Acting Superintendent Will Be Selected At A Third Emergency Meeting
Amherst residents crowded into the library at Amherst Regional High School (ARHS) on Tuesday evening (5/16) to give testimony to the Regional School Committee (RSC) and the Union 26 School Committee concerning charges of bullying of LGBTQA+ students at Amherst Regional Middle School (ARMS), including by three school adjustment counselors. More than fifty people crowded into the school library and were joined by another 141 who followed the proceedings through Amherst Media’s simulcast. Twenty-eight gave verbal testimony in person. Another three submitted testimony by voice mail and another 46 via written comment. The vast majority of those who offered testimony condemned the alleged bullying of gay and trans students at ARMS that was exposed in an article in the ARHS school newspaper, The Graphic, last week.
The recording of the May 16 session including all testimony can be found here.
Parents, guardians, teachers, school staff, local therapists, and community members recalled events and practices that had harmed children attending the school and decried the inaction of School Superintendent Michael Morris, and School Committee member Peter Demling, who only a week before had questioned the veracity of the rising tide of complaints, and who had insisted that no formal complaints had been received even though they were aware that a Title IX investigation was already under way.
Many of those who spoke demanded the resignation of Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham, whom they charged with protecting the three counselors, Hector Santos, Delinda Dykes, and Tania Cabrera, who were accused of transphobic and homophobic interactions with ARMS students and were placed on administrative leave once news of the Title IX investigation became public. Cunningham was also accused of creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation amongst ARMS staff that prevented them from speaking up and filing complaints when they saw behavior that was harmful or unlawful.
Cunningham was present for the public comments and was among the last to speak, defiantly stating that she would not resign and would not apologize. In her statement, Cunningham attacked Amherst Pelham Education Association President Lameka Magee, identifying her as one of the candidates for the failed principal search at the middle school (see also here). Cunningham was subsequently criticized by Amy Kalman for disclosing confidential information in a public forum. Kalman also criticized the committee for not intervening in Cunningham’s attack and not calling out the possible violation of HR protocols. Both Cunningham and Morris were the subject of a no confidence vote by the Amherst Pelham Education Association on May 13.
Public testimony occupied most of the first three hours of a six-hour meeting that later went on to discuss procedures for appointing an acting school superintendent to fill in for Superintendent Mike Morris, who stepped down to take an indefinite mental health leave on May 12.
A recurrent theme in the oral and written testimony was that the failure to support LGBTQ students at ARMS was not new, and that parents and students had frequently reached out to school personnel with concerns and complaints concerning the harm experienced by children, only to be rebuffed. Much of the testimony was emotional and wrenching, attesting to harassment, lack of support, suicide risk, and frustration as administrators routinely acted to protect the alleged perpetrators,and to dismiss or disparage those raising concerns. Several parents complained about gas lighting by school administrators, saying that all trust in the administration has been destroyed. Some suggested that Demling’s unsuccessful effort to hold portions of Monday and Tuesday’s meetings in closed executive session are an indication that the school committee has learned nothing from the current debacle and continues to resist calls for transparency.
A Sampling of the Testimony.
Ali Wicks-Lim, a parent of a former Amherst Regional Public School student who herself attended the Amherst Regional Middle School and High School as a gay youth, spoke of the bullying that her child experienced while a student in Amherst. She said, “In kindergarten, my child who has two mothers was told his family was disgusting… A year later, someone used a homophobic slur in my child’s classroom. When I brought that to his teacher, I was told that name-calling was age-appropriate at that age. Ultimately we left, and my child is whole because we left. We heard constantly, ‘This is Amherst. You must be misunderstanding.’ We did not misunderstand. This is an ongoing problem. If people had attended to our concerns when my son was in the schools we would not be needing to address this now. Children are paying for adult failings. Amherst Regional is losing the trust of its community. I am calling on the schools to fire Mike Morris and fire Doreen Cunningham — and to fire every employee who made the school unsafe for children.”
Those sentiments were echoed in the experiences of Liz Mazzei, a 2004 ARHS graduate and a former district employee. She said, “Feeling the support of a few queer teachers, one of whom is in this room, saved my life. Middle School is terrible. The students are not supported. It is scary to think of sending my elementary students. We protect our kids from active shooters but why aren’t we protecting them from people inside the building? If you don’t act and something happens, blood is on your hands.”
Molly Cooksy, a bilingual kindergarten teacher at Fort River and a queer educator who grew up here, added, “Having educators who were out and who affirmed my identity saved my life.” She said that the school committee must now partner with the community in dismantling systems of oppression within the schools and then develop a clear and accessible way for people who make mistakes to take responsibility for them.
M.J. Schwartz, a parent and stepparent, and former crisis counselor for LGBTQ people, informed the school committee that an LGBTQ youth attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the United States. “Our children’s lives are at stake,” they warned. Warnings of suicide risk were echoed by other therapists who spoke or submitted written comments, including Amy DiCaprio, a social worker who works with LGBTQA+ youth and a parent with a child in the school, who warned that the response of the district has exacerbated the risks to LGBTQA+ youth and is in violation of a variety of laws and regulations. DiCaprio concluded with the challenge, “So what are you going to do about it?”
