No place for hate

Northampton schools push the envelope with anti-bias proposal

IN JANUARY, a few Northampton middle school students, perhaps emboldened, maybe bored, after nearly a year of remote learning, projected images of the Confederate flag as their computer screen backdrop during virtual classes. Perhaps it was a political statement, or maybe a poorly considered joke. Whatever the intent, it did not go unnoticed. The school’s principal, Desmond Caldwell, asked the John F. Kennedy Middle School community to not display or wear the Confederate flag in school, saying it disrupted learning and made some students and staff feel attacked and unsafe. 

Caldwell’s plea did not end the issue. The issue exploded with an anonymous social media post attacking the principal. Middle and high school students in the Western Massachusetts city then led a demonstration in front of the JFK School, supporting Caldwell and calling for the school district to take action. The Northampton School Committee obliged in March, banning the display of the Confederate flag in all schools, joining its neighbor Easthampton and a few other school districts across the country that have deemed the symbol an impediment to learning and banned its display outside of classroom instruction. 

If the move put Northampton ahead of the pack in clamping down on hate symbols, the left-leaning college town of 28,000 is now poised to go several steps beyond that. In September, the School Committee will take up a proposal to ban two other symbols of hate — swastikas and nooses — while also establishing a wide-ranging system in which various types of bias can be reported and investigated. It would make Northampton the only community in the state, and possibly the only one outside of Oregon, to enact such a far-reaching, anti-bias policy.

The policy would thrust the city into the middle of a fierce national debate centered on two conflicting ideas: students’ free-speech rights, which have long been upheld by the US Supreme Court, and a rising cultural tide calling for school environments, from classrooms to athletic fields, to be free of hate symbols and speech construed as identity-based bias. 

AN ‘INCLUSIVE’ COMMUNITY

After the January flag incident and the ensuing public conversation, School Committee member Laura Fallon said the board wanted to send a strong message about the small Western Mass. city, home to Smith College and to decidedly progressive political bearings that give it the feel of a mini Cambridge along the Connecticut River.  

“We want to have the most welcoming, most inclusive community we can,” said Fallon, who chairs a sub-committee of the School Committee responsible for writing the new policy.

Efforts to regulate speech, no matter how repugnant its content, once drew the unqualified opposition of the American Civil Liberties Union. But even some leaders of the country’s most prominent defender of free-speech rights now temper those impulses in the current climate. 

Asked about the proposed new school policy, Northampton lawyer William Newman, who is director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Western Massachusetts legal office, provided a measured statement that seemed to straddle the free speech/anti-bias divide.

“Symbols and statements of implicit or explicit bias can negatively impact the learning environment,” he wrote. “The ACLU believes that decisions about what student expression should (or should not) be restricted are best left to principals in individual schools based on an evaluation of the specific context in which words or symbols are used and whether that speech will cause substantial disruption or invade the rights of other students. We also believe that, rather than speech prohibitions, it is best to approach conflicts over speech as teachable moments, including about this country’s troubled racial history.” 

Cambridge lawyer Harvey Silverglate, a prominent defender of civil liberties and speech rights, evinced no ambivalence on the issue, calling a ban on symbols of hate, no matter how offensive the images may be, “unwise as well as unconstitutional.” US Supreme Court precedent has been set, he said, giving high school students the right to speak freely, even if it is ugly speech. “Kids should be able to say what they want. It’s important to know what kids are thinking,” said Silverglate. “If you ban the speech, you aren’t banning hate. You’re simply banning the way we determine who the haters are out there.” 

Northampton, known for its embrace of progressive politics, is weighing an anti-bias policy for its schools that would be among the most far-reaching of any district in the country. (Photo by Rich Parr)

That Northampton, sitting at the center of the academically and agriculturally rich Connecticut River Valley, would forge ahead with such a far-reaching policy driven by progressive political impulses is not a surprise.

A decade ago, Mayor David Narkewicz arranged for all the sidewalk benches lining Main Street to be removed. They were thought to attract panhandlers who cluttered the area in front of local cafes and stores. But the fallout was so great from citizens complaining about the unwelcoming gesture toward homeless people that Narkewicz relented and had the benches rebolted to the sidewalks. 

