NEWBURYPORT - In response to the unearthing of a decade-old photo showing students in blackface impersonating members of the Boston Celtics, School Superintendent Sean Gallagher Thursday night acknowledged the district has made "mistakes" and needed to do more to combat what he called "systemic inequities" in terms of race relations throughout the city.

"Although we have made some strides, it is clear there is still much work to be done. As a school community, we need to reach out to our friends and neighbors and show the compassion, empathy and humanity that everyone deserves," Gallagher said in a statement. 

Gallagher's statement was part of a lengthy email and phone message distributed to parents hours after a Newburyport High School photo published in the 2010 high school yearbook re-emerged on social media. The photo -- one among 23 photos headlined "Halloween 2009" -- shows three white students in blackface as part of a senior Halloween event with a fourth student. All are dressed in Celtics jerseys.

"As we move forward, our actions need to go beyond celebrating diversity in our schools or adding equity to our strategic plan. Those actions are not enough to guarantee the changes we seek in our school community and the community at large. We must continue our conversations about race, bias, prejudice and discrimination, that includes examining our practices and removing obstacles that contribute to systemic inequities," Gallagher wrote.  

Earlier Thursday, Newburyport High School graduate Colin Budzyna posted the photo on several local Facebook groups and sent the photo to The Daily News of Newburyport. 

Gallagher's email blast was sent shortly after 8 p.m. around the same time a prerecorded message was relayed via telephone. The message acknowledged the photo's existence and quickly denounced its content. 

"I recognize this picture, published in our school yearbook, is offensive and undermines any message we might send about valuing diversity and embracing all students. As an educator, I am appalled," Gallagher said in his message. 

News of the photo comes weeks after another Newburyport High School graduate, Leah Petty, began an online petition calling for the district to remove police officers from public schools. She also slammed the school district for not teaching students about "systemic racism, the full extent of systemic racial violence, or the racial caste system that rules over our country today."

Neither Petty or Budzyna would comment when reached by a reporter. 

Calls for racial equality and to reshape police departments have skyrocketed in over the last month following the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis and Atlanta.

Their deaths sparked nationwide outrage and have led to renewed calls to ban the Confederate flag, remove Confederate statues, and the scrapping of the 130-year-old Aunt Jemima breakfast brand. 

At the last School Committee meeting, Gallagher introduced Michael Eatman, a local educator and inclusion consultant who will be working with the district to set a "foundation for cultural competency" as opposed to one-time programming.

"We have been actively building a foundation to better address issues around race and acts of intolerance. This past school year we partnered with two organizations to help us in this area, the Anti-Defamation League and Essential Partners. Our partnership with both organizations will continue into next school year," Gallagher's message read. 

Staff writer Dave Rogers can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @drogers41008.

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