Officials, students outline work done to combat bias in Easthampton schools

  • Asher Hamilton, the student and family diversity liaison, speaks to the Easthampton School Committee, Tuesday. GAZETTE STAFF/Caitlin Ashworth

  • Miles Ellsworth, 14, talks about discipline procedures as a top concern among students at Easthampton High School. Caitlin Ashworth—

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

EASTHAMPTON — Asher Hamilton, the student and family diversity liaison at Easthampton High School, said she’s seen a lot since her first day on the job last month.

Room 104, the Diversity and Inclusion Center, is a so-called “safe space” on campus, Hamilton said, which allows students to talk about their concerns.

“A lot of what I’ve seen are some confused faces, some concerns, but nothing really specifically negative,” Hamilton said. “But more than anything … and I tell my kid this every day, ignorance is about as common as the common cold. We all have biases.”

Hamilton, along with students and staff involved in making changes at school to promote diversity and minimize bias, spoke to the School Committee on Tuesday about the work they have done throughout the school year.

Principal Kevin Burke also presented the program of studies for the next school year. It’s revised regularly, Burke said, but this year diversity was added to many of the course descriptions.

It has been almost a year since allegations of bias-related incidents and harassment at the high school were brought to light. The state attorney general’s office conducted a civil rights investigation, which was released in August, and found discipline disparities as well as other issues.

In an agreement with Superintendent Nancy Follansbee, the AG’s office set requirements for the school district to implement for the next three years. One of the requirements is the position of diversity officer, charged with monitoring complaints of bullying and harassment. The school has split the required role into two positions, including Hamilton’s role, working directly with students, and a diversity coordinator who monitors complaints.

But Follansbee said she’s heard that some people are concerned the school is just checking off boxes when it comes to implementing change at the school.

Curriculum director Julie Anne Levin, who is also the diversity coordinator, said it has been hard to find a balance in terms of working slow and working fast. When it comes to changing behaviors, Levin said, it can be very slow.

“It’s too slow for people that have been hurt,” Levin said.

But working too fast can also cause problems, she added.

“This is going to be an incremental process,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton went into a personal story that happened earlier in the day. She broke a nail and wanted to get it fixed before the School Committee meeting. She went into a local salon by her house and waited for about 40 minutes.

“I was the next person in line — by the way, I’m black — and two other individuals walked in and they got served,” Hamilton said.

She said one person saw what happened and spoke up.

“We should all be responsible for saying something that might not be quite right,” she said.

Student initiatives

Students from three groups at EHS outlined to the School Committee the initiatives they’ve been working on throughout the school year to change school climate and promote diversity.

The Stakeholder Advisory Committee is made up of students, teachers, administrators and parents to focus on a plan for the next year. Students from the committee said they’ve been conducting a survey to gather data and analyze it in comparison to data collected last year.

Students involved in a program through the U.S. Department of Justice called Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together, or SPIRIT, spokes about top issues at school such as safety and discipline equity as well as solutions for those issues.

Ninth-grader Miles Ellsworth, 14, said many students have been concerned with inconsistent discipline at school. He said in some cases one student was disciplined differently than another for a similar infraction. One of the solutions was to create a more precise discipline protocol, which the school recently implemented in its revised handbook.

Students from the Diversity Club spoke about how they planned and hosted the Diversity Day event at the high school, going over the music, food and their fundraising efforts.

School Committee member Shannon Dunham asked what the group is doing for Black History Month. Club adviser Alex Alvarez said the club will look into doing something after the winter break next week.

“All of this is just a beginning,” Follansbee said. “All of these steps are coming together for a positive change.”

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