It happened in Weare on April 20th, 2022. Two white 17 year olds caused threatening, race-motivated property damage inside a bathroom at John Stark Regional High School. According to court documents, one of the teens is accused of writing “blacks stand no chance,” and “KKK.” The other teen is accused of drawing swastikas as well as carving a threatening message that incorporated the name of a black classmate next to a racial slur. While it happened in Weare, this school is far from the only one dealing with such incidents. Reporter Melanie Matts, NAACP Manchester Branch President James T. McKim Jr. and SAU 24 Superintendent Dr. Jacqueline Coe join host Melanie Plenda to discuss what happened, and what we can learn from the incident to inform how we all move forward.
This content has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview on NH PBS's The State We’re In.
Melanie Plenda: Melanie, let's start with you. You recently wrote a story for the Concord Monitor and the Granite State News Collaborative about what happened at John Stark Regional High. Can you walk us through what happened last April?
Melanie Matts: Last April, the week before spring vacation, two students at John Stark Regional High School vandalized the bathroom walls with racist graffiti, including a racial death threat that incorporated the name of Eric and Sharon Houle’s oldest son. A brief timeline is that there was no school emergency the day of the incident. Parents of John Stark were informed of the incident just over a month afterwards through an email from Principal Dempsey, and the public news release from the Attorney General's office came out in September of 2022, a few months after.
Melanie Plenda: The perpetrators have also been charged in a civil rights case. Can you tell us more about that and where things stand?
Melanie Matts: I received word yesterday from Michael Garrity, director of Communications for the Department of Justice, that both civil rights complaints are pending currently. One is pending a hearing that will take place in early February, and the other is awaiting the filing of an executed consent decree. That is after the default hearing that took place in December. According to the Houles the perpetrators also had to participate in community service, write a paper, and donate to an organization of the family's choosing; they chose the Boys and Girls Club.
Melanie Plenda: Can you also walk us through some of the family's concerns surrounding the incident?
Melanie Matts: One of the family's top concerns is the way the school district handled the situation and correcting that publicly and being able to educate on how to handle and prevent situations like these from happening in the future. Obviously, another one of their top concerns is their son's safety as well as their other children within the school district. They really want to emphasize that they're not focusing on punishing the perpetrators, but rather having this be an educational experience for the community as a whole.
Melanie Plenda: James, over to you. How did you find out about what happened, and what's your role here?
James T. McKim: I found out about what happened when the Houles contacted our branch. We have a process for anyone to report incidences of discrimination. We took that call in from them and I actually got involved when our intake person forwarded this to me and said, this is a case that we think you need to provide some guidance as to how we might handle it. Our role with the NAACP is not to provide legal counsel, but to provide support to the parties who are involved in the situation and to try to come up with a way forward that is beneficial and just for everyone involved.
Melanie Plenda: You're dealing with other somewhat similar incidents across the state, so can you tell us about those and what's going on?
James T. McKim: The good news I guess is they're not as dramatic as this situation, but in other schools, I'm helping them to deal with discrimination and figure out a way to move into creating a culture of belonging that lives into the values that the schools already have. So many of these schools already have values that are about equality and inclusion and belonging and safety, and there are policies and procedures and handbooks in place that spell out how this should take place. The challenge is getting the students to actually live into that, and in some cases, getting the faculty and the staff to understand what it really means to live into those values and not just have those values put up with the wall. A number of school districts are going through similar challenges and they're trying to address this challenge head on, but many of them don't know how. The NAACP and many consultants out there are able to help with dealing with this issue that districts have never really focused on in the way that they're having to focus on them now.
Melanie Plenda: Dr. Coe, have you or your administrators dealt with anything like this before, and was it covered by your policies and procedures?
