MIAA football official responsible for basketball game taunts

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on May 10, 2017.

NORTH ATTLEBORO — An MIAA football official was responsible for text messages encouraging taunts against an Attleboro High School girls’ basketball player in February.

Public records released Wednesday from a North Attleboro school investigation revealed that John Engler admitted to sending a text message to a North Attleboro student, encouraging them to continue taunts of “traitor” against Attleboro basketball player Julia Strachan during a Feb. 20 Attleboro/North Attleboro girls’ basketball game.

Strachan, who lives in North Attleboro, transferred to Attleboro High at the beginning of her junior year after her father, Michael Strachan, took a football coaching job at AHS.

Engler is a North Attleboro resident and a football official with the Massachusetts Independent Football Officials Association, which provides referees and game officials for MIAA sanctioned events.

The MIAA holds strict rules against taunting — encouraging game officials to eject spectators or players from an arena after just a single warning.

But, officials failed to step in when North Attleboro students at the Feb. 20 game targeted 18-year-old Strachan with chants of “traitor” every time she touched the ball — a total of 14 times in the second half, DoubleACS footage of the game shows.

Michael Strachan, 49, said he lodged a formal complaint with the North Attleboro school district after a student told him North Attleboro coach and physical education teacher Jason Feid had allegedly sent a text to students encouraging the taunting.

Strachan pointed to footage from the game that shows Feid pulling out his phone during halftime, typing or looking at something on it, glancing across the bleachers to the student section and gesturing for students to check their phones.

But in closing the investigation last week, North Attleboro Superintendent Scott Holcomb said, “Based on the evidence collected, I do not have reason to believe that Mr. Feid sent the text in question.”

The Sun Chronicle filed a public records request with the school department for records pertaining to the investigation.

Those records, released Wednesday in a redacted form to protect the privacy rights of students and staff, showed Engler was present during the interview of another unnamed individual when he confessed to sending a text message encouraging students to “keep the chant going.”

“Mr. Engler (redacted) stated that he had sent the text (redacted),” an interview narrative from March 8 reads. “He also wrote that (redacted) had said to (redacted) that the chant was working — it was in her head so keep it going.”

Engler also said the text had been deleted and that “he knew it was wrong and that he got caught up in the game,” the records show. But when North Attleboro officials suggested the man apologize to the Strachans on March 16, he declined.

When reached by The Sun Chronicle Wednesday, Engler apologized for the incident but said he did not equate the chants to taunts.

“In response to the incident referred to at the February 20 Attleboro/North Attleboro basketball game, my message was simply trying to encourage the North Attleboro student body to continue their cheering (as it seemed to be working) as North Attleboro began to mount a comeback during the game,” he said in an email statement. “At no time did I encourage the use of the word ‘traitor’ nor did I feel the cheering rose to the level of taunting.

“Apparently the administration personnel from either school in attendance at the game did not feel that this was taunting either, as they heard it but took no action to stop the cheering. To the extent that the message was misinterpreted, caused any individual to feel targeted, and resulted in this controversy, I am sincerely apologetic.”

Other students and staff members interviewed during the investigation confirmed the text said versions of “the chant is working, keep it up.” But they could not say for fact who the text message came from.

Further records show North Attleboro officials pressed Engler when his early statements did not match up to DoubleACS footage of the event. Another interview dated March 13 shows school officials concerned that they did not see Engler texting on the game footage. Engler responded that he could not pinpoint the time he sent the text.

School officials warned Engler that a potential lawsuit could subpoena his phone records, and that there was a rumor another adult had sent the text, but Engler again said he sent the text message.

Learned early

The records also show how early school officials learned of the incident. North Attleboro Athletic Director Kurt Kummer heard about the incident the night of, and by Feb. 22, Holcomb sent a letter of apology to Attleboro High School Principal Bill Runey.

“North Attleboro takes great pride in upholding the MIAA tenants that govern sporting events, and recognize this incident as extremely disappointing,” he wrote. “The deep and long-standing tradition of rivalry between North Attleborough and Attleboro is something we treasure. However, rivalries do not give people the right to taunt.

“I deeply regret this incident took place and hope that time will heal the wounds caused by these actions.”

Holcomb said Wednesday that although the investigation did not support Strachan’s claims against Feid, he did not believe Strachan’s claims were in bad faith.

“Michael Strachan was not unfounded in bringing this claim forward, and anyone who says otherwise does not know the full facts of the case,” he said. “Taunting should never be tolerated and I hope this investigation brings the Strachans some of the answers they were looking for.”

