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Reflections on the December 2023 incident at the Du Bois Middle School over the book ‘Gender Queer’

The behaviors of our town police chief and the county district attorney on December 8 appear to have violated well established state and federal laws, the United States Constitution, and our public trust.

To the editor:

Although the public record seems to show that Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon made significant errors in response to the December 8, 2023 incident at the W.E.B. Du Bois Middle School (triggered by poorly sourced allegations about the book “Gender Queer”), it is typical of his integrity that he promptly acknowledged those errors publicly—well before the two investigative reports on the incident were even commissioned.

My overall opinion of Dillon’s 15 years of service as our lead school district administrator has not been diminished by this unfortunate incident and its aftermath. I still think that he has been by far the most competent superintendent Berkshire Hills Regional School District (BHRSD) has had during the 29 school years that I have lived in Great Barrington.

His lapse of judgement in not insisting on the production of a search warrant before allowing Officer O’Brien’s interrogation of an eighth grade teacher and search of her classroom last December was regrettable, but he is not a lawyer. He is an educator and manager of many other educators and support staff. Ideally, public administrators in our county will know in outline the legal procedures that may touch on their domains, but that knowledge is peripheral to what we pay them to do.

Not so with the documented behavior of the Great Barrington police chief and the Berkshire County district attorney in their handling of the December 8 incident. The two published investigative reports and the text of the civil lawsuit filed in the Springfield Federal District Court on this matter make clear that the errors made by the Great Barrington Police Department and the Berkshire County District Attorney’s Office in the December 8 incident were inexcusable, unlike Dr. Dillon’s errors that day.

The teacher was interrogated without counsel present, without prior notice, and her classroom was searched without a judicial warrant based on a showing of evidence of probable cause.

The behaviors of our town police chief and the county district attorney on December 8 appear to have violated well established state and federal laws, the United States Constitution, and our public trust.

The report compiled on the incident for the BHRSD School Committee by attorney Kevin Kinney contains an email exchange last December between Berkshire County District Attorney Timothy Shugrue and Assistant District Attorney Andrew Giarolo in which Shugrue wrote that it was urgent to get the “Gender Queer” book in question out of the middle school immediately on December 8, on the basis of having seen images of only two pages from the book and of its cover.

At the May 6 Great Barrington annual Town Meeting, I said that when I worked as a tutor in high school English, if a student had submitted a book report on the same skimpy basis, that student would have flunked the assignment. I also said that the apparently poor quality of the initial investigation related to the “Gender Queer” book prompted the question: How deeply flawed may other police and district attorney investigations in our region be, in situations that receive much less public attention than this one has?

The federal court suit filed eight days later suggested strongly that the handling of the matter was even more inept, and even more clearly illegal, than was publicly known when I spoke at Town Meeting.

The total cost to town and district taxpayers of the two commissioned reports has been $44,400.

Having not served since 2011 on any body that has to pay or monitor legal bills incurred on behalf of our fellow citizens, I need to assume that BHRSD School Committee Chair Steve Bannon’s and Peter Dillon’s May 24 statement to The Berkshire Edge was correct: The $39,000 paid to the Kinne law firm “was entirely in keeping with the cost of good legal counsel in 2024.” I do know that when you get into political hot water, it can cost you (or others) some real money.

I imagine that the eventual cost to taxpayers of the now obligatory legal responses to the federal lawsuit will dwarf the total paid so far.

It will be interesting to learn what price a judge or jury may choose as an award for civil damages to the eighth grade teacher whose legal rights and well regarded professional service to her students appear to have been so grossly abused last December 8.

John Breasted
Great Barrington

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