Dr. Jacqueline Coe: We had not dealt with a race-based threat before, at least in my time in SAU 24, and I've been there seven years. We were up to date with our policies and had readopted specifically policy AC in May of 2020. What we had not done was develop the anti-discrimination plan that's called for in that policy. We shared the initial plan with the boards a few months ago, and we're now doing the work to flesh out that plan. It's more than something that just sits in the policy folder. An example of this is that we're currently working on guidance for responding to hate speech and discriminatory incidents. We're using the document released by the Governor's Advisory Council on Equity and Inclusion in mid-October as our base for that work.
Melanie Plenda: While this particular incident was race-based, it had to do with a threat also. How does the district typically handle threats to the community? Did the district see this as a threat to the community? And if not, why not?
Dr. Jacqueline Coe: We were troubled and saddened and angered by this, and we took it as an affront to our community. It was treated as an individual threat, not a threat to the community. When we have dealt with potential threats to the community in the past, we did send out messages alerting the community. But at the time that we were processing through this, we saw it as an individual act and an individual threat, and felt we were protecting the victim. It may not have been the right way to handle it, but that was our mindset at the time.
Melanie Plenda: There are some competing interests here. Obviously there's a need to address what happened in terms of discipline for the students involved. There's also a need to recognize that all of these kids are minors, and that limits what you can tell people about the situation. There's also a public information component here, both for the Houles as well as the community at large, because there was a death threat. Can you walk us through in a little more detail the response from the school and the district, and how you tried to balance those competing interests?
Dr. Jacqueline Coe: When an administrator in the building becomes aware of a threat, they first determine the immediacy of the situation and what needs to be done to ensure the safety of students and staff in the building. Once that immediate safety need is addressed, they conduct an investigation, which includes talking to the students and the parents of all who are involved and impacted. It necessitates filing a safe school report and working with the police department.
Melanie Plenda: One of the things that the parents were asking for was a public forum to talk about this. Do you think that's something the school district is going to get behind, or might happen?
Dr. Jacqueline Coe: I am for a community conversation. I want to make sure it's done in a way that will move things forward, and I want to make sure that we do it right, that we do it in a meaningful way. I'm not sure that we have those skills in-house to facilitate a community forum that would move us forward.
Melanie Plenda: James, let's talk more about those community discussions. Why are they so important?
James T. McKim: They're so important because we need to better understand each other. The only way we can understand each other is through conversation, through communications. We need to be able to share how we're feeling whether we're people of color or whether we're white or whoever we are. We need a community forum to share how we're feeling, so we get to know one another, and we start to understand how we better deal with each other. Particularly around our education system, our districts; we need to have conversations about how we're going to educate our youth so that there is respect, there is dignity, and teach parents as well as students because parents are teaching their children outside of the school. Schools are supposed to be assisting in the education of children, right? Parents should not be giving up their duties as the primary teachers of their children. Parents need to be in conversation in community around how to do that. We're not born knowing how to be a good parent. We need to learn, and we learn through conversations in community.
Melanie Plenda: James, there's also a hearing in the legislature this week about HB 61. Can you tell us more about that and how it relates to situations like this?
James T. McKim: HB 61 is a bill that would repeal the Right to Freedom from Discrimination Act that was passed last session as part of House Bill 2. That act has been referred to by teachers and administrators as creating a chilling effect on how they teach and deal with interactions around race, around gender, around ability, those protected classes that the law has defined. The administration and the teachers, because of this act, have to be very careful about what they say and how they say it, because there's a great fear of running afoul of that act and potentially losing your life as a teacher or as an administrator. HB 61 looking to repeal that act is very germane to this this situatio and in preventing situations like this, allowing teachers and administrators to deal with it without fear.
Melanie Plenda: Dr. Coe, where does the district go from here, and what are the next steps in addressing this?
Dr. Jacqueline Coe: We're in learning mode right now. We're reaching out to resources across the state to school districts that are further ahead for insight and guidance. Hopefully as we know better, we do better. We've been having discussions amongst our leadership team and are planning some professional development for our administrators with the idea of then going to our educators on how to deal with discrimination, how best to support people who are harmed through discrimination, and we also have an ongoing focus on school culture and climate to show that as a school community, we value and prioritize belonging.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.