North Attleboro Assistant Superintendent Lori McEwen also praised Strachan for his “advocacy on (his) daughter’s behalf” in a letter late March.

“I want you to know that this event has caused us to review our expectations of staff and students and to provide greater clarity for behavioral expectations,” she wrote.

 
 
 
 
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MIAA policies prevent taunting — So what happened in Attleboro?

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on April 24, 2017.

ATTLEBORO — The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association dedicates an entire pamphlet to taunting prevention and policy.

So, when an Attleboro High School senior was subjected to taunts 14 times in a single basketball game, why didn’t school or MIAA officials step in?

Attleboro Principal Bill Runey said the situation simply fell through the cracks.

The MIAA defines taunting as “any actions or comments by coaches, players or spectators which are intended to bait, anger, embarrass, ridicule or demean others. The “trash talk” is considered a “flagrant unsportsmanlike foul” by the MIAA — one so looked down upon that officials are encouraged to eject players, coaches, game officials or spectators who participate in the act from a game after a single warning.

But that wasn’t the case in Attleboro at a Feb. 20 girls’ basketball game between Attleboro and North Attleboro, when the North Attleboro student section heckled Attleboro player Julia Strachan with chants of “traitor” every time she touched the ball — a total of 14 times in the second half, DoubleACS footage from the game shows.

Strachan, 18, lives in North Attleboro but transferred to Attleboro High at the beginning of her junior year after her father, Michael Strachan, took a football coaching job at AHS.

Jason Feid, a North Attleboro coach and physical education teacher, has been accused of orchestrating the chants — and an investigation is under way — but in a statement to The Sun Chronicle earlier this month Feid pointed the finger at Attleboro administrators, who seemingly did little to stop the chants.

“At no time were the students/crowd informed, cautioned, stopped or otherwise warned by any of the numerous Attleboro faculty members present at the game to refrain from the chant or chants being voiced,” he said in a letter.

MIAA Associate Director Richard Pearson said every athletic event is monitored by an MIAA official, who is often the athletic director or principal of a participating high school. But, while school officials are versed in suggested policy, Pearson said the association is a self-governing body that leaves regulation and enforcement up to participating districts.

“We have trust in our member schools that they will monitor the athletic and educational settings of their districts,” he said. “We allow the schools to lead and help clarify what’s happened at particular events. Schools, as self-governing entities, can bring that to our attention. But there is no regulatory arm of this office.”

In Attleboro, Runey said Athletic Director Mark Houle is typically the MIAA official for the district, but because Houle doubles as the varsity boy’s basketball coach, that responsibility is sometimes shuffled around to other assistant principals or deans. And when an event is particularly large, the issue of crowd control becomes even more complicated. 

“This particular event was a sell out, so to ask for one person to be responsible for every single one of those spectators without somebody bringing an event to his or her attention is not a reasonable expectation,” Runey said. 

He said there is also an implied “gentleman’s agreement” between schools where each district will mind to their own students and fans to prevent officials from one school from chastising students from another.

But Runey also accepted fault for the Feb. 20 incident.

“We’re not without blame in this situation,” Runey said. “I had people there that night that I’m confident heard the chant. We have some accountability in this as well. Anybody that was within earshot should have brought it to someone’s attention.”

Runey called the situation a learning curve for the Attleboro administration and said he’s currently working on new protocols that require any employee of the district — from custodians, teachers, coaches and administrators — to report unacceptable behavior to their higher up at first notice, whether they’re on or off the clock.

The MIAA provides guidelines for appropriate spectator behavior and advises the role of administrators, coaches and athletic directors in keeping a supportive environment.

“The greatest peril to interscholastic athletes is overzealous fans,” a policy in the 2015 sportsmanship manual reads. “Spectators think little of harassing players, coaches and officials in their classroom and the field of play. The spectator should be informed that administrators can no longer tolerate immature behavior, whether from a recent graduate, parent or community resident.

“For the school sports program to be an educational experience, spectators must understand the need for good sportsmanship. Many sports fans have lost perspective and linked collegiate and professional sports with high school programs. Problems that should not be associated with the educational program have dampened what should be a positive experience for students.”

Included in unacceptable behavior is: yelling or chanting at opponents, making derogatory chants or gestures, criticizing officials or a call, using profanity or anger that draws attention away from the contest, blaming a loss on game officials, coaches or players — and, in Strachan’s case — laughing or name calling to distract an opponent.

