School Superintendent Michael Morris released his plan today (8/1) for addressing last term’s crises at the Middle School (see e.g. here, here, and here) and for ensuring that every student in the Amherst Regional Public School (ARPS) System has a “safe, positive environment in which they can learn and thrive as their authentic selves.” The plan was announced in an email (see below) sent to members of the ARPS community. Morris said that he is seeking feedback on the plan from the community and provided a link to a form for providing that feedback.
The comprehensive plan includes required development/training for all ARPS staff, administrators and students. Morris indicated that he too will take the training. The plan also includes a new form that students can use to keep the schools appraised of their chosen name and pronouns. Morris also claimed that new reporting procedures will be put in place to ensure that complaints are heard and investigated and that those filing complaints will be safe from retribution, though specifics were lacking. Similarly, the plan promises severe consequences for those who bully, who violate the new guidelines, or who engage in retributive behavior, though no details were offered about what those consequences would be or how they would be imposed. The plan specifies new staffing to provide ongoing advocacy for LGBTQ+ students including the creation of a family advocacy group. a student advisory group specifically for LGBTQ+ students, and a mental health and behavioral services administrator.
Morris also announced that with thee members of the Middle School guidance staff on administrative leave pending the completion of a Title IX investigation, the school is in the process of hiring three interim guidance counselors for the fall term.
Several questions remain. The plan was lacking in any explicit statements about how the new policies and practices would prevent the well-documented problems of the previous year from recuring. For example, it was not clear from Morris’ email whether state guidelines requiring use of students’ chosen names and pronouns will be enforced, as they were not last year. Alleged misgendering and deadnaming of students by guidance staff at the Middle School was a central issue in last year’s crises. In the spring, Morris opted to not remind staff at the Middle School of these obligations. And the new plan says that reporting systems will be put in place to ensure that all complaints will be investigated and that no retribution will be tolerated against those complaining. But there was no explanation of how this will differ from systems currently in place or why the failure of those systems last year will not happen again. For example, last year the district allegedly dismissed many complaints and warnings from staff and parents and did not follow up. And there was well-documented widespread fear of retribution among staff which led them to stop bringing complaints to the district administration.
Morris continued to avoid making any acknowledgement of the specific charges against him and made no commitment in this plan to ensure that those charges, or indeed any charges against ARPS staff ,will be fully investigated, nor did he acknowledge or address grave concerns that are being raised by the public about his leadership.
The complete text of Morris’ email follows.
Dear ARPS Community:
In my last message to the larger ARPS community, I expressed my commitment to ensuring that every child has a safe, positive environment in which they can learn and thrive as their authentic selves. It is clear that our systems have not worked to provide that environment for all students at all schools in our district. As such, structural changes are needed to respond to the concerns and experiences that have been shared with me.
These changes will encompass many aspects of our work, including professional development, student learning opportunities, record keeping, safety, communication, reporting systems, and advocacy opportunities. Details about our plans to date are as follows, and we welcome and encourage feedback and ideas from the ARPS community using this form (which does not collect email addresses and allows for anonymous feedback).
Once feedback is received and integrated, the document will be shared again with the ARPS community prior to the start of the school year. Additionally, I will be sharing quarterly progress updates on this vital work throughout the school year. These updates will include opportunities for feedback from the ARPS community because we know this work will be ongoing throughout, and well beyond, the upcoming school year.
Professional Development for All ARPS Staff and Student Learning Opportunities
- Administrators: Professional development work focusing on LGBTQIA+ topics will be provided by the The Stonewall Center, Safe Schools Project for LGBTQ+ Students, and the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth beginning during the Administrative Training Week in August. I will be a learner in this PD along with every member of the school- and district-based administrative team. There will be ongoing, mandatory PD work for the administrators scheduled throughout the school year.
