Greenfield Human Rights Commission working group to address racism issues

  • Jordana Harper, superintendent of the Greenfield Public School district, holds up a Black Lives Matter sign that was given to her as a gift from a couple of attendees of the Greenfield Human Rights Commission’s forum at the Town Hall Monday. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. offers comments. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Penny Ricketts, town councilor and member of the Human Rights Commission, offers comments at the commission’s forum Monday, April 11, at the Town Hall. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Rachel Silverman, whose stepson was involved in a recent altercation the Greenfield High School, offers comments at the Human Rights Commission’s forum at theTown Hall, Monday. April 11. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Lewis Metaxas, chairman of the Greenfield Human Rights Commission, opens the forum at the Greenfield Town Hall Monday, April 11. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Attendees of the Greenfield Human Rights Commission’s forum offer comments Monday, April 11, at the Town Hall. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Jordana Harper, superintendent of the Greenfield Public School district, offers comments at the Greenfield Human Rights Commission’s forum Monday, April 11, at the Town Hall. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Jordana Harper, superintendent of the Greenfield Public School district, offers comments at the Greenfield Human Rights Commission’s forum Monday, April 11, at the Town Hall. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Abbazero addresses Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh at the Human Rights Commission’s forum at the Town Hall Monday, April 11. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

Recorder Staff
Published: 4/11/2016 10:57:35 PM

GREENFIELD — A working group to address systemic racism, greater diversity of staff within the school system and a memorandum of understanding between the school and police departments were topics of discussion during Monday night’s Human Rights Commission meeting.

Greenfield Public Schools Superintendent Jordana Harper and Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. spoke during the three-hour meeting to discuss an incident at the high school last month, sparked by a fight between two students, that led to the arrest and suspension of eight students. As a result, the commission voted to create a working group, to be established at next month’s meeting, to address issues of racism in the school system and community.

Although privacy laws limited much of what Harper and Haigh were able to share with the public — seven of the eight students are minors — Harper said she felt it important to address several misconceptions she believes the community has about the incident. The first she said, is that all those who were arrested were students of color.

“That’s not the case,” she said. “This was in no way that I can point to an intentional targeting of any student group. There were students represented of all races.”

Harper also said that contrary to popular belief, educators at the high school do employ restorative justice practices and recently completed a training in January, which the school resource officer also attended. Restorative justice, she explained, focuses 80 percent of the time on dialogue and forming community relationships and 20 percent of the time on traditional forms of discipline.

Students, she said, learn far better from conversations than they do from the consequences that result from an incident. She added research shows that restorative justice takes three to five years to make an impact on school culture and discipline rates, but anecdotal results can often be seen sooner.

“I was glad to have an opportunity to highlight it, but really wish folks knew the good work that was already taking place, not in a reactive way, but in a planned way ahead of time,” she said.

During the meeting, two members of the community presented Harper with a Black Lives Matter sign, wrapped in wrapping paper, as a way of thanking her for her commitment to the issue.

Haigh said this year, all Greenfield police officers will take part in mandatory fair and impartial policing training. Although he wasn’t able to share details of the incident at the high school, he said he felt his officers acted appropriately.

“That’s not our preferred response, to go and arrest any child out of a school, period,” Haigh said. “That’s a last-case scenario.”

He said the school system has one resource officer, located mainly at the high school, who meets with Harper and visits as many schools as he can each week.

“A lot of what he does is handled within the school, working with the staff and working with the students,” Haigh said. “He’s in there every day working situations through that don’t involve a police response with cruisers and everything else.”

Members of the Human Rights Commission brought up the possibility of advocating for more school resource officers.

​Since the incident, which occurred March 14, six of the eight students have returned to school, according to Harper.

Rachel Silverman, the stepmother of one of the students who was arrested, called for a memorandum of understanding that would delineate how officers react during similar incidents at the schools. The memorandum, she said, should make it very clear that educators have the authority to decide who gets handcuffed.

“What this all comes down to for me in terms of preventing this from happening again is establishing guidelines in the form of a memorandum of understanding ... that will very clearly delineate responsibility if the school calls the police or the police arrive on the campus for any reason,” she said.

Silverman added nobody is alleging the arrests were motivated directly by race, but said she believes racism pervades every institution on a systemic level, whether or not people realize it.

“We live in a society that is really saturated with racist imagery and a racist history,” she said. “That’s the place we’re operating within and we need to be aware of that at every turn.”

Several members of the public also said during the meeting that the school system needs a more diverse staff, one that better reflects the student population.

Harper said efforts to recruit such a staff have stepped up, especially with new three-year contracts intended to attract more diverse and well-qualified teachers to the system.

“We do have some black adults at the school and is it as much as we’d like? Of course not,” she said. “We want to have a diverse and qualified teaching staff that meets the needs and reflects our student population.”

Based on the discussion during the meeting, members of the commission voted to create a working group in town, which would be overseen by the commission and modeled somewhat after the Opioid Task Force.

“It would be a structural mechanism to bring in the schools, the police, citizens, Racial Justice Rising, social nonprofits — anybody who would be interested,” Chairman Lewis Metaxas said. “I sense a lot of interest.”

He said the commission will flesh out the idea more thoroughly at its next meeting and encouraged any members of the public interested in participating to attend.

Commission member Gregory Corcoran said although the issue of systemic racism isn’t unique to Greenfield, it is unique in the sense that members of the community have come together, on multiple occasions, to talk about it and work toward solutions.

“We’re going to make sure that Greenfield becomes an example of equality, justice — you name it,” he said. “We’re very serious about this.”


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