Report On The Meeting Of The Regional School Committee, June 20, 2023
This meeting was held in hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
Ben Herrington (Chair), Allison McDonald, Peter Demling, Irv Rhodes, Jennifer Shiao, Sarabess Kenney and Tom Fanning (Pelham), Anna Heard (Shutesbury), Tillman Wolf (Leverett)
Staff: Doug Slaughter (Acting Superintendent)
Public Comments Demand Action For LGBTQIA+ Kids And Families
Several of those commenting at the meeting asked for the Regional School Committee (RSC) to act by removing the administrators who allowed the mistreatment of LGBTQIA+ youth at the Middle School (ARMS) to occur. Alicia Lopez, speaking for the Amherst Pelham Educators’ Association (APEA), requested a response to the union’s May 13 vote of no confidence in Superintendent Mike Morris and Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham by July 1. M.J. Schwartz, Laura Hunter, Jena Schwartz, Amber Cano Martin, Amy Cronin DiCaprio, and Ali Wicks-Lim also spoke of the need not to let the two administrators return to their job because of the harm to students that occurred under their watch.
M.J. Schwartz noted that the Title IX investigation currently underway is about one child and said it does not address problems that other children and staff experienced. They said that “Morris lied” on April 25 , when he said that no formal complaints had been filed even though he knew that the Title IX complaint had been filed 11 days earlier. Hunter urged the committee to act on the union’s vote of no-confidence. She said, “The high school students from The Graphic did the heavy lifting. Fire the superintendent, assistant superintendent, and transphobic guidance staff.”
Wicks-Lim said the RSC should not wait until August to act, and neither Morris nor Cunningham should be allowed to remain on staff. Cano Martin also advocated for a thorough investigation of Morris and Cunningham. DiCaprio noted that a recent study showed that 40% of LGBTQ youth have considered suicide in the past year, but these children do much better if given support. She added that the situation in the Middle School should be considered a crisis, and should be acted on now.
Written Comments Submitted Read Aloud
RSC members again discussed whether they should read comments submitted by email aloud In a reprise of the discussion at the May 16 meeting , where RSC member Jennifer Shiao began to read the emailed comments aloud and was stopped by Union 26 School Committee Chair Peter Demling, only to be allowed to continue reading them after a vote of the committee. This time, Demling again objected to overriding the SC policy not to read comments, saying the tone of voice of the reader cannot be controlled. Allison McDonald said that people submitting messages have the option of leaving a voice message (which would be played at the meeting), and the RSC cannot know the intent of the person submitting the comment.
Irv Rhodes noted that certain situations should override protocols, and the public interest in the situation in the Middle School and with the administration is great. Anna Heard noted that scrolling through the comments, as was usually done in the past, has issues of equity and transparency for those who cannot read English well enough or fast enough or have visual problems. Tom Fanning, another new RSC member representing Pelham said he listened to the May meeting, which consisted mostly of public comment, and felt it was important for the thoughts to be heard.
All RSC members except Demling voted to allow the emailed comments to be read aloud. The five comments included comments from Maura and Arthur Keene, Mary McCarthy, and Anne Dolan, asking that Morris and Cunningham not be allowed to return to the district and from Bridget Hynes urging that concrete actions be “taken NOW to build toward a fall that can be restorative, protective and uplifting.”
Another comment from seven educators expressed support for Morris and stated that it was not clear that he was included in the APEA no confidence vote. Hynes also noted the lack of clarity in the instructions on how to submit public comments if one cannot attend the meeting.
Scope Of Title IX Investigation Expanded
Acting Superintendent Doug Slaughter said that subsequent to the initial Title IX complaint filed with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, other complaints were submitted and the investigation has raised other issues not strictly under the original complaint but related to it. The Title IX reviewer, Attorney Ed Mitnick, has broadened the scope of his investigation to include all of these areas.
Slaughter also said the district’s administrative team will begin meeting this week to start developing concrete steps to deal with the problems raised, so new policies can be in place by the time the school year begins. McDonald wanted to know if the school was consulting other organizations, such as the Stonewall Center at UMass, to help formulate new policies. Slaughter was not sure if this was occurring.
Rhodes wanted to know the scope of the Title IX investigation, but Slaughter said that is still being worked out. Heard asked if there was a new pathway for staff to file complaints, with Cunningham on leave. Slaughter said that is also being determined.
Demling Offers An Explanation For His Remarks On April 25
Demling said there have been repeated assertions ‘[about] what I said or didn’t say at the April 25 RSC committee meeting.” At that time, he said, “All the SC had was one email specifically concerned with conversion therapy in addition to public comment at that meeting. We had not heard of any Title IX report on conversion therapy or any topic, and this was weeks before The Graphic article. These are severe allegations, but from the SC perspective were unverifiable. We had heard false allegations over the ARMS principal search, and over the years we have heard many allegations about staff and teachers that turned out to be false. That is why I asked if any formal complaints had been filed. I did not say that these allegations were fabricated.”
Demling did not acknowledge the veracity of the allegations at this time or apologize for his implication that they could not be trusted.
School Committee Issues Statement In Support Of LGBTQ+ Families, But Will Not Commit To Action Until Conclusion Of Title IX Investigations
Rhodes and Shiao crafted a brief statement expressing support for students and families harmed by the events at the Middle School and stating that a thorough investigation is taking place by Mitnick. The statement concludes, “In addition, after the investigation report is submitted, the RSC will determine the committee’s response to the letter submitted to the committee by the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) on 5/13/23 and the community as a whole.”
Although Shiao and Rhodes had wanted to be more specific in the statement, they were advised by the district’s attorney that they could not mention any individuals by name unless it was in executive session and those individuals were given prior notice. Since the Title IX investigation has broadened to include other issues related to the original complaint, they felt it was prudent to wait for the report before issuing a response to the APEA and the community.
Demling commented that he was skeptical of the APEA vote of no confidence based on the comment of seven staff members read at this meeting and conversations he had personally with staff who said they were not aware the vote was being taken or that Morris’ name had been added to the no-confidence vote. He doubted the union’s claim of overwhelming support for the vote. Shiao countered that the union is a democratic organization, and although some members might not have realized that Morris was included in the no-confidence vote on Cunningham, there is no reason to question the backing of most of the union for it. She said the RSC has a mandate to respond.
Heard asked what the RSC could do that would not interfere with the Title IX investigation, and Herrington responded that there are things the committee can do right now even though personnel matters are private and are handled by the superintendent. He suggested separation of powers, not having the assistant superintendent be the human resource director and director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. He also suggested formulating a whistleblower policy, outlining a path for submitting complaints outside of the usual channels.
Revised Public Comment Policy Proposed
Shiao summarized changes proposed by the Policy Committee. She said the committee agreed that written comments submitted should not be displayed or read at RSC meetings, but should be posted on the Board Docs site prior to the meeting. She said the practice of scrolling through the comments began when meetings were virtual. Now that they are in person, it doesn’t make sense because members of the public in attendance cannot read them, as is also the case for those who are visually impaired or who don’t read English quickly.
Policy On Review Of Instructional Materials Passes Unanimously
The policy on evaluation and review of requests to reconsider materials in the school library or classroom that was presented by Wildwood School librarian Susan Wells on May 30 was passed unanimously at this meeting. The policy states the procedures that will be taken to deal with concerns about materials in the school. A form indicating the concerns will be submitted to the school principal, who will review it in consultation with the librarian. If a satisfactory resolution is not reached, the concern will be forwarded to the curriculum director, and then possibly to a review committee composed of a librarian, a school committee member, a parent or guardian, a department head, an administrator, and a BIPOC staff member.