Opinion: Now Is The Time To Act On Middle School Debacle


Screen shot of Regional School Committee meeting on May 16, 2023.

Art Keene

Last week, Ali Wicks-Lim and Jena Schwartz offered scathing critiques of the Amherst Regional Public Schools administration, noting that the actions of Superintendent Mike Morris and Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham (both currently on leave)  have created and sustained a toxic environment at the Amherst Regional Middle School (ARMS) that harmed LGBTQIA+ students and undermined the trust of the community in the school system. In addition, they charged that administrators actively protected those causing the harm while creating an intimidating environment for those attempting to prevent or ameliorate that harm.  They also faulted the Regional School Committee (RSC) for, at best, failing to be aware of the intolerable situation at the Middle School and at worst, failing to hold leadership accountable while being aware of their malfeasance. Wicks-Lim singled out RSC member Peter Demling for special opprobrium as an enabler of the current crisis, citing his oft demonstrated contempt for teachers,  parents, and for at least one of his fellow committee members, and his unwillingness to believe the accusations that proved to be substantive.

At the RSC meeting of May 30 there was some hand wringing on the part of the committee, an apology, and a promise, in a formal statement drafted by member Jennifer Shiao, to take concrete action “to ensure that such harm does not continue and is never repeated.” Parents, community members, and expert witnesses had demanded in public comment at this meeting, at previous meetings, and in print, that the SC prioritize addressing the harm that had come to children, thoroughly investigate what had gone wrong, and take substantial steps to protect against it happening again. But aside from a brief discussion of Shiao’s statement in which RSC members Irv Rhodes, Ben Herrington and Shiao, forcefully called for prompt action, the committee engaged in no discussions of the concrete actions they might take.  Indeed, as they moved on to their agenda, it was as if they had already forgotten the statement they had just endorsed, suggesting perhaps that they had learned nothing from the unresolved debacle.

Instead of prioritizing addressing the harm, as yet  wholly unaddressed by the RSC, the committee chose to devote the bulk of the meeting to discussing matters of internal process, rules of procedure, and the discipline of committee members. Demling prioritized his concern about a leak of “internal information” within the RSC, voicing alarm that the public had learned on Friday May 19 that Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham had been placed on administrative leave when the district had not intended to release that information to the public before Monday. But RSC Chair Ben Herrington pointed out that there were plenty of people in the building that day who saw Cunningham escorted out, so it’s hardly certain that someone leaked information, and it was not clear to him why this should be a concern.

The other item prioritized by Demling, one that occupied a lot of the meeting time, was his concern that committee member Jennifer Shiao had behaved inappropriately at the RSC meeting of May 16, by reading aloud written public comments at that meeting when he had instructed her not to do so. This was Demling’s second attempt to publicly sanction Shiao’s speech  (see here for an account of his original effort to censure her and here for a description of the drama surrounding public comments on 5/16). Demling has described the latter conflict as an “altercation.”  His hostility toward Shiao on both occasions was palpable.

As Wicks-Lim points out, Demling has consistently tried to police and control the speech of others. While he has publicly endorsed tolerance, he has shown very little toward anyone who might see or experience the world  differently than he does. He has accused parents and staff who raised concerns about bullying of LGBTQIA+ students at ARMS of lying and creating a “toxic rumor mill”.  He has accused parents of trying to sabotage the hiring process of the Middle School principal after they raised questions that he deemed inappropriate about the lone finalist.  He accused supporters of building the new elementary school at Fort River of attempting to sabotage the effort to build a new school (though Fort River was deemed the superior location by the Elementary School Building Committee).  And, as noted above, he has shown considerable intolerance for his colleague Jennifer Shiao and has attempted to formally reprimand and silence her.

Here is what Demling has not done.

  • He has not acknowledged the harm experienced by LGBTQIA+ students.
  • He has not acknowledged that LGBTQIA+ students need/deserve redress and that the environment at ARMS is not currently safe for all students.
  • He has not acknowledged the pain and frustration of parents of children in the schools who have sought support and not received it.
  • He has not acknowledged the vote of no confidence in Morris and Cunningham taken by the Amherst Pelham Education Association on May 13. 
  • He has not acknowledged calls for an investigation of Superintendent Morris and Assistant Superintendent Cunningham. Indeed Demling continues to speak of his hope that Morris will return soon – completely ignoring the public’s demand for investigation and/or ouster.
  • He has not apologized for accusing parents and staff of lying about the situation at ARMS.
  • He has not, unlike his  colleagues Irv Rhodes, Ben Herrington, and Jennifer Shiao,  acknowledged a need to act expeditiously. Indeed he has not shown any inclination to do anything differently.
  • He has not acknowledged as a problem that school staff who have a duty to report children at risk, were intimidated into not reporting children in danger or violations of law – this in spite of testimony that some students had become suicidal because of incessant bullying at ARMS.
  • He has not embraced transparency in spite of the public’s calls for greater transparency and accountability from the RSC. Indeed, Demling has, on multiple occasions, attempted to take discussions out of the public eye and into executive session. 
  • He has not supported concrete action as called for in the RSC’s collective statement. He has instead suggested that the committee should hold off taking further action until it receives the final report on the ongoing Title IX investigation. Like Morris had done throughout the last year, Demling seems to suggest that we don’t have enough information to act yet. That shows a kinship with Morris’ frequent refrain that he just didn’t have enough information to act – even as things were falling apart all around him, even as a Title IX investigation, instigated by a parent, was already under way.  

