African American student at Monument High School reportedly threatened with lynching
Great Barrington — Monument Mountain Regional High School and Berkshire Hills Regional School District officials are acting on a report from an African American student who said a another student, who is white, told him Monday (September 26) that he was planning to “lynch” him.
Monument Principal Marianne Young told The Edge that while she could not discuss student issues, that indeed, administrators had “received a report of a racist comment…a comment we classify as hate speech.”
Young said the investigation is ongoing.
Multicultural BRIDGE CEO/Director Gwendolyn VanSant told the Edge that the organization, along with Railroad Street Youth Project (RSYP) had been called in to support the student who said he had been threatened with a “lynching, and that they would beat him up and hang him.”
VanSant said the incident was directly related to the student — a football player — having kneeled during the National Anthem at a game in Athol the week before. The gesture is considered a protest against police violence and killings of African Americans.
Another source familiar with some of the details of the incident, but who declined to be identified, said the student said he was told he would be “lynched in the woods.”
The threat mimics another made earlier this month to Ohio student Rodney Axson, the first high school football player to kneel during the National Anthem. Threats of lynching were made in that incident as well.
Young pointed to the school’s Student Handbook, which says this sort of behavior is off limits, and that students must “conduct themselves with tolerance and respect for the opinions and cultural, racial, religious and political differences of others. To speak with civility and act with common courtesy.”
Young said that anytime a student makes serious allegations the school “investigates and acts accordingly.”
“We are still investigating this, talking with students and parents,” Young said.
VanSant, who with Multicultural BRIDGE works closely with all the schools and other organizations, said that through BRIDGE and RSYP, two young African American men who have also experienced racist verbal attack have been supporting the student through the ordeal. VanSant was uncertain whether the perpetrator had been disciplined yet, and Young was unable to comment.
VanSant also said a restorative justice approach to discipline had been discussed, as well as finding support for the student who made the remarks.
VanSant said while racially inflammatory speech happens all the time, using lynching as a threat was an “anomaly” due to its “level of specificity.”
“We get calls from kids all the time from Southern Berkshire [Regional School District] and Berkshire Hills who’ve been called brown, dirty, the N-word — it happens constantly,” she said.
She added that in Great Barrington Multicultural BRIDGE wants to focus on training for schools, the police department and town officials, adding that there is funding to do that.
Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon said schools reflect society.
“The country is in a very difficult place right now, and adolescents say things and they don’t often know the implications,” he observed.
He further blamed such incidents on “the tenor of public dialog, the national political circus we’re all in — in a debate where people scream at each other, people think its OK to do that, too.”
He continued: “We have an obligation to use those horrible moments to educate, do counseling, workshops, movies and discussion groups. We do it as part of our work, but sometimes we bring in other outside groups — whoever is best positioned to help us think through that.”
Dillon said the district is working its way through Monday’s incident, and said while he was sure racist attitudes and speech are “always going on, we’re pretty lucky compared to most other communities.”
At a high school with about 570 students, Dillon said the number of such incidents can be counted on one hand. He said there was also “all sorts of wonderful behavior we should celebrate.”
African Americans constitute 1.7 percent of Berkshire Hills students. Mixed race students who are not Hispanic make up 4.7 percent, Asians, 2.7 percent, and Hispanics, 7 percent. Eighty-four percent of the district’s population is white.
Protests over recent incidents of police brutality and racism came to Great Barrington two weeks ago after a woman stopped traffic on Main Street to draw attention to the issue. That protest was followed by a Saturday gathering of around 40 activists at Belcher Square.
“Taking a knee,” as the Monument student did at last week’s game, is football parlance with new political bite ever since NFL player Colin Kaepernick was the first to do it during the National Anthem to protest police killings of black men. The gesture has spread, and other players, college and high school teams have followed suit.
VanSant said racism in small communities is tough to stamp out, noting there can be “subtle things” and close relationships that make it hard to eradicate, even when “in theory we all stand behind it.”
“The degrees of separation in South Berkshire [County] make it harder,” she added.