Regional School Committee Mulls How To Support LGBTQIA+ Students. Debates Transparency And Public Comment Policies.


Photo: Public domain

Report On TheMeeting Of The Regional School Committee, May 30,2023

This meeting was held in the Amherst Regional High School Library and was recorded by Amherst Media. It can be viewed here.

Report Of Title IX Investigation Not Expected Until August
In his report, Acting Superintendent Doug Slaughter said he met with the investigator who is conducting the Title IX complaint filed by an Amherst Regional Middle School (ARMS) parent regarding mistreatment of their LGBTQ child. The investigator, Ed Mitnick of Brodeur and McGan, PC and a former Hearing Officer for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), said his report would most likely not be completed until August.

Slaughter said that some, but not all, of the report would be made public.

To inform the RSC on how Amherst Regional High School (ARHS) and ARMS promote acceptance of LGBTQ+ students, Slaughter invited the principals of each school to outline their existing programs. Although Interim ARMS principal Diego Sharon was unable to attend, ARHS Principal Talib Sadiq told how the high school has endeavored to be a welcoming place for all students. He said that the high school has offered a LGBTQ literature class for over 10 years and has an active student organization, SAGA (Sexuality and Gender Alliance). He stressed that teachers ask students their preferred names and pronouns at the beginning of the year and honor them.

Sadiq said that the high school has a dedicated team to deal with conflicts, and students and staff are told how to access help. The school has posters with positive messages for LGBTQ people around the building, and SAGA has recently completed a mural depicting prominent LGBTQ area residents. The mural will be dedicated next week to commemorate Pride month. Sadiq added that after the article in The Graphic was released in April, many teachers reached out to LGBTQ students they knew, and most students generally felt the high school is a welcoming place.

Sharon will be invited to share about policies and protective measures for LGBTQ+ students that are in place at the middle school at a future meeting, but he did submit a list of active LGBTQ oriented programs at ARMS.  In response to RSC member Allison McDonald’s concern about whether there are guidance counselors at ARMS after all three counselors were put on leave, Slaughter said ARMS is being served by a supervising counselor, a recently retired guidance counselor,  and members of the high school guidance staff.

Regional School Committee Discussed Statement In Support Of LGBTQ+ Students
RSC member Jennifer Shiao crafted a statement in support of LGBTQIA+ students in hopes that other committee members would endorse it. The statement acknowledged the pain and harm recent events at ARMS have caused members of the community, and committed the RSC to  “[taking] concrete actions within our purview to ensure that such harm does not continue and is never repeated”. The statement also recognizes that LGBTQIA+ students are vibrant and valuable members of the school community.

“Don’t ‘Amherst this’ — say beautiful words and then do nothing.”
Ben Herrington, Regional School Committee Chair

In response to Shiao’s draft statement, RSC Chair Ben Herrington said, “Don’t ‘Amherst this’ — say beautiful words and then do nothing.” RSC Irv Rhodes added that his “moral compass does not allow me to say, ‘I didn’t know.’ I should have known. How did we miss this? What broke down? The processes are pretty complete, but something broke down.“ Slaughter replied that some things were missed, and we need to know what needs to be changed so that this doesn’t happen again.

RSC member Peter Demling said that words that keep coming to him for healing are “tolerance and love,” as values, but Rhodes replied that he hates the word “tolerance”. He doesn’t want to be tolerated; he wants to be accepted. 

The RSC unanimously approved the Shiao’s statement as amended. Both Demling and Rhodes spoke for starting the healing process and beginning to take concrete steps, not waiting for the Title IX report to be completed.

In public comment, Jena Schwartz referred to the pain and harm that occurred while this School Committee was charged with overseeing the district Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent, “to make sure they were properly doing their jobs…first and foremost ensuring an environment where every child can learn and thrive”. She asked that the SC speak about the time that elapsed and the failure to address the harms in a timely manner. 

