To the editor:
Last Wednesday, a public hearing was held at West Parish Elementary School in response to a petition which I circulated to install Gloucester police officers in each of Gloucester’s public schools.
The petition, which was submitted to the School Committee on the night of the hearing, was signed by 343 Gloucester residents.
There have been many in Gloucester who have opposed not just my proposal, but the very idea that our school and city leaders should be challenged at all. It is troubling that Gloucester residents would oppose not just an opinion, but the right of someone to voice it publicly to those who have been elected to serve us. It is more troubling that some on the School Committee sought to avoid listening to those who elected them, because they disagreed with the proposal.
It’s alarming that city officials violated state law by refusing to accept signatures on my petition, though, to date, they can not find any legal basis in our city charter to do so. When pressed for a legal answer, city counsel Suzanne Egan wrote in her memorandum, “the charter is silent with respect to electronic signatures.” The silence of the charter, along with state and federal law allowing these signatures, means that the actions taken by the city clerk in seeking to block this petition lacked legal support.
Happily, many members of the School Committee did not allow the city clerk to stonewall the efforts of hundreds of Gloucester residents to speak publicly. The resulting conversation on Wednesday night was a fantastic model for respectful dialogue on a complex issue. While I submitted a specific proposal, I have maintained to all who have discussed this issue with me that securing schools should be a multi-faceted approach, and no option should be off the table.
Since my goal was to make our schools safer, I was heartened when I heard many who spoke in opposition to my proposal recognize that we could do a much better job as a community of strengthening the infrastructure of our buildings; of improving our mental health services; and installing intercoms and alarms to allow for better communication should there be a crisis.
In doing this, the majority of the speakers recognized that what we have in place is inadequate, and, while we can disagree on what action to take to remedy the deficiencies, there is little question that action must be taken.
We can have respectful disagreements about what the “best” is for our community. However, there should never be any effort made by local citizens or government officials to squelch honest debate or proposals about how to improve our community.
I’m gratified that those who sought to do that with regard to my proposal were unsuccessful. However, the fact that the effort was made shows an alarming lack of respect for the democratic process and differing opinions. Those in positions of power should be questioned on a regular basis about their decisions, especially as it affects our children. Respecting the work done by the school committee and superintendent does not mean that we all have to agree that the decisions they have made are correct.
I want to express my thanks to those city and school officials who reached out to discuss this topic productively with me personally, as well as those who supported having a public hearing so that all views can be expressed. I hope that our collective discussion and debate will bring us safer schools.
I also hope that those in our community who seek to squash honest debate will think twice before doing it again. After all, in America, “Congress shall make no law …abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
This is the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution; and our most sacred right as Americans.
AMANDA O. KESTERSON