The following comment was submitted to the Amherst Regional School Committee on June 13, 2023.
I’m writing to ask you, members of the Regional School Committee: What’s next? When and how will you address the growing mountain of allegations and complaints about Doreen Cunningham and Mike Morris, the vote of no confidence from the APEA, and the lack of a more urgent response since all of this first came to light this spring?
Yes, we need to await the Title IX investigation report, but Cunningham’s contract expires at the end of this month and Morris ostensibly plans to return from medical leave. Neither of these is acceptable. Yes, this is a deeply complicated situation that will take time to address and repair, so it’s not that I or anyone expects overnight answers. But to leave it at that is to miss a critical opportunity to stand with and for the staff, teachers, paras, students, and families of this community.
We are looking to you to be bold, vulnerable, and brave in your actions now.
Once again, ARHS journalism students have knocked it out of the park with their fair, thorough, and – frankly – scathing reporting. The accounting and analysis of what has occurred at the ARPS district level over the past six years speaks for itself.
Two quotes from the June 13 article (Breaking the silence: staff members come forward with claims of negligence, misuse of power by district leadership) in particular stand out for me, both from Dr. Michael Baran, who Graphic reporters consulted with and who is described as “a nationally known DEI expert, former Harvard University lecturer, CEO of Iris Inclusion, and co-author—with Dr. Tiffany Jana—of the book Subtle Acts of Exclusion.”
The first quote of his I want to underscore is: “If there was harm done at your school, people have to think about how they were part of that harm.”
There are still some RSC members who have not only failed to acknowledge how they were part of the harm at ARMS and in the ARPS district at large, but that they were part of the harm at all. A sincere, self-reflective apology is overdue. The more time passes without such an acknowledgement, the more one can’t help but feel uncertain about Peter Demling and Allison McDonald’s priorities and allegiances. It is also, quite simply, the human thing to do. It doesn’t matter if you knew all of the details. There is no question at this point that you knew enough, that complaints had been made and silenced, that letters had been written and shared widely, and that is enough of a reason for you to issue a statement declaring, in some way, your personal commitment to righting these wrongs.
The other is quote from Baran that leapt out at me is: “Just because someone is part of one underrepresented group doesn’t mean they don’t have biases themselves,”
It is clear that Doreen Cunningham misused her position of power for self-gain and the gain of people close to her. The hiring policies and procedures she instated –with Morris’s approval – effectively shut down collaborative interviews, silenced teachers, buried complaints, and protected bullies at both the student and staff levels. The fact that she perpetuated all of this under the guise of increasing diversity distorts true DEI principles and raises many alarming questions about why her actions were protected by the Superintendent himself.
Hours before reading the new Graphic article, I had come across an article in the Boston Globe from June 12 (Pride Event at Burlington middle school becomes ‘day of intolerance’ as students destroy decoration, principal says). The article quotes a former Burlington, MA school committee member and former member of that town’s Select Board DEI subcommittee: “I think that in Massachusetts we sometimes get complacent and think we’re insulated from this type of hate… There are a lot of efforts ongoing at the schools, but it’s obvious there needs to be more done both in the schools [and] at the town level.”
It is important to note that the Burlington, MA DEI subcommittee was dissolved after presenting a final report, at the end of a one-year charge – as if any substantive, sustainable change could be achieved in such a short time period. Sadly, we have seen this pattern play out in school districts and organizations across the country since 2020.
Why refer to another Massachusetts school district’s problems when we have so many of our own? Reading these two articles back to back was startling, but some of the similarities are striking and the overlap, to my mind, is worth noting.
Yes, there is a much-needed focus on the safety and wellbeing of the LGBTQIA+ community at ARMS, and trans youth in particular; there are now 49 states with anti-trans legislation passed or pending.
But to address this crisis with anything less than a deeply intersectional lens and starting at the highest levels of District leadership will be a recipe for finding ourselves in this territory again before long. We’ve already seen this play out in Amherst for years. As important as the Title IX investigation is, this is much bigger. If the RSC fails to address these issues as such, the school committee fails, period.
If there is one silver lining to this emergency – and it should be treated as such – it’s that the RSC has a powerful opportunity. You can decide, individually and as a body, to step up your commitment to true diversity, inclusion, and equity by telling the public how you plan to address the District-level corruption that has been glossed over and protected for too long.
The question is, will you?
Jena Schwartz is 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.