M.J. Schwartz noted that what those children have endured will live in them and will affect them throughout their lives. They said the community may move on, but those harmed will carry these events with them.

Sharing Of Confidential Information With The Public
Demling noted that shortly after Slaughter was named Acting Superintendent, Herrington notified the RSC (at 4:44 p.m. on Friday, May 19) that Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham had been placed on administrative leave. This information was shared publicly (and published in the  Indy) before an official statement was issued. Demling voiced concerns about the handling of this information.

Herrington said that the information was known by those in the ARMS building who saw Cunningham being escorted out of the building. Slaughter did not issue an official  statement until the following Monday (May 22), but Herrington felt the RSC should be informed, given Cunningham’s role in hiring the ARMS guidance staff who were later alleged to have disrespected LGBTQ+ students. He did not want the RSC to be caught off guard.

Slaughter acknowledged that it is difficult to keep information from the public and said that he generally uses criteria of whether information would be damaging to a person personally or financially to determine whether information should be confidential and that disciplinary actions generally stay out of the public record.

RSC member Allison McDonald said that the RSC’s treatment of confidential information is a way of “earning the trust of the community”. She said there is a gray area, but students involved in an incident and some personnel information should be kept confidential.

No action was taken on the matter of how to determine whether information should be kept confidential.

Demling Proposes Limiting Public Comment
The RSC hears public comment from all who attend their meetings in person and from those who have recorded a voicemail message. Written public comments are shown on the screen and slowly scrolled through. At the SC’s emergency meeting of May 16, many members of the public came to speak on behalf of LGBTQ+ students at ARMS who had experienced discrimination by the guidance staff. The audience then called for the written comments to be read aloud. Demling, who was chairing the meeting, threatened to end the meeting if “order” was not restored. However, Shiao challenged him, saying that RSC policy does not prohibit reading written comments. When she proceeded to read the first statement, Demling immediately called a recess. When the committee returned from recess, Shiao was allowed to read the rest of the comments.

Demling said that the disruptions from the public made it difficult to do business, and warned that the Town Council is considering limiting public comment. Shiao countered that the purpose of public comment is for the public to make its concerns known. She noted that the RSC policy was just updated last year, and she voted for it..

McDonald cautioned that the committee needs to respect the role of the chair in keeping order, and that rules must be consistent regardless of who is chairing a meeting, but Shiao asserted that rules can be used to oppress and silence other voices. She asserted she would do the same thing again.

Demling and Shiao had clashed last December over Demling’s effort to censure Shiao when she  pointed out that the RSC had failed to discuss the public health and environmental hazards of artificial turf before voting to approve its installation at the high school. Demling later apologized for the attempted censure

Rhodes said that Shiao could have called a Point of Order, and that a two-thirds vote of the committee could override the policy of not reading written comments aloud. Steve Sullivan, RSC member from Shutesbury, said he doesn’t think the committee should read comments aloud. The submitted comments are attached to the agenda on Board Docs and can be accessed by the public.

The committee decided that the Policy Subcommittee will review the policy on public comment.

ARPS Librarians Craft Policy For Review Of Challenged Materials 
With the increase in book banning at schools and libraries across the country, the librarians from ARHS and ARMS crafted a policy to review materials that are accused of being objectionable. This policy limits objections to members of the school community, and requires a form to be completed and submitted to the superintendent. If the complainant is not happy with the decision of the appropriate teacher or librarian, the complaint can be referred to the District Curriculum Director and then to an assembled committee of teachers, administrators, guardians, and school committee members.

Because there were concerns about some inconsistencies and lack of specificity in the draft proposal, the policy will be revised and brought back to the RSC at a future meeting. The RSC wants the policy to be in effect for the next school year.

Superintendent Evaluation Delayed Until End Of Summer
With Superintendent Mike Morris on indefinite medical leave, his evaluation has been delayed until at least the end of summer, depending on when he returns.

The Regional School Committee next meets on June 20.

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