held a walkout protesting the way the administration handles situations of racism and hate. School Committee meetings became flooded with parents, students and community members. Some called for the removal of Principal Kevin Burke, for failure to act on reports of bullying and harassment, and the school resource officer, whose son sent the racial slur, for a conflict of interest.

A group of parents collected anonymous statements of experiences with racism and hate at the school, and gave them to the School Committee in April.

The issues prompted the attorney general’s office to launch a civil rights investigation. The report has not been released.

Superintendent’s investigation

For Follansbee’s investigation, she reviewed all documentation related to incidents and concerns between September 2016 and June 2017, which includes a list of concerns and alleged incidents submitted to the School Committee by parents, student discipline records, video recordings of incidents as well as emails, text messages, social media posts and correspondence related to particular incidents.

“We believe we thoroughly investigated everything that came forward,” Follansbee said.

However, Follansbee said, some incidents occurred off school grounds and others were not formally reported.

“We can’t investigate anonymous reports,” she said.

Follansbee said she closely reviewed 25 incidents. Interviews with students were done by the collaborative. Former principal Jeffrey Sealander interviewed teachers and staff.

Follansbee said she could not go into detail about incidents due to privacy laws.

When it came to discipline, Follansbee said all incidents that were reviewed had been addressed at the school level prior to the investigation, but procedures and protocols were not consistent.

There was some form of misinformation in all of the incidents as reported, she said.

Follansbee also administered a survey, completed by 46 of the 55 staff members, on the administration’s responsiveness to claims of bias, bullying, discrimination and related issues. Follansbee also used information from the collaborative to reach her findings.

Findings include:

♦ Current discipline policies and procedures — particularly those related to peer-on-peer bullying and harassment — need to be reviewed and updated.

♦ Members of the school community do not have consistent knowledge and understanding of polices and procedures related to student conduct, resulting in unevenness in implementation.

♦ Competing and sometimes contradictory sources of information — including social media, news coverage and parent advocacy — often create confusion and escalate tensions.

Burke, who has been principal for two years, said after the meeting he’s looking at the situation as a learning opportunity.

Mayor Karen Cadieux said the issues are not confined to Easthampton High School, but occur nationwide.

“If you think it’s not happening in your community, take a closer look because it’s happening everywhere,” Cadieux said.

Follansbee said she could not comment on whether Burke or the school resource officer positions are being evaluated.

Collaborative report

The Collaborative of Educational Services was hired through a $10,000 contract with the district to conduct an external evaluation and assist with the creation of a three-year plan.

The collaborative’s report states: “Evidence from 14 forums and 287 surveys indicate that many EHS students experience incidents related to racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism and other forms of bias and bullying as commonplace, while administrators and teachers are more likely to view them as isolated incidents.”

Other findings:

♦ Twenty-eight percent of students surveyed report hearing racist jokes or comments at least once a day, something no teachers or staff reported hearing with the same frequency. Another 28 percent of students said they hear such jokes or comments weekly.

♦ Thirty-three percent of students feel that no one intervenes when a racist comment is made; 5 percent of teachers and staff had the same opinion.

Ten-step action plan

As part of the action plan, the Department of Justice and Anti-Defamation League will provide anti-bias training for students, parents, teachers and staff.

For high school students, the Department of Justice will hold a SPIRIT program on preventing and resolving conflicts arising from incidents of bias. The SPIRIT program, standing for Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together, focuses on developing solutions to problems associated with allegations of discrimination, harassment and hate activity in schools, according to the Department of Justice.

Middle and high school teachers and staff will go through training through the ADL’s program “Classroom of Difference,” which will focus on how to address issues of bias, prejudice and discrimination.

The ADL and Department of Justice will train parents on how to foster safe and supportive learning environments for students and how to report bullying and harrasment.

ADL consultants will also work to develop a bias incident response protocol for the school district, and will review the district’s discipline polices and procedures.

At the high school, a Stakeholder Advisory Committee will be created. The committee is proposed to consist of administrators, teachers, students and parents that meet monthly to monitor the culture and climate of the school, provide feedback and help design the next steps in the three-year plan.

As part of the plan, each year an external consultant will conduct audit of discipline records.

To check in on the schools’ environment, the district will also administer a survey to students, parents and staff to gather information about perceptions and experiences related to school climate.

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

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