Revised plan to combat bullying in Amherst regional schools questioned

Amherst Regional High School’

Amherst Regional High School’ STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-16-2024 3:38 PM

Modified: 04-16-2024 5:04 PM


AMHERST — A revised plan for investigating bullying and stopping such incidents at the Amherst-Pelham regional schools is raising concerns for some members of the Regional School Committee, who see the changes as taking a backward step.

“This new document is protecting the district against lawsuits — it’s not protecting students,” said Pelham representative William Sherr, expressing his worry during a presentation on the updated Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan at the committee’s April 9 meeting.

Sherr said he finds it “insulting” that the changes to the plan mean that a school principal or designee will investigate only if bullying is believed to be happening, not each time bullying is reported. “The biggest issue I have is the investigations section,” Sherr said.

However, Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter said the current practice is for any and all bullying reports to be investigated, which wouldn’t change under this plan.

“I don’t think there’s any intention to change that modality we currently use,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter explained that the aim of the district is always to do enough to interrupt behavior not appropriate for school and to support students who have been harmed.

Faye Brady, director of special education, told the committee that the revised plan requires comment and feedback, which is being accepted through April 22. School families have been apprised of the plan and solicited for their comments.

Brady said the plan takes out antiquated language and makes it more current. “That’s the substantial change,” Brady said.

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The plan is modeled on a format provided and developed by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Brady said the district sees the plan as an opportunity to go beyond mandatory training and intends to do a better job sharing its provisions with students and families.

“We’ve been seeing we have a lot of work to do,” Brady said.

Part of the concern for some committee members stems from the definition, with bullying defined by the state as “the repeated use by one or more students or a member of a school staff of a written, verbal, or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture or any combination thereof, directed at a target.”

It goes on to say that bullying can cause physical or emotional harm, or damage to a person’s property; place a person in reasonable fear of harm; create a hostile environment at school; infringe on a person’s rights at school; or materially and substantially disrupt the education process or the orderly operation of a school.

Sherr said this leaves bullying up to to the interpretation of school officials, noting that he’s had families say if a death threat is only received twice, that is not bullying, and if incidents don’t happen over multiple days, that is not bullying.

“I feel like the district looks at this from the aggressor’s view of repetitive, not the victim’s view of repetitive,” Sherr said.

Shutesbury representative Anna Heard said the schools should provide more guidance on how bullying is defined than the state definition.

“I think some of the main concerns that I have about this policy is there’s not enough accountability in the document,” Heard said, pointing out that it doesn’t say how quickly an investigation would be done or when parents would be notified. Providing any discretion to investigate is concerning too, Heard said.

Amherst representative Bridget Hynes said there are good parts to the new plan, but she isn’t sure it draws on lessons from the anti-trans actions uncovered at the middle school last year. “I think there are some things, given what happened last year, I think we have to have in this document so what we learned are lessons learned,” Hynes said.

Specifically, Hynes said there should be a timeline about notifying families and a safety plan for bullied students.

The revised plan is specific and general, Brady said.

“People are given very, very clear guidance what steps they need to take for when a situation arises and where there is a report about a concern of bullying,” Brady said.

All reports will be entered into an electronic database kept by the district. “Unfortunately, Massachusetts doesn’t provide an electronic system for this,” she said.

All staff are trained thoroughly to understand what bullying is, Faye said. In Amherst schools, bullying is more loosely defined than it is by the state, such as when groups of students get together to do something the state might not recognize as bullying.

“It allows us to focus on safety of our students at a higher level,” Brady said.

Amherst representative Sarah Marshall also asked if the plan was informed by the treatment of transgender students by some staff members and students at the middle school last year. “Are there other plans and other policies to deal with harassment?”

Brady explained that harassment is distinct from bullying and that Title IX, covering sex-based discrimination, is federal law that’s separate from school policies regarding bullying.

Sherr said a subcommittee is updating bullying and harassment policies, which may differ from the state-mandated plan.

But Slaughter said the Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan could be updated if it’s in conflict with the district’s local policies.

“The state requires us to have this plan in place,” Slaughter said. “Obviously your policy also carries weight.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.