Peter Demling Resigns From School Committee


Peter Demling (R) and Irv Rhodes (L) at a Regional School Committee Meeting. Photo: You Tube / Amherst Regional Public Schools

Peter Demling, a member of the Amherst School Committee and Regional School Committee and outgoing Chair of the Union 26 School Committee, resigned from his elected positions effective today (8/25).  Demling becomes the fourth district official to tender his resignation in the last eight days.  Allison McDonald resigned from the School Committee (SC) on 8/24,  Regional School Committee Chair Ben Herrington resigned on 8/21.  School Superintendent Michael Morris tendered his resignation on 8/18. As was the case with his SC colleagues, Demling cited the toxic political climate in Amherst as his reason for stepping down.

Demling was elected to the School Committee in 2017 and was about to complete his third term. He announced his resignation on his personal Facebook page and sent the following message to the School Committee and the Town Council.

I have resigned as an elected member of the Amherst School Committee, effective today. My complete personal statement about why is here

Thank you for the support you’ve given me over the years and for the opportunity to serve our schools. I feel like I’ve worked hard and made a positive difference, but after more than six years in the Amherst spotlight the non-stop personal attacks just got to be too much to take on a daily basis.

I could have just shut up and not spoken my mind when I knew it would conflict with groups prone to these attacks, but that never felt genuine to me. If this was worth doing at all, it was worth doing for real, no matter the blow-back.

But I could only let the other aspects of my life take the hit for so long before having to stop and reassess how much more I could/should reasonably put up with. And the answer was, this is the end of the line. 

I still love this town tho, and look forward to reacquainting myself with civilian life. Far fewer meetings and much more roller skating in my future! I’ll see you in the gardens, the dance halls and the winding paths of life. Thank you all again.

Demling echoed many of the complaints of his SC colleague Allison McDonald, representing himself as a victim of bullying by a hostile public who made it difficult for him to fulfill his duties. In his longer essay, Demling said, “Constant bullying, harassment, and intimidation of public figures (both elected and not) is by far the biggest problem with Amherst civic life.”

“The primary groups in Amherst that support bullying and personal attacks as political strategy are: Amherst Pelham Education Association leadership; the “Progressive” Coalition of Amherst PAC; and the Amherst “Indy” blog. Not every group member participates in or endorses such actions. But these groups sow seeds that enable their most fervent supporters to justify the behavior.”

Demling was a frequent target of criticism from progressive groups, parents, and educators  in Amherst, particularly during the LGBTQ crisis at the Middle school and during contract negotiations with the APEA. Much of that criticism was published in the Indy.

Indy Responds
In response to an inquiry from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the Indy offered the following response to Demling’s and McDonald’s charges of Indy malfeasance:

The Indy is a free, all volunteer, independent news source in Amherst with an unapologetic progressive orientation.  The Indy works hard to present fact-based reporting of the news with integrity, and makes a clear delineation between its news reporting and opinion.  We fact check rigorously to the best of our ability and we reject the publication of personal and ad hominem attacks. When we make errors we correct them expeditiously. We aim to provide a forum for exploring new ideas and diverse opinions, and to include voices within our town that are not typically heard.  Our Mission Statement can be found here.

It is our judgment that those public officials who accuse the Indy of bullying are unhappy with the comprehensive coverage that the Indy has devoted to their actions and inactions during the crises in the Amherst Public Schools and that what they are actually objecting to is the critical public scrutiny they have received. We invite readers to check out the articles and judge for themselves.

Demling’s Current Term Has Been Controversial 
Demling has recently been the target of much criticism from Amherst residents and particularly members of the LGBTQIA+ community who have argued that he has been obstructing a full and independent investigation of School Superintendent Mike Morris (see e.g., here and here). Demling has also been criticized for his frequently expressed enmity toward the Amherst Pelham Education Association, the union that represents Amherst/Pelham educators and school staff, and for accusing them on multiple occasions of dishonesty (see here). And  he has been criticized for his  hostility and unresponsiveness to parents (see here and here).  He received considerable pushback when he questioned the credibility of parents who complained that their LGBTQIA+ children had been bullied and for not explicitly acknowledging that trans kids had been harmed in the Middle School debacle.  He has not disguised his hostility toward his SC colleague Jennifer Shiao who he tried to formally silence and discipline on at least two occasions (see e.g., here and here) and who he described in open meeting as someone who is polarizing and not suited to chair the SC.  And he has sought to limit public comment at SC meetings, deepening a perception that he was not interested in hearing from the public. 

