Opinion: Waiting To Act Will Not Fix What is Broken In Our Schools


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by Art and Maura Keene

We are dismayed that the Regional School Committee (RSC) has decided to take no actions regarding charges of discrimination, bullying, and staff malfeasance at the Amherst Regional Middle School (ARMS) until after the ongoing Title IX investigation is concluded in late August. This means that we’re likely to start the fall term with all of the current dysfunction in the Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS() still in place. The RSC has claimed that its hands are tied (a familiar lament that we heard frequently from School Superintendent Mike Morris during the evolving crises) and that they have been advised by counsel that they need to wait until the ongoing investigation is completed before they can act because there are personnel issues and confidentiality requirements at stake.  

Of course, there are several things that the RSC could and should do right now to help get ready for fall, things that will in no way interfere with the ongoing investigation or personnel matters. At the top of the list would be to put in place protocols to ensure that students in all ARPS buildings are safe and have effective recourse if they experience bullying or discrimination. What is in place now clearly does not work, so discussions of how to replace the existing protocols need to get started.  

A Record Of Inaction
It has been more than a year and a half since parents and staff began to complain about bullying of LGBTQIA+ students at ARMS. It has now been over three months since a parent filed a formal Title IX complaint against the Middle School. It has been eight weeks since the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) filed a letter of no confidence in School Superintendent Mike Morris and Assistant Superintendent and Director of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Doreen Cunningham, and also eight weeks since the RSC held its first emergency meeting to discuss the debacle. Members of the RSC called for concrete action at the beginning of June. To date, there has been none. 

Over the last two months there has been a lot of public testimony (see e.g. here, here, here, here, and here) and an avalanche of disturbing detail, thanks in part to stellar investigative reporting from students in the Graphic (see also here). Amazingly, in spite of this assemblage of disturbing evidence there are still members of the RSC who question whether we know enough to justify taking action and who question whether the reports that have been received to date are credible. This embrace of inaction, and this mistrust of the testimony of children, parents, and staff who claim to have experienced or witnessed harm, bears considerable responsibility for getting us into this mess in the first place.

The advised caution regarding personnel matters is understandable if somewhat frustrating. Folks who have been injured by the disturbing combination of events at ARMS, and folks who have tried to assist those who have been harmed, and folks who have tried to call attention to all that is wrong in that building have been disparaged and deflected and dismissed. They have been demanding for some time that district leadership do something to address what must be seen as a crisis or series of crises. They have been waiting for some indication, other than issuing platitudinous statements, that their concerns are being taken seriously. There are things that can be done that do not interfere with the rights of administrators to due process or confidentiality. 

RSC Chair Ben Herrington has even suggested things that the RSC could be doing right now. For example, he suggested that they might create a whistleblower system to accommodate confidential complaints from those whose jobs or identities make speaking up a significant personal risk. Such a system might also ensure that complaints are not capriciously dismissed or disappeared. Herrington also suggested that the positions of Assistant Superintendent and Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) ought to be separated, as they are in most school systems, to help avoid conflicts between the two roles. 

These are good suggestions, and good places to begin a weighty, complex, and necessary discussion. But the RSC declined to discuss Herrington’s suggestions.

Actions are better than waiting, especially with the start of the fall term only seven weeks away — especially when the current crises have been defined and framed by inaction. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of things that this committee could do right now to start the process of fixing what is broken in the schools and start to re-establish trust with the community that they are charged with serving.  And it is troubling that this committee has been unwilling to invest much energy in imagining what they might do — never mind actually doing something. 

So here are just a few suggestions of things that the school committee might do that are better than waiting to accompany Herrington’s suggestions.  This is hardly a comprehensive list and we encourage Indy readers to add to it. 