The policy tasks the administration with the leading role in establishing an environment of good sportsmanship. Administrators, it says, can’t avoid all problems — but how they respond to problems speaks to the “philosophy of the school administration.”

And, it also sets the tone for students, the MIAA said.

The conduct of coaches and spectators falls under the responsibility of the athletic director.

But coaches, with a role likened to that of a “substitute parent,” must also set a good example to players and spectators alike, the MIAA said.

Especially at the high school level.

“Unlike most areas of education, athletics are played before spectators, and young people, who look to their coaches, teammates, parents, fellow students and citizens of the community for positive reinforcement that they have made the right choice in wanting to compete for their school,” the sportsmanship manual reads.

In North Attleboro, game taunts lead to investigation

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on April 4, 2017.

NORTH ATTLEBORO — The school superintendent’s office is investigating reports that a North Attleboro High School football and track coach orchestrated taunts targeting an Attleboro High School girls’ basketball player during a game played in February.

Jason Feid has been accused of organizing an effort to taunt Attleboro senior Julia Strachan during a Feb. 20 game at Attleboro High School. North Attleboro students at the game targeted the 18-year-old with chants of “traitor” every time she touched the ball, according to a DoubleACS video of the game — a total of 14 times in the second half.

Strachan, who lives in North Attleboro, transferred to Attleboro High at the beginning of her junior year after her father, Michael Strachan, took a football coaching job at AHS.

The Sun Chronicle learned of the investigation through an anonymous source who said, as a North Attleboro resident, she was concerned that parents were being kept in the dark about the situation.

North Attleboro Superintendent Scott Holcomb said he could not confirm which students or employees were involved in the case pending the ongoing investigation, but did say school officials are looking into the alleged incident at the request of Michael Strachan.

When approached by The Sun Chronicle, Strachan was initially reluctant to speak pending the investigation, but said his only concern is figuring out what happened to warrant the taunts against his daughter.

Strachan said he was upset to see his daughter targeted during the game, but those feelings turned to concern when a North Attleboro student told him Feid had allegedly sent a text to students encouraging the taunting.

Strachan said there was only one isolated chant made in the first half of the game — when Julia had possession of the ball nine times — but after halftime, the taunting became a more concerted effort.

In footage from the game reviewed by The Sun Chronicle, Feid can be seen pulling out his phone during halftime, typing or looking at something on it, glancing across the bleachers to the student section and gesturing for students to check their phones.

Feid is the freshmen football and high school and middle school spring track coach for North Attleboro and a physical education teacher at the middle school.

“In looking at the film, I have a lot of questions about what occurred during halftime,” Strachan said. “Something happened and we’re just trying to figure out what. These are pieces of the puzzle that I’ve received — but the truth hasn’t come out yet. I don’t feel like the investigation is over.”

Jim Jones of DoubleACS said film of the game has not been shown to the public at the request of the Attleboro School Department because of the pending complaint by Strachan. He said the recording has been turned over to the school department. Jones said the request was initiated by AHS principal Bill Runey.

Runey said he made the request in order to facilitate North Attleboro’s inquiry into the complaint.

“In order to allow North Attleboro to look into the situation involving the February 20 girls basketball game, I asked DoubleACS to hold on to the footage,” he told The Sun Chronicle in an email.

“It was an unfortunate situation and North Attleboro asked us to help them get the video. We value our relationship with North so it was just a part of trying to put both schools in a position to learn from the experience.”

In a letter sent to The Sun Chronicle by his lawyer, Feid said he was approached by Michael Strachan at the end of the game and that Strachan was upset that Feid, as a faculty member and coach in the North Attleboro school system, hadn’t tried to stop the chants.

Feid said he was at the game as a parent, supporting his daughter, Julia Feid, who plays on the North Attleboro girls’ team.

Feid said administration from Attleboro did not step up to quiet the chants either.

He said he was later cleared in investigations by the North Attleboro High School administration and North Attleboro Assistant Superintendent Lori McEwen, but said Strachan has appealed the decision to Holcomb’s office with threat of a civil lawsuit if the matter is not resolved.

“As a result of the pending appeal and the parent’s threat of civil litigation, the accused will have no further comment on the matter,” the letter said. “The accused has voluntarily and willingly participated in the investigation and has been exonerated through the results of those investigations. This case should not and will not be tried through the media given the threats of civil litigation against him.”

