Report On The Meeting Of The Regional School Committee Meeting, April 25, 2023
This meeting was held in person, was simulcast on Amherst Media Channel 15, and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here. All committee members were present.
Parents And Staff Express Alarm At Alleged Anti-LGBTQ+ Actions In The Middle School
Most of those who participated in the public comment section of this meeting expressed dismay at allegations of anti-LGBTQ+ actions by members of the guidance department at the middle school. These actions allegedly involved recommending conversion therapy and prayer circles to those students who expressed doubts about their sexuality or gender. Conversion therapy, which attempts to change sexual orientation or gender identity, was banned in the state for minors by former Governor Charlie Baker in 2019.
The regional school system has a commitment to nondiscrimination that states: “The Amherst-Pelham Regional District, the Amherst Public Schools, and the Pelham Elementary School do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, economic status, homelessness, political party, or disability in admission to, access to, employment in, or treatment by its programs and activities.”
Several parents were outraged that middle school children, especially those who are questioning their sexuality, may have been subjected to these practices by staff. Gazit Chaya Nkosi, Amy DiCaprio, Amber Cano Martin, and Jena Schwartz voiced their concern in the public comment period. Nkosi said she was asked “by someone who wanted to remain anonymous” to tell the superintendent that staff at the middle school have urged queer students to “pray away” their queerness, and used Christian ideology to discourage them from being their authentic selves. Schwartz said that when she was in middle school, she would have approached a guidance counselor and not her parents to discuss her sexual orientation, so receiving this rebuke would have been damaging to her self-esteem. DiCaprio said that, as a public health professional, she recently worked with Easthampton high school on similar issues and noted that this alleged behavior by staff can contribute to depression and even suicide in vulnerable students, in addition to being in violation of state law and Amherst schools’ own stated mission.
Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) representatives Claire Coco and Ruth Killough-Hill read a statement from the APEA affirming their commitment to diversity and condemning negative comments to students and staff regarding LGBTQ+ identity. They urged the superintendent to investigate the matter thoroughly, as did Kathleen Anderson. Anderson called the fact that conversion therapy was taking place in school “appalling” and said, “It needs to stop.”
The school committee received several emails that expressed similar concerns.
Superintendent Mike Morris thanked the commenters for bringing up concerns and said the school takes them very seriously. He added that complaints can be addressed to him or to Title IX Coordinator Marta Guevara, but in order to do an investigation of the allegations, he needs information from someone with firsthand knowledge, adding that some employment contracts require anonymous complaints to be handled with caution. He stressed that the school system has a strong policy about retaliation against people who bring forward complaints about staff, and he urged those affected to come forward. He said the school will continue to educate students about diversity.
Demling Encourages Caution In Responding To Accusations
School Committee member Peter Demling responded to the statements in public comment, saying, “The accusation of conversion therapy at the middle school is a pretty severe accusation. However, this committee has had the experience of some pretty significant accusations being made at public comment which then turned out to be false, and we’ve also seen verifiably false information in recent APEA statements, as Allison McDonald has articulated and detailed. So, without crossing any privacy boundaries, [is] there any evidence, are there any formal complaints that have been filed about conversion therapy [here]? Any actually verifiable things?”
Morris replied, “I’m somewhat limited in my response, because there is not total anonymity in reporting. I need more information. I don’t know what is true until we investigate it. Frankly, I have not received anything related to the public comments that have come in. It’s hard to know what to investigate, because a lot of the information is secondhand. We need more information.”
Failed Middle School Principal Search Discussed
The recent search for a middle school principal ended when one of the two finalists took another job, and the other withdrew. Morris said that the pool of applicants for secondary school administrators in general is not sufficient, and quality candidates receive multiple offers. He said an interim principal will be appointed for next year and a new search for a permanent principal initiated. More information will be forthcoming.
Demling repeated his suspicion that the principal search is being undermined by false rumors that the remaining finalist is homophobic “because she belongs to a church”, and said he heard that parents were encouraged to write negative letters about her even if they didn’t attend the meetings with her. He asked what the School Committee can do about staff who allegedly sabotage a search by encouraging dissent.
Morris replied that much of the concern about the principal search came from “folks in parent/guardian community”, which he had felt obligated to communicate to the candidate, who then ended up withdrawing. Committee Chair Ben Herrington interjected that the committee cannot control the community, but Demling suggested that “[although] we can’t prevent toxic rumor mills, we can try to counterbalance them by calling attention to false statements and [saying] that what is happening is wrong.” He added, “Even though we have a public process with lots of input, at the end of the day, it’s the superintendent’s call, not a democratic vote.”
