WESTFORD — The Middlesex County District Attorney’s office has released a community interaction form to report incidents motivated by hate or bias.
The Westford Police Department met with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee on April 28 to discuss two recent incidents and how DEI can collaborate with WPD on reports in the future.
The Facts of the Incidents
Two hate incidents have been reported in Westford, one in the Westford Valley Marketplace on Jan. 3 and one at Kennedy Pond on April 22. Both involved youths using racial slurs and were classified as Hate/Bias incidents by WPD.
According to the WPD website, a Hate/Bias incident is “an action or behavior motivated by hate, but which, for one or more reasons, is not a crime.” Examples include name-calling, insults, displaying hate material on one’s property, posting hate material online, or distributing materials with “hate messages” in public places.
For youth involved in Hate/Bias incidents, their families are contacted regarding the incidents.
The cases are then forwarded to Detective Anthony Bernadin, the School Resource Officer at Westford Academy, who then follows up on the investigation with involved youth within Westford Public Schools. He arranges these meetings even if an incident occurs outside of school hours or off school grounds.
These criteria were followed by WPD for both the Jan. 3 and April 22 reports.
Deputy Chief Ronald Paulauskas advises residents who witness a Hate/Bias incident to immediately call WPD, stating that “these types of incidents are a priority for the police department.”
The DEI Committee’s Reaction, Collaboration
The DEI Committee discussed how to handle the potential outcomes of future Hate/Bias incidents.
“If someone is out there saying things, [even] if it’s not caught on camera…the fear it can instill in people is still, I think, a safety issue,” DEI member Anita Tonakarn-Nguyen said.
So far, the DEI Committee and WPD have collaborated on providing documents, forms, and links on the Westford Police Department website. This includes the hate/bias form page, complaint forms and procedures, and links to directly contact Chief Chambers. A list of the WPD’s downloadable forms can be found here.
“Chief Chambers received feedback from the DEI Committee and took recommendations regarding which Westford Police Department policies and procedures should be made available on-line on the WPD website to promote transparency and accountability,” Administrative Captain James Peloquin told WestfordCAT in an email.
Peloquin also noted that Chief Chambers has attended multiple DEI meetings and plans to host a Q&A session with the DEI Committee “to promote transparency” between the WPD and Westford community. Dates for these sessions have not been announced at the time of reporting.
Considering the connection the WPD has with the WPS, DEI also discussed how they could collaborate with both groups regarding anti-bias education, and “make this a teachable moment” for the community.
“In terms of our [DEI’s] role and in terms of being able to bring this to light, that could have a positive effect, almost a preventative effect,” DEI Co-Chair Joe Diamond said. “Can it be considered a teachable moment for the schools to provide information…that this [event] happened? And an opportunity for us to take a step in terms of raising awareness and prevention?”
Currently, Stony Brook Middle School hosts an Anti-Defamation League World of Difference Program. Students are trained to be peer leaders and taught an anti-bias curriculum.
“It’s doing that training of helping our students understand how to honor and respect differences [and] what a respectful community looks like,” Westford School Committee Chair Chris Sanders said. “I want there to be more and I think there’s lots of [other] ways we can infuse it.”
Restorative practices have also been introduced to guide students through “challenging but important conversations, teaching them how to be empathetic, to be caring, [and] how to listen,” as stated by Sanders.
Westford Academy works with consultant Dr. Michele Shannon, who hosts conversations and open forums with students after school on DEI issues. Bernadin also visits elementary and middle schools to present PowerPoint presentations on cyberbullying and harassment.
“I know in the schools, especially at Westford Academy, we do take DEI conversations very seriously,” Bernadin said.
However, the schools still face a problem of low student engagement within their own DEI programs, and the DEI Committee offered their assistance in further developing these programs.
“I hear a lot of feedback from my middle-schooler that there is so much resistance within the kids. They are there, but they are mentally not present,” said DEI Co-Chair Anjali Rajput. “Maybe this is an opportunity for us to look into existing programs within the schools…so we can strengthen the core values of the kids within the communities.”
The DEI Committee also suggested sharing similar resources on their own website and advertising community events in town to further extend the anti-bias and anti-hate messages of WPS.
“That’s what we’re here to do. To help make those bridges and help extend those communication channels,” Tonakarn-Nguyen said.
Where and How to Report an Incident
The bias form can be filled out through a downloadable form available on their website or through an online reporting form to the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office. It has been available to all police officers since May 4, 2021.
When filling out a report, incidents can be categorized as either a hate crime or a Hate/Bias incident.
“By making this form available to all residents we offer a direct link for residents to report incidents even if they do not want to report or deal directly with the Westford Police Department,” Administrative Captain James Peloquin said in a statement to Westford CAT. “We feel [it] is beneficial to the town of Westford to give residents multiple options…Any reports of bias or hate crimes reported to the Westford Police Department are always investigated completely.”