- Faculty and Staff from All Employee Groups: Mandatory professional development focusing on LGBTQIA+ topics will be provided to all faculty and all staff members from all employee groups on the day before school begins, and additional mandatory training will be provided multiple other times throughout the school year. This work is being planned in partnership with the Stonewall Center; Safe Schools Project for LGBTQ+ Students, and the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth. Additionally, the onboarding process for all new staff, substitute staff, interns and student teachers will now explicitly include our commitment to supporting our LGBTQIA+ students and staff and the District’s expectation that students’ and staff members’ will be treated respectfully and addressed using their preferred names and pronouns.
- Students: There will be multiple opportunities for all ARPS students to learn about gender and sexuality, including how to honor and respect the differences between people. On the first day of the new school year, learning opportunities for middle school and high school students will begin with lessons and activities developed in partnership with the Stonewall Center; Safe Schools Project for LGBTQ+ Students, and the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth.
- Additional curricular reviews and changes related to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content will occur throughout the school year as staff are engaged in this process.
Updating Names and Pronouns in ARPS
- We are developing a simple, user-friendly Google form that can be used to submit a name and/or pronoun change based on gender identity. Our IT department is currently investigating ways in which this information can best be recorded in Powerschool, and we are developing a centralized process for ensuring that all of the faculty and staff members at the student’s school are notified of any changes. This form will be easily accessible on the ARPS website homepage.
- Non-electronic processes will also be clarified to ensure full access for all ARPS families.
- We will work with staff in each building to identify locations in which students are more vulnerable to potential harassment or bullying so those areas can be more closely monitored, particularly during less structured times of the day.
- We will ensure that video cameras are able to access areas in the secondary school buildings that are less visible to staff.
- All bathroom doors will have clear signage that indicates that students are able to use the bathroom aligned to their gender identity and that any harassment or bullying due to anyone’s bathroom choice will be met with serious consequences.
- The communication each school sends to families before school opens will include the name and contact information for their child(ren)’s counselor(s).
- We are developing a system similar to the online Bullying reporting system for reporting Title IX concerns. The system will be easily accessible from the ARPS website homepage.
- All reported concerns will be investigated and addressed.
- All faculty members, staff members or students who witness or learn about incidents of bullying or harassment are expected to report the incident to an appropriate supervisor (faculty/staff) or a trusted adult (students).
- There will be zero tolerance for retaliation of any kind, or by anyone, toward someone who reports a concern about bullying or bias-based behavior. Any retaliatory behavior will be met with serious consequences.
- The leadership team will be reviewing disciplinary responses with legal counsel prior to the start of the school year; a focus will be placed on appropriate responses to bias-based incidents and/or bullying.
- As noted by Dr. Slaughter in June, the Title IX investigation being completed by an outside investigator is expected to conclude later this month. Regardless of the investigator’s findings, we have posted two interim counselor positions to ensure that our Middle School is staffed in this essential area when students return to school on August 30. A third counseling position was posted on July 13 and is close to being filled. In seeking to fill these positions, the District is specifically seeking candidates with the skill set to effectively be a support for LGBTQIA+ students.
- Maureen Fleming, longtime ARHS School Adjustment Counselor, has accepted the position of Mental Health and Behavioral Administrator to enhance and expand services to students across the District.
- To support seventh grade students as they transition from elementary to middle school, faculty/staff members from each of the elementary schools will make periodic visits to ARMS during the lunch periods at the beginning of the school year. Such visits by trusted adults from their previous school have proven effective in helping students adjust to the change from elementary to secondary school.
Feedback and Advocacy
- The District will create and support an LGBTQIA+ Family Advocacy Group, modeled after other family affinity groups in the district, to build connections between families, as well as provide a forum for members to share candid feedback and identify promising practices. The District is committed to acting upon information and suggestions shared by the LGBTQIA+ family advocacy group.
- A Grades 7-12 Student Advisory Group will be established specifically for students who identify as trans or transitioning to provide peer support and guidance.
- Maureen Fleming, School Mental Health and Behavioral Services Administrator, will meet regularly with both groups to gather feedback, identify issues and brainstorm resolutions.
Thank you in advance for your feedback and ideas that will improve this plan for the benefit of our students, staff, and community.
Dr. Michael Morris
Superintendent of Schools