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An Easthampton resident and her child have filed a lawsuit against the city’s public schools alleging that school officials allowed a non-custodial parent to unenroll her child from the district “over the phone” in September 2021 without ever informing her.
In a complaint filed on Sept. 14 in Hampshire Superior Court, Nataly Gomez — who is representing herself in the case — alleged that the district’s unenrollment of her child and failure to provide notice to her was “retaliatory” and due to her involvement with the local racial-justice organization A Knee is Not Enough, also known as AKINE.
(Full disclosure: The author of this article is a member of AKINE.)
Gomez said in her lawsuit that she only became aware of her daughter’s removal from the district when she called the school to check on her progress in the new school year. Gomez told The Shoestring that at the time, she was attempting to co-parent with the father’s child, who had suddenly stopped communicating with her.
When Gomez raised questions about her daughter’s unenrollment and how it could have happened in the first place, she alleged in her lawsuit that Andrea McCallum, the vice principal at the time of Center Pepin Elementary School, and the city’s school department “ceased communication.” Gomez alleges she “had to go through 18 months of Family Court” before addressing the unenrollment matter with the school.
All public schools have a responsibility under Massachusetts law to “designate a staff member whose duties shall include the proper implementation” of the law, including communication with custodial parents and understanding of custodial court orders.
McCallum did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. When previously asked who was the designated staff member responsible for proper implementation of state law, McCallum said “all inquiries can be made to the superintendent.”
Reached in May, when The Shoestring first learned about Gomez’s allegations against the school district, former superintendent Allison LeClair declined to comment and did not provide an explanation of the district’s unenrollment process. After Gomez filed her lawsuit, The Shoestring was unable to reach LeClair, who retired in June.
In February 2022, Gomez’s lawyer in family court, Katrina Anop, sent a letter to then Principal Jill Pasquini Torchia – now the current head of Mountain View Schools – outlining the school’s legal responsibilities to parents.
“Calls should have been made to Nataly, as the child’s mother and custodial parent,” Anop said in her letter, which is included as an exhibit in the lawsuit. “This has had a devastating effect on all parties concerned.”
In the letter, Anop said she wanted to bring this to the school’s attention so it would not happen to other parents. Torchia did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Gomez submitted a public records request to the school district on May 26, 2023, asking for records and communications relating to herself and her children, according to the lawsuit. The records that the district eventually provided did not include Anop’s letter, any unenrollment documentation or any records that the non-custodial parent provided to the school that could have been used to substantiate the unenrollment request — a requirement under state law.
In May 2023, Gomez also requested the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, investigate the events that occurred. In an email the department responded saying that the incident couldn’t be investigated because it fell outside a 12-month window for filing a complaint, according to records and communications Gomez included in her lawsuit.
“This situation has brought so much pain and trauma to my family due to the failures and shortcomings of the school department, their administrators as well as the city,” Gomez said in an email to The Shoestring. “Situations like this happen often towards families of color, without consequence or accountability due to lack of resources or know-how, which is why I am pursuing this, in hopes to never allow this to happen again.”
Earlier this year, The Shoestring also met stumbling blocks when requesting public records from the Easthampton Public Schools related to the incident. The district did not provide The Shoestring any written policy regarding unenrollment procedures and did not identify the designated staff member whose duties included the proper implementation of relevant state laws.
The Shoestring filed that public records request on May 26, then appealed to the state over the district’s failure to provide those records. On June 28, the state’s supervisor of records ordered the district to provide a response consistent with the public records law.
The following day, Easthampton Public Schools responded but did not provide records. Instead, the department gave The Shoestring a fee estimate of $500 to make redactions to the records and said that the policy could be found on the district’s online policy center. After combing through the 287 policies on the website, The Shoestring did not find the relevant information and then requested the policy from Ben Hersey, a member of the School Committee and its Policy Subcommittee. Hersey did not respond.
After The Shoestring again appealed to the state supervisor of records, the schools’ technology director said that the district’s search “found zero records in our system matching those parameters” for documents and communications between school staff members in September 2021 regarding student unenrollment. The Shoestring has still not received a copy of the district’s unenrollment policy.
Those named in the lawsuit also include City Clerk Barbra Labombard, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle and City Council President Homar Gomez. Labombard said she was in receipt of the lawsuit and declined to comment. Homar Gomez also declined to comment. No response was made from the mayor’s office to The Shoestring’s request for comment on the lawsuit. Interim Superintendent Maureen Binienda of the Easthampton Public Schools said the district and its employees have no comment at this time.
On October 10, defendants filed a notice with the superior court stating they served a motion to dismiss. Gomez has since filed an opposition, and the defendants filed a reply and requested a hearing.
Shelby Lee is a short story writer and investigative reporter. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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