I always love choosing which stamps to buy. Today’s pick was obvious in light of the Title IX investigations currently underway into transphobic abuses by counseling staff at the Amherst Regional Middle School, the unethical practices that led to the hiring of those counselors, and a toxic work environment and culture of fear that have negatively impacted staff and educator morale as well as the safety and well-being of some of our most marginalized and vulnerable kids.
At Tuesday’s Regional School Committee meeting, we learned from acting superintendent Doug Slaughter that additional investigations are taking place—along with not just the one Title IX investigation we knew about but others that were filed after the April 25 meeting. After Slaughter’s update, the committee reviewed a statement drafted by members Jennifer Shiao and Irv Rhodes.
In a few different places, the statement referred to the Title IX investigations. But in light of the new information that non-Title IX investigations are also happening, there was discussion of removing the “Title IX” language from the statement and referring just to “the investigations” underway.
Amy Kalman, an ARPS speech-language pathologist, was once again present with her clipboard, paper, and markers. (In fact, before the meeting began, she noticed that committee members didn’t have name plates, and made improvised name tents so that each committee member could write their name and pronouns. Notably, Peter Demling did not participate; one cannot help but wonder if this was a conscious choice, given that he’s made it clear that he doesn’t like it when teachers “demand” things).
Anyway, this discussion continued, and the decision was made to remove the words “Title IX” from the statement.
That’s when Amy held up her clipboard.
It read: “TITLE IX = CIVIL RIGHTS”
Now, it’s important to say that the public was not invited to be part of this discussion. The period for public comment had ended, and the wrangling about whether to read the written comments out loud once again revealed Demling’s preference for policy over public voices (he was the only committee member to vote against the comments being read out loud).
But this didn’t stop Amy from holding up a sign and at one point calling out two powerful words: “Language matters.”
Friends, never doubt the impact of being physically present, vocal, and visible. This is a great example of why showing up makes a difference. And as Amy said, language matters. Ultimately, they settled on the wording, at least in one part of the statement, “Title IX and other investigations…” One cannot help but surmise that the public presence and pressure was part of what protected this wording.
You might be wondering why keeping “Title IX” front and center is so important.
Here is the law itself: “Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance.”
Plainly said, staff at the middle school violated the civil rights of our students. District leadership knew about these violations and lied about what they knew. Instead of protecting children, they protected themselves. And certain members of the school committee have continued to be more invested in maintaining power and control than in holding themselves and the district accountable.
The committee has said they will determine a response to the APEA letter of no confidence after the investigations underway conclude – probably not until August. Meanwhile, Superintendent Mike Morris could presumably return from medical leave at any time, and Doreen Cunningham, though on administrative leave, remains in her role of assistant Superintendent for Diversity, Inclusion and Human Resources. Her contract is due to renew July 1.
So yes, I bought the Title IX stamps.
When I first heard about what was going on at ARMS, I said I planned to be a pain in the ass for as long as necessary. That’s what advocacy can feel like sometimes. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary and right.
If showing up, making signs, writing comments and opinion pieces, organizing, and continuously, unwaveringly standing up with and for each other means being a pain in the ass, so be it. That’s how we will keep moving our community towards the fullest possible expression of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our schools – and insisting ARPS has the district leadership the community can trust.
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.