Parents question ARMS ‘racial slur’ investigation

  • Tammy Duquette addresses parents and Athol School Committee members about the “racial slur” investigation at Wednesday night’s meeting. STAFF PHOTO/SARAH ROBERTSON

Staff Writer
Published: 1/17/2019 10:17:40 PM

ATHOL — Some parents are questioning the results of a recent investigation into alleged racist comments made against the opposing team during a middle school girls’ basketball game last month, saying the “inconclusive” findings are vague, and requesting more information.

“Results labeled our students as guilty in the court of social media which was very unfortunate,” said School Committee vice chair Lee Chauvette. “I personally believe an inconclusive result should have cleared the girls.”

At a School Committee meeting Wednesday night, dozens filled the room to hear an update on the situation, including several members of the ARMS girls basketball team and their parents. Tammy Duquette, a mother of two team members, read aloud a statement on behalf of the parents and children present.

“As a community we are here this evening because we feel due process for our children was not followed,” Duquette said. “We feel an impartial investigation questioning all parties involved was not awarded to us.”

During a basketball game against Sabis International Charter School on Dec. 14, racist comments directed toward players of the Sabis team were allegedly made by a members of the Athol team. An investigation into the incident began after someone from the Sabis team reported the incident.

“Evidence supports that racial statements were made from members of the Athol-Royalston Middle School basketball team towards members of the Sabis International Charter School basketball team,” Superintendent Darcy Fernandes wrote in an email earlier this month. “There was no specific determination made against any one student that was corroborated.”

Duquette asked the School Committee for a response to a Jan. 10 letter, signed by a group of around 20 parents and guardians of the girls team, appealing the “inconclusive” decision. In the letter they requested a copy of the Sabis team’s complaint, a complete unredacted copy of the civil rights investigators’ findings, all evidence proving that racist statements were made by members of the ARMS team, and a copy of the civil rights sensitivity training plan.

“We, the parents and guardians, feel that the determination of “inconclusive” is vague and offers no details about the supporting evidence for the outcome,” read the letter.

The school district’s attorney, Fred Dupere, explained why the information the school could provide would be limited. Under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), findings from the investigation specific to individual students may not be released, except by request to the parents of the students involved.

“Under federal law and state law we cannot release individual students’ records to the public,” Dupere said. “The results generally have been released because they do not identify a specific student.”

At practice on Monday following the game, the superintendent reprimanded members of the team, warning them of the gravity of the situation and urging anyone who knew about the alleged incident to speak up.

“Prior to any investigation, Superintendent Fernandes accused our children of using racial slurs, saying how disappointed she was in them,” Duquette said. “Then she used scare tactics by saying that video evidence existed of the alleged behavior.”

In a Jan. 8 letter to the basketball team, Fernandes apologized for coming off too harsh.

“As the leader of the district it is not easy for me to receive a call claiming that our students may have made racial slurs to students of another team,” Fernandes wrote. “It was never my intent to be accusatory. If that is how you read my comments on that day I apologize.”

School Committee Chairwoman Deborah Kuzmeskas said the whole situation has been a learning exercise in empathy, equity and integrity for all.

“It is my understanding the superintendent did not know of this alleged incident until she received three days later a phone call directly to her from a relative of a Sabis team member,” Kuzmeskas said at Wednesday night’s meeting. “I was not present when the superintendent spoke with the team. I can only imagine that the message was delivered passionately and firmly to impress upon the team the seriousness of the allegations.”

At middle school Principal Thomas Telicki’s request, some students will now participate in a civil rights and racial sensitivity training in response to the incident. Exactly who participates in the training and what it will entail has yet to be determined.

“If the findings are inconclusive, why must all athletes be required to attend?” Chauvette asked. “Does this not drive a wedge between ARMS girls basketball and other athletes?”

Chauvette said the School Committee, not the principal or superintendent, should decide the terms of the training. He also recommended Dupere review the investigation process to ensure all legal protocols were followed during the investigation.

“More parents need to do this to move the district forward,” Chauvette said of the support shown at the meeting.

Duquette also asked why the investigation was reopened after the coach and athletic director had dismissed the matter.

“At the time they hadn’t interviewed the children on our side or on the Sabis side,” Dupere said. “Legally, it has to be reviewed by a Title IX coordinator.”

Despite what was stated in the current school handbook, Fernandes said she is not the district’s Title IX coordinator and played no role in the investigation. Two officers from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights did interview students and gather evidence, according to Fernandes, but did not interview referees present at the game.

According to Chauvette, the Title IX coordinator position is appointed by the superintendent. Previously, the director of pupil services, Kathryn Clark, was the school’s Title IX coordinator. This year’s AARSD Handbook lists Fernandes as the Title IX coordinator, however, Fernandes said that was a mistake that will be corrected.

“We want to be the champion for your kids, and if we haven’t shown that I’m sorry for that,” said School Committee member Mitchell Grosky. “We want to go forward and we want to continue doing great things for your children.”

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@atholdailynews.com.

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