I just got home from the emergency joint meeting of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School & Union 26 School Committees. Eight members of the public were present. When the public comment period started a few minutes after the meeting was called to order, we were told there was no mic because Amherst Media wasn’t there (and thus, the meeting was not being live streamed.)
I quickly edited my Facebook post from late this afternoon, where I had shared a link to Amherst Media; I had assumed the meeting would be streamed since the little video icon that links to the Amherst Media website was present on the meeting posting. In any case, this means the six public comments that were made tonight (5/25) are not on record so I will do my best to convey some of what was shared.
Ruthie Killough-Hill said she reached out to school committee members in March after hearing about “pray away the gay” type reports and bullying of trans students at ARMS. One committee member tried to take action while others did nothing. “Doing nothing,” she said, “was and is unethical.” She spoke to how traumatizing this was and is for students and also that it has taught our white, cisgender, heterosexual students that they can get away with this kind of behavior.
Her comment hearkens back to the fact that at the May 16 school committee meeting, only a few members said they did not know anything on April 25. This once again raises a red flag as to who knew what when and what they did (or didn’t do) about it. Even if there hadn’t been a formal complaint filed as of then, I would like to think that if I were on the school committee and I heard even a whisper of such things occurring, I would have done something to at least try to learn more. Any word of children experiencing harm should sound alarms for all of us adults, no matter our positions and no matter the policies and procedures in place.
M.J. Schwartz talked about moving to Amherst a decade ago and being told how lucky they were to live here. When they said they had observed racism, they were often met by well-intentioned people with disbelief. “In Amherst?” They said that Amherst is no less racist or queer/transphobic than other parts of the country, only that it is differently so, “quieter and less self-aware.” They went on to say, “It is not too late for our community to change. So what’s next?” before asking, “When are the systemic issues that led to the situation at ARMS going to be on the agenda? What’s going to be done so that we don’t have a catastrophic repeat of these hiring practices?”
Molly Cooksey, a former paraeducator and a current kindergarten teacher in the Caminantes dual language program at Fort River, made a comment about the ongoing negotiations between the district and the APEA, saying they could not overstate “how disappointed I am in your disregard and disrespect for our community’s paraprofessionals.” They also noted that “the majority of our staff of color historically have been our paras, our custodial staff, and our office administrative staff. You cannot underfund them and claim to be anti-racist.”
A community member who did not share her name said she moved to the Valley for safety from a sundown town where she experienced violence. She did not mince words: “I see grown adults willing to put the lives of children in jeopardy because you want to look good. What kind of adult does that and sleeps well at night? What’s wrong with you? Get it together.”
The final public comment came from Dixie Luddy, a single mom in her 11th year as a para at Fort River. She said her job is the “best thing that’s happened to me… a tremendous source of growth, not just personally but with my comrades, it’s become a work family very quickly.” She also said her child is thriving at college, which she can afford only because her estimated family contribution was zero dollars due to living under the poverty line.
Ms. Luddy said she woke up crying this morning and had a hard day today after yesterday’s bargaining session, where the ask of $20/hour still had not been met. “I want to have faith in the district to address these things with good leadership, and right now what’s developed is a really serious atmosphere of distrust,” she said. “Education matters. If you agree with that we’d really appreciate you showing it.” She said she didn’t want to hear anything else about being appreciated. “I’m done hearing words and feeling poor.”
I also made a public comment, referencing the Anti-Defamation League’s findings that in 2022, Massachusetts saw a marked rise in antisemitism, White supremacy, and anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment, making our state “a hotbed for anti-LGBTQIA+ extremism” (Boston Globe, May 24, 2023). Among other questions I asked, I want to know how the ARPS district plans to address the fact that Michael Morris failed to protect the children of this school district and allowed the aforementioned extremism to infiltrate our schools. How this is not grounds for its own investigation regardless of what the Title IX investigation reveals?
After public comments concluded, Peter Demling asked Ben Herrington if there were any voicemails or written comments. Herrington said no. Some of us knew of at least two or three comments that had been written in, including one sent by ARMS teacher Alicia Lopez at 2:35pm, and one by a community member that may have been received after the 3:00pm deadline. It was disappointing and upsetting not to hear these other comments, and unclear as to why this was the case. Was there some kind of subjective call about whether a comment was relevant to the agenda?
The meeting ended pretty soon thereafter. Final details were put on acting superintendent Slaughter’s contract. The committee then voted to go into executive session “to discuss strategy with respect to collective bargaining…” according to the agenda.
The small group of us gathered outside the building and talked for a few minutes. The overwhelming feeling was one of confusion. Had the meeting even been publicized before today? An Amherst Media employee arrived late, having just gotten a call from his boss to head over to the high school, but he missed it. Two other people were just arriving around 7:30pm, unaware that the meeting would be over so soon. They had tried to livestream it and decided to come in person when they realized this wasn’t an option.
Earlier today, I turned to Google in my continued efforts to educate myself on the fly here about how this all works, what the school committee is responsible for, and how it interacts with district leadership. My search: “What is the relationship between the ARPS school committee and the school district?”
A few people have reached out to me privately to ask why I and other community members continue to call for more transparency from the school committee in addition to asking for a brave and unequivocal response to the trauma our students and staff have experienced at the hands of other students and some staff members. They are working hard, after all, and it is not an easy job.
I have no qualms with this last part; I absolutely appreciate the hard work that goes into being a member of a volunteer body – and I would like to give the school committee the benefit of the doubt that they are being responsive. But given that what we’ve learned in the past month has been happening for a significant duration of time, it is questionable that we still haven’t heard a strong unified statement coming from the school committee that they will do everything possible to make sure district leadership is held fully accountable for what has happened on their watch.
This, according to the procedures page on the district’s website, is literally their job: “They [members of the regional school committee] also select, appoint, and evaluate the Superintendent of Schools.” In addition, “The school committee has oversight of and responsibility for the school system, sets the direction in which the system must go, and establishes criteria to determine if its goals and policies are being met.”
I am asking parents and community members to continue to call on the school committee as a body to revisit this charge and set “the direction in which the system must go.” But we cannot get on the right path without first addressing how on earth we found ourselves here.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will keep saying it and hope you will keep joining me until we get answers and start seeing accountability.
The next emergency joint meeting of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School & Union 26 School Committees is on Tuesday, May 30, at 6:30pm at ARHS. If you can’t make it in person, email public comments by 3:00pm to SCPublicComment@arps.org (put “public comment” in the subject line). I hope to see you there.
Let’s keep showing up for the kids. Let’s keep showing up for each other.
Jena Schwartzis 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.