This spring, the city earmarked more than $400,000 to create a Department of Community Care to handle calls for non-violent incidents that would otherwise be handled by the police department. The move came after months of protests in the city streets, calling for the police budget to be cut in half. 

The proposed new school policy, titled Protections from Discriminatory Bias and Symbols of Hate, is drawn from a September 2020 Oregon Department of Education directive that banned the display of the Confederate flag, nooses, and swastikas, and also urged Oregon school districts to develop policies for addressing bias incidents, including what some have called microaggressions and hurtful stereotypes. 

Fallon called the Oregon education department move “truly, truly groundbreaking.” She and other School Committee members say they are on safe legal ground banning the symbols of hate, because, as their new policy states, the images “are reasonably likely to cause a substantial disruption” to school activities. That is the language used in a groundbreaking 1969 US Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines, that set out the parameters of a school’s right to limit student speech. No doubt the Confederate flag meets the “substantial disruption” standard, say Northampton School Committee members.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled in another student free-speech case in favor of a former Pennsylvania high school cheerleader, Brandi Levy, who was punished by school officials after she let loose on social media with a series of vulgarities when she didn’t make the varsity cheerleading squad. The court ruled that Levy’s speech, no matter how vulgar, did not disrupt the school or the cheerleading team. While the court supported Levy’s right of free speech, it also left in place the legal argument that speech can be banned in schools if it is deemed disruptive to learning. 

In Northampton’s proposed new policy, a symbol of hate, like a swastika, is defined as one that “is reasonably likely to cause a substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities.”

After the Northampton middle schoolers displayed the Confederate flag on their computer screens, Caldwell, the JFK Middle School principal, made and distributed a video to staff and students asking that the flag not be displayed, as the symbol made some students and staff feel attacked and injured. He said in the video that “it’s difficult to see past the extreme ugliness of the symbol.” 

Caldwell invited anyone who wanted to talk about the issue to have lunch with him. Instead, a Facebook group claiming to belong to the “JFK White Student Union” appeared online. “We will not be intimidated by this anti-American Tyrant,” read a posting on its page, referring to Caldwell, who is Black. “We cannot allow these individuals to erode our constitutional rights.” That week, the school erupted in the student-led demonstrations supporting Caldwell and decrying the display of the Confederate flag. 

BROADER BAN ON BIAS 

To Dina Levi, another Northampton School Committee member spearheading the new policy, merely banning one flag, or prohibiting Nazi symbols, would have represented a missed opportunity to have the district tackle bias issues more broadly. 

“Why do we need to wait to react? Why can’t we be proactive?” she said. 

That thinking led to the much more far-reaching anti-bias provisions in the proposed new policy — provisions that also raise the most questions about how the policy would actually work in practice. 

The proposed policy calls for any bias incident to be reported to a school’s principal or the district superintendent. A bias incident is defined as “conduct, speech, images or expression by students, staff or visitors to the school that demonstrates conscious or unconscious unfair or prejudicial distinctions about people based on their actual or perceived race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, genetic information, age, pregnancy or pregnancy related condition…”

The bias incidents can be intentional or not, and anyone on school grounds — student, staff, or visitors — can report an incident or be on the receiving end of a complaint. 

Fallon, a long-serving member of the school committee who is leaving the board to study law this fall,  called the policy “the right thing to do,” but acknowledged that she worries about “the practicalities” of such a sweeping conduct code. 

Those practicalities include issues likely to arise when nearby high schools travel to Northampton to play sports. Agawam High School uses a Native American image as its mascot, as does the Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton. Both schools’ athletic teams regularly play Northampton. Under the Northampton policy, a Native American mascot could represent a bias incident if reported to school officials. 

Fallon and Northampton’s school superintendent, John Provost, say they know this provision provides fertile ground for conflicts with other schools and their fans, and they worked through the summer to amend the draft policy, so that such games would continue and Northampton athletes will not be forced to leave an athletic contest. 

