Great Barrington’s insurance company hires a lawyer for legal advice on investigation into police book search | South Berkshires

The Great Barrington Select Board

The Great Barrington Select Board listened to comments and calls for accountability by residents and parents on Jan. 8 about the incident where a Great Barrington police officer searched a classroom for the book “Gender Queer.” They listened again on Monday night, after announcing that a lawyer hired by the town’s insurance company is making a legal study in preparation for a potential investigation by the town.

GREAT BARRINGTON — A lawyer assigned by the town’s insurance company is deciding how and whether the town should proceed with an independent investigation of a police search for a book in a middle school classroom last month.

The Select Board announced at its meeting on Monday that the Boston-based civil litigation firm Pierce Davis & Perritano was appointed last week for legal advice regarding a probe of the Dec. 8 incident at W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School, and to determine next steps.

The firm was assigned by the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association, a nonprofit that provides liability and other insurance for more than 400 cities and towns across the state.

Someone complained about a book in a Great Barrington classroom. Then the police showed up

Town Manager Mark Pruhenski said at the meeting he had met with the lawyer that morning. The lawyer needs more time to assess the situation, he said.

The board pushed its vote on whether to conduct an independent investigation to its next meeting on Feb. 12.

This frustrated at least one school parent, who pointed out by the time a decision is made on how to proceed, it will have been two months since the action by police to search a classroom — one that was permitted by school officials.

Debra Minkoff wondered if there is “some reluctance” by the board to move forward.

Debra Minkoff

Debra Minkoff speaks at the Great Barrington Select Board earlier this month regarding the incident where a police officer searched a classroom for a book. Minkoff again spoke at the board’s Monday meeting.

Board Chair Stephen Bannon said there is no reluctance, and explained that the board can only make decisions in open meeting, and that town staff members with one board member have been advancing plans to possibly hold the investigation. They’ve also had to wait on advice from the lawyers.

But the teacher whose classroom was searched, as well as parents, other teachers and the larger community want to get to the bottom of what happened on Dec. 8 and how it was allowed to happen.

On Dec. 8, Great Barrington Police received a complaint from someone who said the book, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, may have images that are considered pornographic. After receiving permission from Superintendent Peter Dillon, Police Chief Paul Storti sent Officer Joseph O’Brien to the school to look for the book and determine whether it was indeed “obscene” material. O’Brien was escorted by Principal Miles Wheat.

Law firm to investigate book search in Great Barrington middle school, as reports of homophobic bullying prompt calls for action

The book could not be found in the classroom, and six days later Berkshire District Attorney Timothy Shugrue stopped any criminal investigation from moving forward.

A firestorm ensued over both the complainant not going through regular school procedure to challenge a book, and because police didn’t redirect them back to the school. It is also because Dillon gave Storti the green light — something he has repeatedly apologized for.

Screenshot of body cam

A screenshot from the Dec. 8 bodycam video shows the inside of a W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School classroom as Great Barrington Police Investigator Joseph O’Brien questions Principal Miles Wheat and the teacher about the book “Gender Queer.” The teacher has hired a lawyer who specializes in employment law and who is asking school and town officials to open an independent investigation.

The Berkshire Hills Regional School District has already launched its own independent investigation at the request of the teacher, who asked for both the district and the town to conduct separate independent investigations.

The teacher wants to return to school from her leave of absence. But she has safety concerns, and wants first and foremost to know who complained, her lawyer, Howard M. Cooper told The Eagle last week. Only police know the complainant’s identity. 

Cooper’s firm, Todd & Weld LLP, specializes in employment law. Cooper also is a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Other steps are being taken: Town staff and police are reviewing policies and making draft revisions, Pruhenski said. Storti is conducting a “debrief” about the entire incident, he said last week. Storti will be present at a future meeting, Pruhenski added in response to a question by Ananda Timpane, executive director of Railroad Street Youth Project.

ACLU, GLAD tell Great Barrington Police and DA that school book search was 'unwarranted and unauthorized by law'

Timpane reminded the board of a letter from the ACLUM and GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) to both Storti and Shugrue that said the search was “unwarranted,” and asked them to “take corrective action” and reassure the public that police have no business meddling in education.

When asked by Timpane if this can’t be done before an investigation, Pruhenski said that he needs to wait for the attorney’s advice.