Strachan said he is not on a witch hunt, but simply wants to know the truth. Six weeks later, he is frustrated with the lack of answers.

“I respect North Attleboro — I think it has teachers, coaches and administration that do a great job. I can understand rivalry, but this time it went beyond that,” he said. “This became a targeted event. I’m just trying to find the truth. I just want to know and figure out what happened to my daughter. There is no place in sports for this.”

The event also drew criticism from local media, including Sun Chronicle sports editor Mark Farinella and WARA Radio host Paul Healey, who said the taunts went outside the bounds of rivalry and into an environment of poor sportsmanship.

The Feb. 20 game was the last girls’ basketball game of the season between rivals Attleboro and North Attleboro.

Judge dismisses Plainville patrolwoman’s lawsuit against superiors in connection to cop love triangle case

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on March 14, 2017.

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by Plainville Patrolwoman Julie Ann Barrett against two of her superiors in the so-called love triangle saga involving officers from two town police departments.

However, North Attleboro police officials and the Town of Plainville remain on the hook, and the suit against them could go to trial later this year.

The flurry of litigation stems from an incident last July in which Barrett’s live-in boyfriend, North Attleboro police Sgt. David Gould, allegedly beat Barrett and Plainville police Detective James Moses — allegedly after he caught them kissing in a car parked on a dark and deserted Plainville road.

North Attleboro selectmen have since fired Gould.

Gould faces criminal assault charges in connection with the alleged beating of Moses, but the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office dropped charges against him in connection with Barrett’s alleged beating, saying she refused to cooperate with prosecutors.

Barrett filed suit against North Attleboro and Plainville police officials and the Town of Plainville in December in connection with departmental investigations into the July incident.

She alleges her personal cellphone was seized unconstituionally in connection with the investigation, a violation of her right to privacy, and that she was subjected to “threats, intimidation and coercion” in the police probe.

Named in the suit were the Town of Plainville, Plainville Police Chief James Alfred, Plainville police Lt. James Floyd, North Attleboro Police Chief John Reilly, North Attleboro police Capt. Joseph DiRenzo and unnamed state police and district attorney personnel.

U.S. District Judge William Young dismissed the suit against Alfred and Floyd earlier this month.

Barrett alleged her police superiors repeatedly told her she had to cooperate with the internal investigation into Gould, despite her attempts to stay out of the matter. Barrett said Plainville police coerced her into handing over her phone for the investigation, then unconstitutionally shared the information with North Attleboro police.

In their motion to dismiss, Alfred and Floyd said their actions were in line with the way other officers would have acted in similar circumstances. The filing said police only encouraged Barrett to hand over her cellphone — and warned, if she did not voluntarily do so, state police would move forward with a search warrant.

The filing also argued a municipality may not be held liable for an employee’s wrongdoing — contending that the Town of Plainville should not be held accountable for Alfred’s actions as police chief.

The lawsuit remains in place against the town, however.

In a separate filing, North Attleboro’s Reilly and DiRenzo called for a dismissal of the lawsuit in which Barrett claimed they “acted in bad faith” and violated her right to privacy by accessing her cellphone information without permission.

Barrett said when submitting her cellphone for search, she was under the impression the information would be shared only with the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office in the criminal case — not North Attleboro’s internal investigation into Gould.

Barrett alleged her cellphone contained “personal and sensitive information” and the breach of privacy by North Attleboro police was unconstitutional.

In their motion to dismiss, Reilly and DiRenzo said there was “no unreasonable, substantial or serious interference with Ms. Barrett’s privacy” during the investigation.

However, the judge let stand the complaint against them.

Reilly and DiRenzo submitted a request last week seeking a jury trial, likely to be held later this year.

Taking the classroom into the wild

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on March 11, 2017.

Mother nature welcomed Terry Hughes’ kindergarten class outside with a forceful gust of wind through the trees.

The kids shrieked, laughed, ran around one another and dropped to the pavement – clipboards and pencils in hand.

“Outside sounds: WIND,” they wrote, in small letters and big, some jumbling up the word the way kindergartners sometimes will.

Minutes later, one student kicked a rock across the blacktop.

“Rock!!” they screamed, running toward the sound and making note of the latest discovery.

Student Hanna Wermecke picked up a piece of chalk and drew on the pavement.

“You can hear that!” a 6-year-old exclaimed.

Soon they had a full list of outdoor sounds: sand, leaves, sticks and trees – there were more than they could count.

It was all part of a recent class at Hill-Roberts Elementary School in South Attleboro, where Hughes focuses on hands-on, experimental learning.

