EASTHAMPTON, Mass. (WWLP) – There’s an ongoing controversy in Easthampton involving the mayor and a comment she recently made to a high school student. 22News is hearing for the first time from the School Committee after the mayor addressed the incident at this week’s meeting.

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle declined an on camera interview Thursday and instead provided an audio clip a spokesperson said came from the city’s attorney.

“You want people see the space, you’re commanding your space. And if you could even time that as each one or even use it as a signal,” said the Mayor during the ‘We The People’ session.

The Easthampton School Committee said the comment was made during a “We The People” practice run with students on March 30th. In the four-minute audio clip sent to 22News by a spokesperson for LaChapelle, the mayor can be heard offering public speaking advice.

“Right, you look completely different. So like you get so worried about how you present. Like your cadence is a little, it’s not white. Like you don’t talk like a white person or anything and that’s fine.”

Mayor LaChapelle at the We The People session

Mayor LaChapelle added the student should use their physical presence to say “who cares,” using an expletive word in the process.

You can listen to the full audio recording below:

In response, the school committee requested LaChapelle take part in a committee executive session for questioning. During the regular session of the meeting, LaChapelle gave a statement she shared with the City Council last week:

“At the We the People practice session, I intended to share my perspective about implicit bias that may factor into the judging decisions. 

Yes, I swore. Yes, I had a rough morning. Not excusable, but human. 

As soon as I learned the effect of my words on the student and their family, I reached out directly.  Before I left on vacation, I met with the parents, Superintendent, Principal, and the We the People instructor. I wrote letters to the family and the class. 

My comments were intended to strengthen the students’ arguments by acknowledging factors that are out of their control—the bias often faced by people of color. I believe deeply that understanding and anticipating possible bias is essential when delivering public remarks, but my words were heard differently by a student and their family. 

I assumed they would understand my intent. I was wrong.

As a woman, I am familiar with bias.

But being “the other” is not my experience. My presumption of how best to deliver my comments caused harm. I shouldn’t have assumed that my audience would understand my intent.  I fully appreciate the mistake I made, and I will do my best not to make it again. 

I understand there to be an allegation of retaliation from Shawn Sheehan, the head of the Easthampton Teachers Union. 

Superintendent LeClair asked months ago if EHS could use a city 15-passenger van to transport students to sporting events. While the school department looked for registered student transportation, I agreed the city van could be used as a stopgap measure as allowed under student transportation regulations. The requests for the van became more regular and directly to the Mayor’s office.  The van is not licensed for student transport, it’s not insured for that, and there’s a reason we don’t transport students in just any municipal vehicle. I emailed the Superintendent on April 7th after a request for the van was made by a teacher. I said the van is not licensed for regular student transport. Superintendent responded “My apologies Mayor. I have no idea why they are contacting your office. I will send a notice to all. Allison.”   

I have issued apologies, public and private.

I have issued statements, also public and private.

I honor your process and am here in good faith because we have work to do in our schools.

If there are any outstanding questions that the committee members have for me following tonight’s executive session, I am happy to answer them.

I look forward to working through this process and continuing the important work before this committee.

Easthampton Mayor LaChapelle

In response to the Mayor’s statement, the school committee put out a statement saying in part, “The Committee wants to clearly state that no matter how the Mayor’s comment was intended, we believe it was racist and unacceptable. The Committee also believes that swearing in a school, especially by a public official, is unprofessional.”

“On Behalf of the Easthampton School Committee I would like to release the following statement:

The School Committee scheduled an Executive session for April 26, 2022 to discuss complaints concerning comments the Mayor made at the We the People practice run on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. A letter was sent to the Mayor in advance of the meeting so she would have time to prepare. During the Regular School Committee meeting on April 26, 2022 the Mayor read a prepared statement and then announced that the scheduled executive session was about her but that she would not attend.

The School Committee was surprised and dismayed at her refusal to address this issue with the Committee, as we had held off talking about this until the Mayor had a chance to return from her vacation and could meet with us. The Committee wanted to ask her a number of questions, but we continued without her after her refusal to attend.

First, upon review of the timeline of events, Mayor LaChapelle’s response was not timely. She let five days go by without addressing the damage she caused, even though she was contacted by both the parent of the student who was the target of her comment on Wednesday, March 30, as well as the Superintendent on Thursday, March 31 and Friday, April 1. She did not meet with the family, Superintendent LeClair and Teacher Kelly Brown until Monday, April 4, 2022. It is this Committee’s belief that after being contacted on March 30, March 31, and April 1 of the hurt she caused, that it was inappropriate to let days go by without having a meaningful conversation with those involved in a heartfelt and healing manner.

Two, the Committee wants to clearly state that no matter how the Mayor’s comment was intended, we believe it was racist and unacceptable. The Committee also believes that swearing in a school, especially by a public official, is unprofessional. We understand that the Mayor has apologized for her action, however, the Committee strongly believes that more restorative work needs to be done by Mayor La Chapelle and that she needs to do this work with both the School Community and the Easthampton Community as a whole. We believe it is possible for her to do this restorative work and we urge her to do so as quickly as possible.”

Cynthia Kwiecinski, School Committee Chairperson