First of all, hats off to Sara Barber-Just at ARHS for her courageous teaching and the students in her journalism class for such thorough, compelling, and critical investigative reporting here. It is an incredible piece of writing.
Last night, after reading this out loud with Mani, Aviva, and Pearl, I went on a tear and sent it to the Massachusetts Board of Education, Governor Healey’s office, and the ACLU. I plan to continue showing up at school committee meetings to be a pain in the ass until this situation is properly addressed. I would also like to see the Town of Amherst get involved.
This is a human rights issue, a church/state issue, a violation of Massachusetts law, and a public health issue.
A single report of conversion-therapy-type tactics from guidance counselors and transphobic bullying from other students should have been enough to warrant a swift investigation and unequivocal response from the school district. Instead, this has been ongoing for years. Years!
The school district has failed our kids and community by being unresponsive, opting to protect adults in positions of power rather than the students who are supposed to encounter safety and support in our schools from staff, teachers, and peers.
I had the awful thought on my run this morning, what are they waiting for – a child to die by suicide, God forbid? I could just imagine the school district responding, “There is no place for bullying in our schools.”
Spare me the rhetoric.
What has purportedly been happening at ARMS – and I have every reason to believe every one of the allegations here – needs to be swiftly addressed. Even aside from waiting for current Title IX investigations to conclude, the district could and should issue a statement affirming its commitment to LGBTQIA+ students’ safety and assuring the community that it will not tolerate any staff member abusing their power.
The superintendent needs to be held accountable for the lack of sufficient response to this point, and the parties in question need to be removed from their positions. Hiring practices need to be investigated and dealt with appropriately. Responses to bullying in school need to be revisited, so that band-aid approaches that ultimately retraumatize victims of bullying are not the first and last stop.
Our community is a microcosm of what’s happening nationally. And as my daughter pointed out last night, this is supposedly the *best* place to be. We are, as we love to comfort ourselves, not Florida or Texas or Arkansas or North Dakota.
But Amherst’s self-image and pride – no pun intended – as being a haven of progressive, inclusive principles and politics is only as good as what’s really happening inside our schools. This reputation is meaningless at best and hypocritical and harmful at worst if we as a community don’t insist on doing better.
We have the studies and the statistics and the stories; kids who encounter bullying from peers and pray-away-the-gay tropes from adults suffer. It is OUR job to prevent this from happening – and to respond when it does.
This is not a passive situation but one that requires any and all concerned community members to be vocal and visible.
Jena Schwartz is a writing coach, editor, and author of three books. Her poetry and essays have been widely published, and she has served as Poet in Residence at the Jewish Community of Amherst in Amherst, MA.