The following letter was sent to the Amherst Regional School Committee and the Amherst Town Council on May 15, 2023.
The situation in the Amherst Regional Schools continues to alarm. In order to address the growing scandal that has enveloped the district and begin the restoration of trust among all stakeholders, I request the following actions.
1) that Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham not be appointed as Interim Superintendent
2) that Doreen Cunningham be placed on administrative leave until the Title IX investigation exonerates her from
a) any complicity in transphobic/homophobic incidents at the school,
b) the promotion of religion at the school,
c) the creation of a climate of intimidation among the staff that prevented them from speaking up to protect children
3) that the School Committee take input from the public and especially from ARPS parents, staff, and students, before any decisions are made about interim leadership.
4). that the school committee take purposeful action to adopt practices that promote transparency in their actions and in district practices to begin to repair the damage caused by the absence of transparency in their failure to appropriately support trans and gay students at ARMS
Assistant Superintendent Cunningham is implicated in the current scandal; as the person who hired the guidance counselors who are alleged to have engaged in homophpobic and transphobic actions and as a person who is alleged to have protected them from internal complaints. Members of staff at ARMS have complained that she has created an atmosphere of intimidation, preventing teachers from reporting actions that they deemed to be dangerous and unlawful. And she is alleged to have engaged in nepotism in her supervision of hiring at ARMS, including in the hiring of the abovementioned counselors with whom she has personal relationships. Cunningham’s role in the current scandal is pretty well documented in the report in The Graphic. She should not even be working in the school while a Title IX investigation is under way which is focused on her behavior, and all of her actions require more scrutiny than was permitted under the current district leadership. Her continued presence there is an obstacle to re-establishing trust and to demonstrating to the public that the district is taking charges presented in The Graphic seriously.
The reason we are experiencing this scandal now is because the current leadership chose not to act – even though complaints had been circulating among parents, staff and students for the last year and a half. The current leadership is not suited to lead the district out of the current morass. The district needs to avoid any further appearance of trying to protect certain people at the expense of student safety and community trust. The damaged credibility of ARPS will not be repaired by maintaining the leadership that enabled the scandal.
There is an ongoing Title IX investigation in which Cunningham is implicated. Appointing her to leadership seems unconscionable in any case, but rushing to do so before the investigation comes to a close is extreme irresponsibility.
Cunningham’s alleged involvement suggests that further Title IX complaints against her in particular, may be up the road. The district needs to repair the damage that has been done, restore its credibility, and devise a plan to move forward that emphasizes protecting the rights of students, staff, and parents and guardians. That can’t happen with Cunningham at the helm.
Several complaints have been raised by parents and staff about district hiring practices under Cunningham. None of these have yet received any impartial auditing. That needs to happen before any consideration of Cunningham is even broached. The allegations suggest plenty of malfeasance. You can’t appoint someone with that kind of cloud hanging over them.
The credibility of the entire ARPS leadership has been severely damaged, Mike Morris and Peter Demling suggested at the April 25 Regional School Committee meeting that parents and staff were lying about the situation at ARMS and about hiring concerns. The Graphic story proved those accusations to be wrong and irresponsible. The School Committee will not restore its own credibility or that of the district by moving forward without taking the time to consider public input – as parents, staff and students all know stuff that apparently the School Committee doesn’t or chooses not to know.
The scheduling of your “emergency executive session” and the apparent rush to make a decision, suggests that little has been learned from the current debacle and that we may be in store for more of what brought us this crisis in the first place. Please slow down and consider the important lessons to be learned from this disaster. So much of the harm and hurt that has been caused has resulted from a lack of transparency and a failure to listen. The potential that you will exacerbate the harm that has already been done is considerable.
Art Keene is a resident of District 3, the Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UMass Amherst,. His four children are graduates of Amherst Regional High School. He was head coach of the ARHS girls cross country team for 17 years.