Administrators and Police Chief hold private meeting with students involved in altercation on Back to School Night
Fifty students stage a sit-in and attend public meetings to show support
December 11, 2015
In response to an altercation that involved four students on Back to School Night, Thursday, Oct. 15, Headmaster Deborah Holman, Interim Superintendent Joseph Connelly and Brookline Police Chief Daniel O’Leary met on Thursday, Dec. 10 during both X- and E-blocks in Holman’s office with a total of four students, three of whom were directly involved in the incident.
The altercation involved four students of color, a White off-duty police officer, his ex-wife and his 21-year-old daughter.
According to one of the students involved in the altercation, the four students were in front of the high school on Greenough Street just before Back to School Night. Two of the students were standing on the road in a parking spot, while the other two stood on the sidewalk.
The off-duty officer accelerated toward the parking spot in his car and pulled in without beeping, almost hitting the two who were in the road, according to the student. According to an investigation summary report released by O’Leary and Human Resources Director Sandra DeBow-Huang, a heated argument among the officer, his family and the students ensued, but particularly between the officer’s daughter and one of the students.
The report, which was released approximately two weeks ago, did not find the off-duty officer at fault in the altercation. Holman said she scheduled the meeting shortly after the release of the report to give the students a chance to discuss their reactions to it.
“Once the report came out, the students had some disappointment with the outcome,” Holman said. “Staff here and myself knew that they would. So we said, ‘Let’s have them sit with the Chief of Police and have a conversation about the outcome, about how the students have processed the events over the last couple months.’”
Sophomore Yama Estime and three of the students involved in the altercation, including Juliette Estime and senior Gabriela Torres, attended the meeting.
According to Connelly, the meeting was intended to let the students voice their concerns.
“It was our intent today to meet with the four students to get them a chance to share their concerns with us, and for us to reassure them that what happened on Oct. 15 was inappropriate and we don’t condone it,” Connelly said. “We’re trying to correct it, and we’re trying to make sure it never happens again. The real purpose of these meetings is to give the kids a chance to share their concerns with us so we can support the kids.”
Yama Estime, who was not involved in the incident but whose sister, Juliette Estime, was, expressed frustration that investigations into the altercation continued for so long.
“It took two months too long,” Yama Estime said. “It was an ice age. Teachers say they care about the school and this and that, but it would have happened faster. It should have been taken care of immediately after it happened.”
According to O’Leary, the time gap between the incident and the X-block meeting was due to scheduling issues and the nature of police investigations into complaints. He said he met with Connelly the week after the incident and they decided then that a meeting of this sort would be important, although the logistics of the meeting weren’t solidified until late on Wednesday, Dec. 9.
“Because there was a possibility of it involving race, the police department does an investigation internally,” O’Leary said. “We complete a report, we have to forward it then to our town’s human resources department, the human resources department conducts their own investigation, and comes up with their own findings, and reports to the town administrator. It’s a process that’s been built in, and that’s responsible for some of the delay.”
Juliette Estime said she wanted an apology from the Brookline Police Department and was confused as to why there wasn’t one.
“The police need to apologize for what they said and did,” Juliette Estime said. “I don’t understand why we didn’t get an apology.”
Torres said she felt that some of her concerns were not addressed at the meeting.
“He was basically trying to tell us his story and what happened with the investigation,” Torres said. “We had questions, and he didn’t really answer if we’re going to be safe and what happens if we’re in the street and we see him . Should we feel safe or should we feel scared?”
On the evening of Wednesday Dec. 9, Boston Mobilization, a group that holds weekly meetings for Project BTC members, urged some of their student volunteers via text message to stage a sit-in outside the X-block meeting. Project BTC, which three of the students involved are a part of, is a youth leadership and social justice group for Brookline teens out of the Brookline Teen Center. The message spread from the student volunteers through social media. Around 50 students gathered in the atrium on Thursday, and then sat inside Holman’s suite to await the end of the meeting.
After exiting the meeting, Holman, Connelly and O’Leary issued brief statements to the students waiting in the suite. They emphasized that the meeting was intended for only the students involved in the altercation, and that they wanted to protect the students’ privacy. All three also spoke about an offer O’Leary made, to set up a student leadership group that would have monthly meetings with members of the Police Department.
“I know that some of the students feel a certain way about the police, but in reality, most of the members of this police department graduated from this school, including me,” O’Leary said. “We all grew up there and we know what it’s like to be a teenager in Brookline, we were there too. I think it’s important that they understand that.”
Junior Diyana Tekleghiorghis, who was one of the student demonstrators, said the Brookline Police Department should take further steps to assure a sense of security in the high school community.
“I want everyone who played a role to get together and acknowledge what happened, talk to the people that did something wrong,” Tekleghiorghis said. “Let us know that they know that something awful happened and they are going to do everything in their powers to make sure the girls are safe and that we feel safe.”
Senior Lea Churchill, who also participated in the student gathering, said she hopes there will be an apology from the Brookline Police Department in the future.
“I hope that they will make a statement to the school, and I hope that they figure out how to handle these situations better,” Churchill said. “I don’t know if these things will happen though, because historically, these situations, when White people are in charge, are not always handled well.”
Following the X-block meeting, although Connelly and O’Leary had to leave the high school, Holman and other faculty members facilitated a discussion in the MLK room with the students who waited outside her office. During the meeting, students voiced their frustrations about larger issues concerning race in the high school’s culture, such as the lack of teaching about the history of people of color in mainstream history classes and the lack of diversity among the high school staff. The meeting lasted through the rest of E-block and all of G-block.
“Everyone got to talk about how they felt,” Torres said. “People told us how they felt and gave the chance for the administrators to understand how we feel.
O’Leary said he hopes regular meetings between the Police Department and students will help ease tensions.
“If you think about it, a lot of problems develop when people don’t talk,” O’Leary said. “When you talk, you have a conversation, and you go back and forth and you understand each other a lot better. That was one of the main reasons for doing it yesterday.”
Connelly said he hopes new avenues of communication will open up between the student body and the Police Department.
“These relationships are something we’ve talked about for years,” Connelly said. “Maybe this incident has triggered why it needs to happen right away. So the one good thing to come out of this meeting is the student-police-administrative dialogues.”
Yama Estime said she is thankful for the students who showed support and solidarity in Ms. Holman’s suite and the MLK room.
“It was their choice and they were willing to risk getting in trouble and stuff for us,” Yama Estime said. “I thought this was a welcoming home. I thought this was, ‘Family takes care of family,’ even though we’re all different races. I thought we were all supposed to take care of each other. This wasn’t the case in the incident, but the students’ reaction today showed a true BHS family.”
Read more of the Sagamore’s coverage of race issues here.
Sam Klein and Kendall McGowan contributed reporting