The policy states that the district “recognizes and understands that the on-going use of offensive and biased speech, including the appropriation of Native American symbols in school mascots, is a systemic issue.” Provost said that other school districts will be encouraged to examine their mascot choices, but Northampton athletes will not be pulled from the fields, courts, and tracks because of what a visitor wears or says. 

“Students should not be penalized,” Provost said, for the choices other school districts have made. Provost has instructed David Proulx, the Northampton High School athletic director, to warn western Massachusetts schools with Native American mascots that those symbols will violate Northampton policy. “Some schools, they don’t see it as harmful,” said Fallon. Native American mascots “are an accepted sign of racism.” 

When asked what recourse the district has when visitors violate the new policy, Lori Vaillancourt, the principal of Northampton High School, said the first step is establishing a dialogue with offending students or parents. She said Northampton is not setting out to police bias incidents across western Massachusetts. “We come from a place of education, not a place of conflict,” said Vaillancourt. “The whole purpose of this policy is to teach and help students learn.”

Twenty-two high schools in Massachusetts use Native American mascots, according to the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition. Fallon said Northampton would welcome help from the state on the issue. State Sen. Joanne Comerford, a Democrat from Northampton, has filed a bill explicitly banning Native American mascots at Massachusetts high schools, while another bill casts a wider net, banning mascots that “denigrate” based on racial, ethnic, gender, or religious group. Neither has worked its way close to becoming law. 

But an offensive mascot or one of the banned images are hardly the only issues Northampton school administrators might confront. 

For all its good intentions, the policy leaves it to principals and the district superintendent to judge when even a passing comment between students or other speech is offensive and carries bias. That gray area, said Fallon, could spawn problems of interpretation. But Vaillancourt contends that principals will do what they have already been doing, following the student handbook and other policies prohibiting bias at school.

Vaillancourt sees the proposed policy as codifying values by which the city’s schools have already been living. “This just makes it more official,” Vaillancourt said. Now, she said, students who think they have been victimized by offensive speech will have a roadmap that spells out where to report the incident and what to expect from the investigation. 

The intent, said Vaillancourt, is not punishing offenders, rather it’s bringing attention to language and symbols that are seen as making the learning environment hostile for some. In the effort to educate students who might use offensive language, or wear hateful symbols, the policy calls for administrators to use what is called restorative justice, a sort of discipline that emphasizes having offenders understand the effect of their language, while educating them about living in a community that embraces a diversity of people. 

Provost said the district is working with a Springfield attorney who is an expert in education law, Layla Taylor, and has received “good legal guidance.” 

Evan Lebeau, who graduated from Northampton High School in May, spoke out at last winter’s School Committee meeting after the Confederate flags were displayed. He said in an interview that remote learning and social isolation may have contributed to making it easier for some to display hurtful symbols. Harming others based on racial or identity slurs “is not a new issue, but it’s becoming more widespread,” said Lebeau, a former member of the High School Democrats club. “Changes have to be made everywhere. Starting somewhere like Northampton is a great first step,” he said of the proposed new policy.

Emily Serafy-Cox, another School Committee member, refers to this approach as “calling in, not calling out,” by which she means that the policy intends to bring people together instead of disciplining students with in-school suspensions or expulsions. It’s a policy centered around education and understanding, she said, but acknowledged “not everybody will feel that way.” 

When the district banned images of the Confederate flag, school committee members said that their email inboxes were flooded with messages from around the country, many of them hostile. If the new policy is adopted, as expected, Fallon said committee members are sure to hear again from people “dismayed with the direction we’re taking.” 

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Still, committee members said they think Northampton is making the right move. “I don’t feel like we’re on the vanguard,” said Levi. “We’re thinking about our school culture. Keeping all students safe – there’s nothing that feels cutting edge about that.”

Greg Kerstetter, who taught in the Northampton Public Schools before retiring, worked as a journalist for The Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram for more than a decade. Read some of his other writing at https://mrksdotblog.wordpress.com.