Attleboro has recently shifted toward an emphasis on science, but district administrators say Hughes takes the lessons even further by giving her students – a rambunctious 24-member class of 5- and 6-year-olds – a first-hand look at everything they learn about.

But from her perspective, Hughes is just letting her kids do what they do best: be kids.

“Kids have great questions normally,” she said. “They’re very curious. So when we do science in kindergarten, we’re encouraging them to get excited and be inquisitive. We’re making them want to learn.”

Thursday’s focus was on sounds, and started with a nature walk through the woods where students were able to let loose and freely explore the world around them.

They learned words for different sounds – rustling, crunching, snapping. And, though it was a chance to stop and listen, kindergartners rarely stop. Instead they dove into everything in front of them.

They found uprooted trees and decided animals might live inside, thought maybe a pond of water could be a volcano and realized bugs had eaten a hole in a piece of bark.

They made note of things they did (a tree stump throne) and did not like (goose poops) and called for “Mrs. Hughes!!” whenever something piqued their interest.

Their imagination is limitless – and Hughes lets them dream, but also takes advantage of simple moments to encourage their inquisitive thinking while giving her students the confidence to answer questions on their own.

When a group of students jumped into a ditch of leaves, exclaiming, “It’s squishy!” Hughes responded with only a question: “Why do you think it’s squishy?”

“It helps them think for themselves and think outside of the box,” she said. “If you tell them the answer, the question stops there. If they’re the ones engaged in finding out the answers themselves, they’ll think about it longer.

“They’ll make more connections out of that connection and it helps with their long-term memory. If we can hook them into learning now, think of the potential they’ll have in the longrun.”

She finds opportunities for outside learning everywhere she looks. When teaching the kids about animals and how they hide in the forest, Hughes gave each of the kids paint chips and asked them to find a place in nature to camouflage the cards.

“They were surprised to find weird shades of green existed outside,” she said.

To learn about the seasons, they watch the trees outside the school change yearround.

“If they can see that individually, it’s an ‘Aha!’ moment where they can say, ‘Now I understand what you mean by that,'” she said.

“They’re checking it out, making predictions, observing what they see and hear, following up on those predictions and bringing it home to share. That’s the beauty of it.”

And Hughes uses the outside learning experiences to build upon more practical classroom assignments inside.

Thursday afternoon, students were tasked with writing stories based off of the sounds they heard earlier in the day.

“It’s a jumping off point to get them excited for the rest of the day,” she said.

The concept of outside classrooms is big in Scandinavian countries. and has started to cross over to the States, but Hughes’ outdoor education stretches back over her 36-year career.

“When I first started teaching, we had to make our own curriculum. I use a lot of the things now that I used back then,” she said.

Now, with many more state requirements, curriculum is much less “design-it-yourself,” but Hughes said the experimental learning shouldn’t have to stop.

“It’s always a challenge, given the schedules we have for what we need to do,” she said. “There’s no fluff in our day, anymore.

“Kids are going home exhausted and we’re challenging them and holding them to higher standards. That expectation is coming down on them even in kindergarten. But, I try to make it a priority and connect back to it as much as I can.”

Tami LeFleur was hired last year as the district’s K-12 STEM coordinator, and said she was shocked to see Hughes’ classroom flourishing at such a young age. She said Hughes could be a model for other teachers across the district to incorporate more doing in their classrooms.

“Science is all about engaging kids, but it doesn’t start in high school,” she said. “It starts the day they walk through these doors. It’s not necessarily about memorizing facts, it’s how do you go about investigating something?”

Hughes’ students could tell you.

Kelli Larson, 5 1/2, has seen worms, caterpillars, butterflies and bluebirds – all up close – and now knows how to find them at home.

“Our whole class loves science,” her friend Allyson Klegraefe, 5, said matter-of-factly.

And in his first year with the school, Principal Frank Rich said he draws inspiration from Hughes’ class.

“It’s been nice learning more about what she does,” he said. “She’s one teacher that has really bought into the learning priority of real-life experiences. This is the age where you should build on that, and we have a great campus for it.”

“I want them to have fun every day,” Hughes said. “You don’t want to rush them through their childhood at 5 or 6 years old. I want them to enjoy school.”

North Attleboro selectmen take step toward social media policy

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on March 10, 2017.

NORTH ATTLEBORO — After two elected officials and a selectman candidate were found to have bigoted posts disparaging minority populations on their Facebook pages, selectmen are taking the first step in implementing a long-called for social media policy for elected officials.

