Amherst Regional School Committee pledges action on anti-trans probe

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-22-2023 4:58 PM

AMHERST — The Amherst Regional School Committee sought to reassure the school community Tuesday that it intends to act on the results of ongoing investigations, including a Title IX complaint, into the alleged mistreatment of trans and nonbinary students at the middle school once those investigations are completed.

The committee voted 8-0, with Pelham representative Tom Fanning abstaining, to issue the statement following reports in The Graphic, the high school newspaper, of transphobic actions by middle school counselors who are now on administrative leave, including not protecting LGBTQ students from bullying and of bringing prayer into the schools.

“The Regional School Committee is aware that our community is hurting right now and that there are many unanswered questions about the mistreatment of trans and nonbinary students at the Amherst Regional Middle School,” the statement reads. “Our hearts go out to the students and families who have been negatively affected by these incidents.”

The statement goes on:

“We expect that the investigations being conducted by Attorney Ed Mitnick will cover many allegations, most notably those about the mistreatment of trans and nonbinary students at ARMS. While the RSC awaits the outcomes of the Title IX and other investigations, we want to affirm our commitment to our LGBTQIA+ students and community. We take these issues very seriously, and in pursuit of what is honest, fair, and just, commit ourselves to taking concrete actions within our purview to ensure that relevant issues are examined in detail by the RSC.”

“I think this is an important thing for us to do because we want to publicly say to the community that we’re taking this seriously, that we will take action,” Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao said.

The statement comes as Superintendent Michael Morris is on medical leave, with Douglas Slaughter serving as temporary superintendent. Doreen Cunningham, the assistant superintendent of Diversity, Equity and Human Resources, who led the hiring process for the counselors, was placed on leave.

Shiao said the statement is intentionally broad based on advice from school attorney Marc Terry, but makes it clear the committee will not stand idle.

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“The School Committee will do whatever is in our purview to address the situation and hold accountable those responsible,” Shiao said.

The investigations are expected to be finished by the end of August.

School Committee Chairman Ben Herrington said one thing that is evident about the situation is a need for separation of powers and comprehensive whistleblower protections, both of which could have allowed the issues to be solved in a more timely manner.

The statement ends by referencing the Amherst Pelham Education Association, the union representing teachers, paraeducators and clerical staff, and its no confidence vote in Morris and other district leaders; its call for an investigation into the leaders and Cunningham’s resignation; and its appeal for a public response to claims of unethical and unsafe practices by school leaders.

“In addition, after the reports are submitted, the RSC will determine the committee’s response to the letter submitted to the committee by the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) on 5/13/23 and the community as a whole.”

No-confidence vote

Amherst representative Peter Demling said he worries about giving too much legitimacy to the union’s no confidence vote, noting that seven educators, Kristen Roeder, Judah Hughes, Lauren Mattone, Alvie Borrell, Menekse Sakirt, Molly Millay and Bobbie Jemsek, submitted a public comment to the School Committee that they support Morris returning when he is healthy.

They wrote, “His continuity and strength as a leader will not be easy to replace. His expertise, knowledge and personality are a good fit for our district and have been for 22 years. We are grateful for his persistence with the difficult job of being superintendent in Amherst.”

They added that their “no confidence” vote was not meant to target Morris, but other administrative staff.

Demling also questioned whether all staff were aware of the vote happening, and said he remains troubled by how it has been presented. “With multiple concerns being reported by multiple staff, I think it’s reasonable to be skeptical unless a much stronger base of evidence is presented that documents the process and the evidence behind the claim,” he said.

Demling also cast doubt on the union’s motives for its no confidence vote, providing a joint statement from the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and Massachusetts Association of School Committees that there have been more than 20 such votes in school districts across the state in the last two years, at the possible encouragement of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

“These tactics are designed and intended to discredit district leaders, particularly during contentious contract negotiations,” the organizations wrote. “Without the broader statewide context — that a ‘vote of no confidence’ is now a rather routine component out of the MTA negotiation strategy playbook — parents, students, and other residents may be led to believe such a vote is cause for great concern.”

Amherst representative Allison McDonald said she shares the skepticism. “It’s enough to give me pause, particularly when I think of it within the context of the timing of it, coming in the midst of contract negotiations, and seeing it happening across the state, and frankly across the country,” McDonald said.

Shiao, however, said the joint statement appears to be anti-worker and anti-union. “It’s a completely valid thing to do for a union to exert its power in that way,” Shiao said.

The School Committee’s statement regarding the alleged mistreatment of LGBTQ youth at the middle school was put out after several residents spoke at the Tuesday night meeting about the no confidence vote in Morris and Cunningham and the committee’s responsibility to make sure an investigation is completed.

MJ Schwartz said the problems of mistreatment of LGTBQIA+ students won’t go away without the School Committee intervening.

“If either Morris or Cunningham are allowed to return to their positions, the existing problems will continue and new ones surely will arise,” Schwartz said.

Laura Hunter, whose spouse works for the schools, said it appears the committee is trying to sweep problems under the rug.

“Are you hoping we’re going to forget and this will just go away?” Hunter asked. “Set a clear message that harm to students will not be tolerated here.”

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

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