Opinion: An Appeal To The Amherst Community


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by Jena Schwartz and M.J. Schwartz


Please come to the Regional School Committee (RSC) meeting on Tuesday, June 20, at 6:30 p.m. in the ARHS library to speak out in support of the APEA’s vote of no confidence in current Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) district leadership. If you cannot make it in person, please submit your public comment in advance. Jennifer Shiao has a very useful Q&A on her blog with details about submitting public comments. 

If you came to any of the emergency meetings this spring, this meeting is just as critical.

If you are concerned about this issue getting swept under the rug as we go into summer, this meeting is critical.

If you stand with ARPS staff, teachers, and students and want to demand a district-wide environment of true justice, safety, and inclusion, this meeting is critical.

๐Ÿ‘‰ Bring signs.

๐Ÿ‘‰ Write public comments to read. 

๐Ÿ‘‰ Submit public comments. (again, here are instructions.) 

๐Ÿ‘‰ Feel free to forward this email. 

Here’s where we are, a brief & partial timeline of some of what has transpired, and why we need to come together and show up as a community this week:

– Eight months ago, on October 31, 2022, retired ARPS teacher Martha Toro wrote this letter and sent copies to the Regional School Committee, all staff and district leadership. The letter questions the integrity of hiring processes in the ARPS district. She references a “culture of fear” and “politically favored staff members,” among other things. 

– On April 14, 2022, an ARMS parent filed a Title IX complaint after their child suffered from transphobic abuse and bullying at the school.

– On April 20, 2023, Gazit Chaya Nkosi called our attention to the actions and conditions leading to the complaint. Their email spurred some of us to attend the RSC meeting on April 25 to express our alarm, calling on committee members to take swift and serious action. At this time, School Superintendent Mike Morris implied no formal complaint had been made and RSC member Peter Demling expressed doubts about the veracity of the complaints.

– Two weeks later, on May 9, a group of ARHS journalism students, with the support of ARHS teacher Sarah Barber-Just, published this article in The Graphic: 
It’s life or death’: Failure to protect trans kids at ARMS a systemic problem

– On May 11, Morris sent an email verifying that a Title IX investigation, in response to a parent complaint, was underway. 

– On May 12, Morris abruptly announced that he was going on medical leave.

– On May 13, the Amherst Pelham Educators Association (APEA) submitted a letter of no confidence in Superintendent Mike Morris and Assistant Superintendent for Diversity, Equity, and Human Resources Doreen Cunningham to the RSC . This letter cites numerous reasons for the vote, which received support from 80% of respondents. 

– On May 15, 16, and 18, the RSC held emergency meetings to address the need for an Interim Superintendent. Community members showed up in person and by submitting comments to insist that the RSC be transparent about its process, to address the fact that Morris had denied any knowledge of what was happening at ARMS, among other pressing things. As Isolda Ortega-Bustamante said at the May 16 meeting, “Shared race or ethnicity produce no common cause with oppressors. Wherever oppression festers and wherever children and youth are hurt, let us likewise step up, stand up, and speak up.” (Read her full piece.) 

– At the May 16 meeting, Doreen Cunningham’s supporters circulated a flyer accusing Alicia Lopez and Julie Woyner of “practicing witchcraft in the ARMS building throughout the school day.” 

– At the May 18 meeting, the committee voted to appoint Dr. Douglas Slaughter to serve as the Interim Superintendent. 

– On May 19, Doreen Cunningham was escorted from her office and placed on administrative leave. (Delinda Dykes, Hector Santos, and Tania Cabrera, all counselors implicated in the Title IX investigation, were already on leave at this point.) 

– Last week, on June 13, ARHS journalists once again knocked it out of the park with their most recent article, Breaking the Silence: Staff members come forward with claims of negligence, misuse of power by district leadership.

– To come full circle with regards to Toro’s October 31, 2022 email โ€“ which provides the context in which transphobia and homophobia found a festering ground at ARMS โ€“ the Graphic reports: “Almost immediately after Toroโ€™s email landed in staff inboxes across the district, it was deleted and could not be recovered. Morris then addressed Toroโ€™s email blast on November 2 in an all-district email of his own, saying he had ‘many disagreements’ with what she had written, and calling the allegations ‘inaccurate.'”
– All of this has played out against the backdrop of the APEA’s ongoing negotiations for ARPS paraeducators to earn a livable wage. 

The APEA has issued a follow-up to the RSC, asking that committee members “employ an independent investigator to look into our verified claims of unethical, professional behavior,” as enumerated in the original letter of no confidence. The follow-up asks for a response by July 1, 2023. 

Meanwhile Doreen Cunningham’s contract is due to renew on July 1, 2023, and there is no indication that Mike Morris will be investigated and held accountable for the harm to ARPS students, staff, and teachers under his leadership. This is unacceptable. Yet we still don’t know what, if anything, the school committee plans to do about it.

As Jena wrote in an open letter to members of the RSC last week, which she also emailed to committee chairs Demling and McDonald:  

“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. Weโ€™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 โ€“ and it should be treated as such โ€“ itโ€™s that theย 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 & M.J. Schwartz  are residents of Amherst 

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