    That Title IX investigation deals with a single complaint and will address that complaint. We know the problems at ARMS are multiple, substantial, complicated, and serious and that the Title IX investigation is unlikely to address their scope or variety.  And the results of the investigation are potentially confidential. They will be revealed to the acting superintendent who will then determine whether action is necessary and whether to share them with the public. (Acting Superintendent Doug Slaughter has pledged to share non-confidential portions of the report with the public). 

    The waiting that Demling endorses does nothing to diminish the crisis, to restore faith in the district, or to make the school safe for kids when they return in the fall. Waiting exemplifies that failure of leadership that plagues our schools. To his credit, Rhodes  pointed out at the meeting of May 30  that there is no reason to wait … that action is needed now. And Herrington warned that it is all too common in Amherst to offer fancy words without backing them up with action. But the call for immediate action was explicitly endorsed  only by the three RSC members of color and has yet to be endorsed with pledges for action  by the rest of the committee.  At the moment,  it looks like a return to business as usual.

Actions That Are Better Than Waiting
It appears that most members of the RSC and district administration have no stomach for addressing the toxic environment at ARMS. They can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge it.  The toxicity – and the fundamental failure of the system to protect students– is  apparent in several ways.  Here are just a few examples.

  • If LGBTQIA+ students at ARMS are routinely harassed for using the gender neutral restroom and no one has stepped in to address that, then something is broken.
  • If LGBTQIA+ students do not feel safe at school, then something is broken.
  • If there are staff (counselors no less)  who consistently misgender and deadname students and disparage their claimed identities and no one has intervened to stop that, then something in the system is broken.
  • If parents have implored that the school  help protect their bullied children and are told that there is not a problem or that their child is the problem then something is broken.
  • If mandatory reporters must report to the Title IX coordinator for matters of sexual or gender based harassment but the Title IX coordinator is prohibited from pursuing complaints implicating adults in the building, then the system is broken and needs to be changed.
  • If adults in the building had serious concerns about children being harmed but had to seek workarounds – such as referring kids to the sympathetic school nurse, rather than working within established protocols, then something is broken
  • If the Restorative Justice  system in the school,  which at its center is meant to repair harm, left victims of bullying with the idea that they had brought it on themselves or if victims left the process feeling that no effort had been made to repair the harm done to them, then something is broken.
  • If staff are organizing prayer meetings inside the school building then something is broken.

I could go on but these observations, and the volume of unsettling testimony given over the last few weeks should make it clear that the situation at ARMS is toxic.

So here are just a few suggestions of things that the school committee might do that are better than waiting. This is hardly a comprehensive list. Other suggestions were posed at public comment on May 16 and May 30 and if the RSC had any inclination to draw on the insights of their constituents, they would have many more.  

1. Put addressing the current crisis squarely at the top of the to-do list, at the top of every RSC meeting agenda, and keep it there until the crisis is wholly resolved and we have confidence that we can trust the safeguards that will be put in place to ensure that this doesn’t reoccur. Fixing the problems and assessing the progress ought to be the number one item on the agenda of every single school committee meeting for months to come.

2. Change the leadership. The indifference of  Morris and Cunningham to the harm that they enabled and their obstruction of interventions to address that harm makes them untrustworthy and unredeemable. They should be dismissed and they should be investigated so that their successors will have a better understanding of what went wrong.  The district must send a clear message that those engaging in behavior that harms children or that is in violation of the law will be held accountable. 

3. Those members of the RSC who do not demonstrate an urgent commitment to the needed changes at ARMS and within ARPS, including a commitment to greater transparency and responsiveness to parents and guardians should be voted out of office in November. Voters should take notice of who is working for change and who is obstructing,

4. Restore Trust: bring everything out in the open. No more executive sessions except where mandated by law. It appears that folks in leadership are talking about bringing Morris back. Don’t even talk about that,certainly not before there are thorough independent investigations that go beyond the specific Title IX probe. Treat the members of the ARPS community like community, not like adversaries. Trust parents and kids and staff rather than disparaging and doubting  them.  Take every accusation seriously.

5. Bring in external school climate consultants to develop a program for transforming the climate at ARMS to one that is healthy and to give the school processes and benchmarks to ensure that it does not backslide into the current status quo. There are a lot of bad instincts evident within district leadership (including the RSC) that need to be purged. 

There’s plenty of evidence that this stuff has been going on for a long time. The current leadership has proven itself wholly incapable of even acknowledging the extent of the problems, never mind imagining  solutions, and I suggest that there is zero chance that they can come up with the necessary transformation and healing on their own. Bring in some specialists, cooperate with their investigations, and heed their recommendations.

Art Keene is a resident of District 3, the Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy and Professor Emeritus 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.

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5 thoughts on “Opinion: Now Is The Time To Act On Middle School Debacle

  1. Beautifully said, Art! Thank you for so perfectly articulating the issues and concerns facing our community. Demling has much to answer for.

  2. Well said. Thank you for staying on top of what’s going on with the School committee and ARPS. It matters to synthesize and share what you’re seeing so more people can understand the scope of the problem.

    Ali Wicks-Lim

  3. Art, thank you for such a thorough and clear account of where things stand – and what needs to happen next.

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