  1. Put addressing the current crises squarely at the top of the RSC’s to-do list, at the top of every RSC meeting agenda, and keep it there until the crises are wholly resolved and we, the community, have confidence that we can trust the safeguards that will be put in place to ensure that these problems  do not  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. Sitting in silence and waiting to see what will happen next is the antithesis of leadership.
  2. Those who have disparaged people who filed complaints or disparaged people who brought the problems at the Middle School into public view, need to acknowledge that they were wrong, and that they contributed to the harm experienced by ARMS families and staff, and they need to apologize. And they need to stop trying to dismiss or undermine the accumulating evidence of malfeasance, and stop gaslighting the parents and staff who call attention to it and who demand recourse.
  3. Formulate and then put in place protocols to ensure that students in all ARPS buildings are safe and have effective recourse if they experience bullying or discrimination. What is in place now clearly does not work, so discussions of how to replace the existing protocols need to get started.
  4. The district should adopt a policy that instructs all staff that they must, as is consistent with state statute, use the name and pronouns preferred by the student, and, if the student is deemed to young to make that decision themselves, the name and pronouns specified by the parent(s). (see, Guidance for Massachusetts Public Schools Creating a Safe and Supportive School Environment (Chapter 199 of the Acts of 2011, Massachusetts Legislature)
  5. Restore Trust: bring everything out in the open. No more executive sessions except where mandated by law. Don’t even talk about the possibility of bringing Mike Morris back until thorough investigations have been completed. Treat the members of the ARPS community like community, not like adversaries. Trust and believe families and staff rather than disparaging and doubting them. Take every accusation seriously.
  6. Bring in external school climate consultants to develop a program for transforming the climate at ARMS from one that is toxic to one that is healthy. 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 are indications 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. We 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.

The Future Of Mike Morris
At the last RSC meeting on July 6, there were public comments offered arguing that Mike Morris is entitled to due process and hence, criticism of him or talk of his dismissal should be reserved until after completion of the Title IX investigation. 

Of course Morris is entitled to due process. But we don’t know if Morris is even a subject of the ongoing Title IX investigation. It was reported at the RSC meeting of June 23 that the scope of that investigation has been expanded but no details were offered. Given what we know now, we should all agree that a thorough investigation of Morris is necessary. But the calls to withhold comments until the investigation is complete, to stop talking about the evidence that has already emerged, are problematic and indicative of the tendencies that got us into this mess in the first place. 

There is plenty of evidence already on the table that Morris:
1) obstructed the pursuit of complaints about discrimination, bullying, and hiring irregularities,
2) diminished and dismissed and deemed “un-actionable” multiple complaints and reports that came to him through district channels from parents and staff,
3) lied to the public in at least one major instance, insisting that he had not seen a single actionable complaint when he knew that a Title IX investigation was already under way,
4) stepped away from the job just as the extent of the crises were just coming to light, creating a leadership vacuum that stalled addressing matters that urgently needed attention,
5) has still not acknowledged the harm experienced by children, parents, and staff as a result of his inaction.
6) he has yet to acknowledge the toxic environment that pervades ARMS that has created unsafe conditions for students and intimidating conditions for staff

This evidence will not magically disappear should the Title IX investigation not find Morris culpable for the case(s) of discrimination on which it is focusing. Those who assert that the evidence that has come light thus far has no bearing on Morris’ future at ARPS, or who assert that not enough credible evidence has been assembled to be certain that there is anything wrong at ARPS, or who assert that discussion of Morris’ demonstrable mismanagement is off limits until some lawyer weighs in, are part of the problem and are attempting to continue the practice, all too prevalent on the part of the ARPS administration, of gaslighting, blaming the victims, and dismissing uncomfortable testimony in order to protect those in power. The evidence already on the table is relevant and ought to be discussed, now, by anyone with an interest in the district and with an interest in creating a safe and healthy climate for staff and students.

We are in this mess because of a failure of leadership at ARPS. Fixing the mess will require a change in leadership, so we don’t think it is premature to talk about finding new leaders for the district’s schools. 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. Let the investigations run their course and let us attend to them and learn from them. But we have seen enough to know that the continued employment of Morris and Cunningham by the district poses a threat to the safety of our children and the well being of our staff and the creation of a healthy school climate. The district must send a clear message that those engaging in or abetting behavior that harms children or that is in violation of the law will be held accountable. 

Art Keene is a resident of District 3, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UMass, and the Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy. His four children are graduates of Amherst Regional High School. (ARHS). He was head coach of the ARHS girls cross country team for 17 years.

Maura Keene is a retired obstetrician-gynecologist at BayState Health Systems. Her four children are graduates of the Amherst schools. She has lived in Amherst since 1982. She is a frequent contributor to the Amherst Indy.

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