Southern Berkshire community reckons with student's racist post

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SHEFFIELD — A student's racist social media post last week is continuing to stoke fear and outrage in the community, and parents say they are worried about a culture of bigotry among some that festers in the district.

Mount Everett Regional High School officials say privacy laws prevent them from commenting about the student, a freshman, and they doubled down over the weekend on their stance that such acts are hurtful and require a reckoning.

"My heart hurts as I write this message," wrote Beth Regulbuto, superintendent of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, in a long statement to families on Saturday. "The recent racist posts show that this work must begin within our own community. The impact of the senseless murder of George Floyd is yet another example of the work that needs to be done to confront, address, and end racism across our nation."

And while Regulbuto also asked families to "respect the privacy and confidentiality rights of those involved," the matter is still being rehashed on social media.

The Eagle has chosen not to publish the name of the student, who is a minor.

Regulbuto's statement followed a Thursday email from Mount Everett Principal Jesse Carpenter in which he decried the "explicitly racist" post and told school families that he had contacted town police, and that a school investigation is underway.

In response, local black educators say that mostly white, rural school districts present extra hurdles to broadening minds and opening hearts, and that the episode is, in part, a failure of the schools.

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It was a June 4 post on Instagram that set off a maelstrom of rebukes from those who saw it — the cover of an 1869 songbook by Frank Green for a tune popular in blackface minstrel shows in the U.S. and Europe. A book by English mystery writer Agatha Christie also once had the same title, but it was changed in 1939 for publication in the U.S. so as not to offend American audiences.

The student's post, which was obtained by The Eagle, was followed by the comment, "Hahaha it's just like Minnesota," and the hashtag, "#whitelivesmattermore."

It landed the week after George Floyd's death in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer, who held his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes. A video of the incident plunged the country into unrest, and sparked protests throughout the world.

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A number of parents alerted school officials and also contacted The Eagle. None was willing to be identified for fear of retaliation against their children, but all expressed concern that the school district is apathetic about attitudes among some staff and students that run counter to an inclusive environment.

Many noted that the Instagram post isn't the first such incident in South County districts to roil the community.

Regulbuto told The Eagle that just as the pandemic shut the schools, staff and students had begun an Anti-Defamation League program and the administration had started to talk with Railroad Street Youth Project and Multicultural Bridge about working together. Both are nonprofits that specialize in healthy communication and sensitivity, particularly toward other cultures and people of color.

Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, founder and CEO of Bridge, said the behavior of children and students is influenced by parents, teachers and school systems.

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"It is our collective responsibility as a county that we don't produce Berkshire children with a limited understanding of civics, civility and our American history," she said. "This young [person] has been failed by our school system."

Stephanie Wright and three generations of her family moved through the Southern Berkshire district, and Wright went on to teach there for two years. Wright, who is Bridge's community engagement coordinator, instructor and facilitator, said her students there were "full of curiosity and suspicion" because they weren't used to seeing educators of color.

She said that the principal of Undermountain Regional Elementary School had reached out to Bridge because of some "incidents" there, and that such an Instagram post "could happen easily" in schools with few or no black students or teachers.

Wright said schools have to do more than simply talk about inclusiveness, so that students don't graduate as unprepared adults.

"It's not fair to those children because they're going to go out into the world," Wright said. "Some white students have come back and have voiced that. They're in the big wide world of diversity, and they're spending their time trying to get skills and tools trying to work with their fellow man."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @HB_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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