By Luis Fieldman
Students, parents and teachers rallied outside JFK Middle School in Northampton last Wednesday to denounce students who displayed the Confederate flag in virtual classrooms, and to condemn a social media page –– purportedly created by JFK students –– that espouses white supremacist ideology.
The group, “JFK White Student Union,” made a post last week using derogatory language towards Principal Desmond Caldwell, and in response, nearly 200 members of the middle school’s community gathered as a show of support for Caldwell and to publicly disavow hate speech.
“I feel like Des has set a really good example,” said Mareatha Wallace in an interview with The Shoestring. Wallace, an education support professional for the past five years at JFK, and Caldwell, a first-year principal, are the only two Black educators at the school.
“He’s dynamic, and in his words, he said, ‘I was made for this,’ ” Wallace said. After the rally, she said, “It felt really good to be supported in that way … My first reaction was I am so glad there is someone who wants to have this conversation besides me.”
Caldwell spoke at the rally about the need for students to feel safe while attending school, whether virtually or in-person, and that hate symbols such as the Confederate flag prevented them from their ability to learn in class.
In a video sent to parents and students last week, Caldwell had asked students to refrain from displaying the Confederate flag because it is hateful and disruptive. Social media posts by the white supremacy group then claimed that “across the US whites are under attack,” and that their rights were being infringed upon following Caldwell’s video.
Recent events are making people learn “harsh truths” about the racist experiences Black and brown people frequently have in America, according to Wallace.
“For Black and brown people, we’ve been saying racism exists in micro-aggressions, biases, you name it –– that’s how we’ve lived,” Wallace said. “And I feel like some people have this idea of, ‘Not in my town.’ And, I’m like, it happens everywhere. Now they are getting a wake up call because it’s right here in their community.”
Northampton School Committee weighs in on hate symbols
At last week’s Northampton School Committee meeting, comments from the public implored the committee to ban the Confederate flag from schools, and a few committee members expressed their desire to do so at a future meeting. (The Feb. 25 meeting was scheduled specifically for Superintendent John Provost’s presentation on the 2022 school budget).
Willa Polin, a JFK student, said she has seen the Confederate flag in hallways at her school and in students’ backgrounds during virtual classes. “This symbol hurts me and people I care about like my teachers and friends,” she told the School Committee. “This is a symbol of hate in a place that is supposed to be safe. It doesn’t belong in our schools. I believe that a better world is possible and I believe banning the Confederate flag is one step closer to that better world.”
Jenny Bender, who described herself as a JFK and NHS caregiver, said, “Hate symbols and hate speech are among the violent acts that contribute to unsafe environments for our students, staff and teachers. And they cannot be tolerated anymore than physical acts of violence.”
Karen Hidalgo, who works at NHS and has a child at JFK, said she has appreciated Provost’s and Caldwell’s responses to the recent incidents, and she urged people to “talk about systemic issues of racism, and ways they play out in our town and schools.”
School Committee member Dina Levi praised Caldwell as a “model of integrity and grace,” and added that the school district should not rely on one administrator in it’s response to recent hate symbols. She urged the School Committee to adopt language that would ban the Confederate flag and other hate symbols from public schools.
“Speech that is defamatory, harassment, or endangering creates an academic environment that precludes the ability to learn for our students,” Levi said. As a member of the policy subcommittee, she advocated for “a statement on academic freedom, that the [School] Committee adopts, that affirms types of speech that interfere with the safety of community members has no place in our schools … which includes and goes beyond banning the Confederate flag.”
In 2017, the Easthampton School Committee voted to ban the display of the Confederate flag on school property because it violated the district’s discrimination policy. Dozens of parents, students and community members held a sit-in at the high school after a student wore a Confederate flag sweatshirt to school, according to a Daily Hampshire Gazette article at the time.
The sweatshirt was worn by the child of Easthampton’s then school police officer, Alan Schadel, who is now an officer in Northampton. (The Shoestring has also covered recent incidents in which the confederate flag was featured on marijuana memorabilia for sale at Shop Therapy’s downtown location and on a hat for sale at Northampton Pride.)
Although Wallace expressed her concerns about students espousing white supremacist views at JFK, she believes that the school’s administrators are taking positive steps in addressing the situation, such as anti-bias and anti-racist trainings for teachers, as well as educating students on online predators and hate groups.
“We are going to talk and work through it,” Wallace said. “We are going to find the resources to do that, and we are all on the same team and Des is a leader … Homophobia, xenophobia –– any phobia –– we are willing today to say, ‘Nope, we don’t do that here.’ ”
Last Friday, teachers spent a period educating students about ways online predators attempt to lure children and young adults into hate groups.
In a letter to parents last Thursday, Provost notified parents that he had contacted the FBI regarding the “JFK White Student Union” social media pages due to their attempts at recruiting students.
“This is not the first time we have dealt with predatory behavior directed at our students,” Provost wrote. “We have worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the past to arrange community education workshops designed to help our students recognize and avoid other forms of exploitation. Today we reached out to them and to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to inform them of this group that has targeted our school and to request a community outreach session for our students and families.”
It should be noted that the FBI has a long history of subverting, sabotaging, and surveilling Black activists. From the bureau’s first director J. Edgar Hoover’s war on the civil rights movement to its classification of Black Lives Matter demonstrators as “Black Identity Extremists,” the FBI’s checkered history raises serious questions about its commitment to eradicating white supremacy.
Beyond anti-bias and anti-racist trainings for teachers, Wallace said she is advocating for creating a curricula throughout the school district that is inclusive of all races, genders, and identities.
“More than banning the Confederate flag,” Wallace added, “it has to be deeper; it has to be a movement.”
Luis Fieldman is a journalist living in Northampton. Photo by Amy Bookbinder.
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