Jennifer Shaio said she was told rumors that were not true, and that although the people spreading them were not careful about verifying their facts, she did not think they were malicious. She said that calling them out probably would not help because they were not spreading misinformation intentionally. Transparency should be the default, she said.
Demling Apologizes To Shiao
Last autumn, at the November 29 RSC meeting, Demling made an unsuccessful motion to reprimand Shiao after she Demling had contended that committee members should not publicly speak against a decision already made by the body. His motion to censure Shiao was defeated 3-4-1 (Demling, McDonald, and Sarabess Kenney voted yes, and Chair Ben Herrington abstained. Rhodes was absent).
At this meeting, Demling offered an apology to Shiao, saying he should have reached out to her personally before making a motion at a committee meeting, although he still supports the policy against committee members publicly criticizing RSC decisions. Shiao accepted his apology, saying she appreciated his sincerity. She also said she hoped the other two members of the committee who voted with Demling (McDonald and Kenney) will examine their actions as well.
RSC Settles Contract With Administrators
The Amherst Administrators Union (APAA) settled a three-year contract with the RSC. The administrators will receive cost-of-living increases of 1.5%, 2.5%, and 2% over the term of the contract. These raises are in addition to the entitled step raises for those not at the top of the earnings scale.
The contract passed unanimously. The APAA ratified the contract as well.
Third Quarter Budget Report On Target
School Finance Director Doug Slaughter presented the third quarter budget report. Because some contract negotiations are still ongoing, the control and contingency accounts are larger than normal. The total salaries paid are slightly under budget, although the amount for substitutes is above budget. The special education costs are also above budget, but the schools are generally in good shape financially and there will be some federal COVID funds remaining that can be used in FY 2024.
This year’s eighth graders will be the first class that will not have a valedictorian or salutatorian when they graduate from the high school. Teachers expressed the opinion that concern about grades was affecting students’ choices of courses and adding to their overall stress. Morris reported that these honors are no longer an important consideration for college admission.
Amherst has been named an Innovation Career Pathway program by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. This program will enable students to partner with area manufacturing businesses to gain experience for after graduation.
The Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC) met recently for the first time in a while. The meeting was well attended. Parents talked about how to access services and interact with the school system. The next meeting will be on May 15 at 10 a.m.
Cellphone use by students has been a major issue for faculty and staff, especially at the high school. Teachers strongly suggested the need to firm up rules. Morris noted that phones are functionally different from Chromebooks. Ideally, the policy should be consistent across the region. Morris said the schools will conduct a survey of families, staff, and students to understand how they view the problem before crafting a new policy. Hopefully, a new policy will be in effect in the fall.
Demling noted that the school handbook states that cell phones cannot be used in class at the high school and not at all in the middle school. He suggested that the school enforce the existing policy, but Morris said that he realizes, after talking to other superintendents, that it is important to get feedback and buy-in before implementing a new policy.
The Hurricane Boosters are holding a summer kick-off fundraiser on Thursday, May 4 at Bank ESB on Triangle Street from 6 to 8 p.m. to raise money for the artificial turf field. Suggested donation is $20.
New Covid Vaccine Policy Recommended
With the ending of the federal Covid emergency on May 11 the school system rescinded the policy that requires all staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or undergo weekly testing and wear an effective mask when not alone in a private office.
A recent letter from Health Director Jennifer Brown and school nurse Robin Suprenant recommends that all staff maintain up-to-date COVID vaccination status, but that vaccinations or regular testing not be a requirement for employment. Also, staff should continue to report positive COVID-19 results and follow all isolation, exposure, and hygiene measures set by the CDC and Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The letter also recommends other mitigation strategies, such as improving ventilation and welcoming masks for those who choose to wear them.
Strategies To Retain Students Needed
Morris reported that the number of students attending schools out of the district is the highest it has been in a decade. The district did a retention and recruitment survey in 2017. After that survey, the schools increased communication through an improved newsletter and advertising school choice. They also increased Chinese language instruction in the middle and high schools because many students expressed an interest in continuing the Chinese language study they had started in the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion charter school. At the time, Morris said he was surprised by how many students had never set foot in the regional schools before choosing another option. Since then, the problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic for most districts in the region.
School Committee members had many suggestions, including improving the website, publicizing sports and arts programs, communicating about the richness of the curriculum and the team structure in the middle school. Morris said that a parent of a sixth grader recommended that students visit the middle school in the fall because they have to make decisions about private and charter schools well before the usual step-up day in the spring.
Morris said that this is something he will work on over the summer, and the committee can take up in the fall.
The next RSC meeting is scheduled for May 16.