The policy is being pushed forward by resident Laurie Lawes, who said she was disheartened to learn that sitting Selectman Paul Belham had posts against Muslims and Mexicans on his Facebook page just a year after RTM member Paul Couturier was expelled from the legislative body for similar posts.

The policy would only apply to selectmen, as the board does not have the authority to compel other boards to adopt a similar policy. But Selectwoman Anne Lonzo said selectmen should take a leading role in implementing the code of conduct and encourage other boards to follow.

Belham received two examples of social media policies in other towns by Lawes, and encouraged the board to study the documents as a starting point for North Attleboro.

“Let’s follow a model that’s already working,” he said.

But, as many board members pointed out, the policy would not be explicitly enforceable as elected officials cannot be fired like an employee.

“What are the ramifications if we don’t follow it?” Lonzo asked.

Belham said rule-breakers would be held accountable by the people of the town.

“This puts us on notice and says people are going to be looking,” he said.

Lawes said she was encouraged to see selectmen moving forward with the policy, especially after it was pushed aside in conversations last year.

And until one is put into place, Selectman Michael Lennox said elected officials should behave like an employee would.

“Until that time, I’m personally willing to abide by what we hold our employees to,” he said.

North Attleboro selectman admits to protesters he was responsible for bigoted posts

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on March 10, 2017.

NORTH ATTLEBORO — Selectman Paul Belham met with protesters outside of Town Hall Thursday to admit he alone was responsible for disparaging posts against Muslims and Mexicans uncovered on his Facebook page last month.

The posts were not — as he once claimed — the work of social media hackers.

But, the selectman said he has no plans to resign like others before him.

“I am guilty of being insensitive to people I know and people I don’t know by participating in sharing derogatory ethnic humor about their culture,” he told a crowd of about 20 before the board’s meeting Thursday night.

The protest came about a year after residents rallied outside North Attleboro Middle School after Representative Town Meeting member Paul Couturier was found to have disparaging posts against Muslims and African Americans on his Facebook page. Couturier resigned shortly after the posts were uncovered.

Belham and selectman candidate James Lang were found to have similar postings in February, and both men dismissed the posts as the work of social media hackers. But Belham admitted otherwise on Thursday.

“At that time, I did not think it was improper, but after thinking about it, I came to realize this is not who I am and does not reflect my true feelings about people of different backgrounds,” he said. “I sincerely make an apology to anyone that may have been offended and will not partake in this behavior in the future.”

During the meeting, Belham repeated his apology and said he wasn’t truthful when approached by The Sun Chronicle, but said the indiscretion should not affect his performance as a board member or his work for the town.

And, at least some are OK with that.

Laurie Lawes organized the gathering after asking Belham to resign at a selectmen’s meeting last month.

But since then, conversations with the selectman have caused her to back down from that charge.

“He took responsibility for what he said and did, and he is going to work with me in getting a social media policy in place,” Lawes said.

Lawes said she hoped to see a social media policy after Couturier’s comments came to light last March, and was disappointed when there was no follow through.

“I didn’t do a good enough job keeping our officials accountable last year,” she said.

But she’s hopeful that will change this year.

Lawes said she was also encouraged to see many town officials — including a few Representative Town Meeting members, Selectwoman Anne Lonzo, Selectman Michael Lennox and selectmen candidates Keith Lapointe and Mark Williamson — join protesters Thursday.

The Rev. Gretchen Weis of Murray Unitarian Universalist Church also commended Belham for taking responsibility for his actions.

“It takes a lot of courage for any of us to admit we made a mistake. I’m proud to see that he’ll be moving forward as part of the solution,” she said.

Umer Akbar, a neuroscientist who recently moved to North Attleboro and assists with interfaith services at mosques in Pawtucket and North Smithfield, said he was also encouraged to see the town moving forward.

“When I heard about this incident happening, I wanted to come out and support it,” he said. “I think today was a good sign of understanding and the acknowledgement of someone’s mistake.”

Kayla McCarthy, 21, of North Attleboro said she hopes to see Belham put some truth to his words.

“I’m all one for memes and joking, but ignorant hatred — that’s not OK or how I want my town to be represented in the future,” she said. “I wanted to see if he would own up to what he said. He did, and I give him credit for it. I accept his apology but it would be nice to see him be more educated on the things he bashed on and to see him interact with those people in our community.

“Actions speak louder than words.”