William Sherr testified tearfully that as a gay kid in Texas he was bullied relentlessly and as an adult he had to leave the state because he was not allowed to adopt his children. He noted that he came to Amherst because it was supposed to be a safe haven for people like him and his adopted children of color who have two dads. He said he thought that Amherst would be a community that would stand up for them and protect them. He said that he read the account in the Graphic with horror, and asked with sorrow and bewilderment, “How can this be happening here?” and, “Where are the people in the schools who are responsible for the safety of the kids, and why are they not speaking up and doing something?”
Celia Maysles, the school nurse at ARMS, also provided emotional testimony, saying that she had planned not to speak, but was compelled to by the testimony of others. Looking directly at Demling, she said, “I’m looking at you because you said that we were making this up! I received those reports. I feel the pain of those kids. There is a big problem and we need your help in addressing it.”
Jena Schwartz questioned what Michael Morris and Peter Demling knew at the school committee meeting of April 25 about the Title IX investigation that was already under way, pointing out that doubts had been cast on the credibility of complaints and concerns that were circulating.” She protested, “District leadership has swept complaints under the rug for over a year. So is it a wonder that trust has faltered? I’m asking for an accounting of what happened with every one of those complaints. What did people know? And when did they know it?”
Jean Fay, a retired Amherst paraeducator, said that she is angry because she doesn’t “hear anyone talking about what we are going to do to ensure the safety of the kids. Tell us what steps you will take so that they can come to school and safely be themselves.”
Maureen Fleming, a 20-year employee of the district and a current counselor at ARHS, said, “We need to bring the focus back to students and we need to leave tonight with a concrete plan. Parents with concerns can reach out to our counseling staff at the high school. We are here to help.”
In Defense of Cunningham And Demling
Of the 77 public comments given, only six were in support of Cunningham or the school administration. None explicitly came to the defense of Morris.
Greg Gardener, Cunningham’s son, spoke twice, asserting that discrimination against LGBTQ+ kids is not an issue at ARMS and that this is a “witch hunt” orchestrated by the APEA (Amherst Pelham Education Association) to hurt the school administration. He said, “This is not about LGBTQ+. This is a nasty political agenda driven to overthrow leadership.” He decried the article in The Graphic, asking, “Why have teachers been permitted to impose their agenda on students? Why have student journalists been encouraged to pursue this agenda?” He complained about a clique of ARPS staff who have a vendetta against leadership, and said they are guilty of racism and religious discrimination.
Ada Demling, Peter Demling’s daughter and a recent ARHS graduate, identified herself as an out lesbian who did not experience the kinds of discrimination described in the evening’s testimony. Like Gardener, she suggested that the complaints are part of a baseless campaign, orchestrated by the union, to hurt district leadership. She charged that the response to the information presented in the Graphic article was inappropriate and failed to recognize that the article was based on anonymous complaints. She said that the reactions had fed a “mob mentality”. She further charged that people are reluctant to speak out against the APEA because of fear of retribution.
Dispute Over Reading Written Comments
At the conclusion of oral testimony, Demling announced that the committee would play the voicemail messages that they had received but would not read written comments because, he said, this is prohibited by school committee policy. There was an outcry from the audience with shouts of “read the statements” and “transparency”. Demling responded that if order was not resumed, the meeting might not be able to continue. However, school committee member Jennifer Shiao challenged Demling’s assertion that policy prohibits reading the comments and said that in any case, the committee can vote to make an exception to any policy, to hear the statements, and should do so in the interests of transparency. When Demling said that the statements would not be read, Shiao proceeded to read the first statement aloud. Demling hastily called a recess. The committee later agreed that Shiao would read each statement aloud and if the statement exceeded three minutes she would stop immediately. Shiao proceeded with the reading of statements, which begins at 2:27 of the recording.
Choosing An Acting Superintendent
Following nearly three hours of testimony that included all of the submitted comments, the committee engaged in a Q&A with the district’s attorney Mark Terry and then deliberated for nearly another three hours about how they would choose an acting superintendent.
Terry advised them that the requirement to have a superintendent is embedded in Massachusetts General Law. There are certain things that have to happen every day in a school district that are solely within the authority of a superintendent. One example is hiring and firing employees. Another is hearing and resolving appeals about student disciplinary procedures. Without a superintendent, he said, the school system is at risk because it does not have the ability to fulfill due process requirements.
He also clarified that the district needs to appoint an acting superintendent, not an interim superintendent, because Michael Morris is on leave and plans to return. If Morris were to step down, the district would seek an interim superintendent to fill the post until a comprehensive search could be conducted.
The committee spent some time discussing criteria that they might use in considering potential candidates and what kinds of filters might be used to choose from among them. Regional School Committee member Irv Rhodes raised the possibility that no one might be interested in stepping into this job. Several members expressed discomfort with considering anyone currently on staff at the Middle School because of their proximity to the current crisis. In the end, the group came up with eight names to consider, three of whom have indicated they wanted to be considered for the job.
Of those eight, former Pelham School Committee Chair and former Associate Director of Professional Development at UMass, Dr. Trevor Baptiste, current ARPS Finance Director Dr. Doug Slaughter, and retired Greenfield School Superintendent Dr. Susan Hollins. expressed interest in the position while five others, Dr. Faye Brady, Mary Custard, Miki Gromacki, Dr. Marta Guevara, and Doreen Reid, declined to apply. Read more about the selection process here.