Demling’s longer public statement is reprinted in full below:

I’ve long planned to leave School Committee when my current term ends in December, but I’ve decided to leave now and step away from public life. I want to explain why, share what I see as the main problem with Amherst civic life and suggest an approach for meeting the challenge.

First off I am not resigning because I feel I did anything wrong or acted inappropriately in response to reports of harm to LGBTQ students at ARMS. Despite repeated claims otherwise I have never called these reports false or denied their seriousness.

I am and have always been a proud public supporter of LGBTQ rights. I find the reports heartbreaking and deeply troubling; but there’s nothing I can say to those who reject the authenticity of my feelings because we disagree about how to act in response.

Yes, we need to determine individual accountability. But to do so in both a fair and meaningful way requires establishing a clear basis of fact that is objective, complete in its sources of input and comprehensive in its context of information.

We don’t have that yet, so I think withholding judgment until and unless we gain that perspective is the right thing to do. I understand disagreeing about this; but it’s another thing entirely to attack my motivations, question my personal values and make false claims about what I’ve said.

And after three campaigns and three terms on School Committee I can no longer endure the relentless stream of bullying and personal attacks from those who disagree with me. The cumulative and sustained stress of it all has taken a physical, mental and emotional toll on myself and my family. I’ve experienced this from the start, it got worse during COVID and the fight over teaching in-person, then reached its apex this year with the ARMS reports and the Superintendent change.

I realize some will characterize this as an attempt to deflect attention from the shame of my moral failures and garner sympathy by “playing the victim” instead of thinking about the students and their suffering. Again, there is nothing I can say to those who assume the worst of intentions, or believe that ensuring the well-being of children is somehow incompatible with treating each other humanely.

Constant bullying, harassment and intimidation of public figures (both elected and not) is by far the biggest problem with Amherst civic life. The reason why isn’t hard to understand: people don’t want to expose themselves to personal attacks.

I’ve lost count of the number of times neighbors have told me “I don’t know how you endure it”, “Better you, not me” and “No way in hell would I ever put myself through that.” The prospect of subjecting oneself to constant public vitriol intimidates people away from public service, feeling they lack the “thick skin” and political shrewdness to endure it.

This has grown worse in recent years to become the dominant paradigm in Amherst discourse, and for a simple reason: it works. It has proven to be an effective strategy for influencing elections and public official decisions, because people can only withstand so much abuse before they either give in to the pressure or else leave their positions altogether. We’ve watched this happen for a while with town employees, and now we’re seeing it happen with school committee members.

Now the conventional wisdom says that public figures should never acknowledge this, because it only encourages the behavior and “lets the bullies win.” So we’re supposed to stay balanced and measured in our responses, pretend we’re not bothered by it and calmly go about our jobs, trusting that most people see it for what it is, sadly shake their heads and quietly hope for better.

But this doesn’t work. It isolates the targets of the bullying; and the feeling of isolation is where personal attacks inflict the most damage. So we need to start sharing our experiences. I will tell you that even when I know accusations are baseless, public expressions of personal hostility still hurt. They leave a mark; marks that sometimes don’t go completely away. Call me overly sensitive if you wish, but it’s the truth and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

I will also not promote a “false balance” of “bothsidesism.” This is not a case of “everyone is doing it.” The primary groups in Amherst that support bullying and personal attacks as political strategy are: APEA leadership; the “Progressive” Coalition of Amherst PAC; and the Amherst “Indy” blog. Not every group member participates in or endorses such actions. But these groups sow seeds that enable their most fervent supporters to justify the behavior.

It starts when groups state opinions loudly and repeatedly through multiple channels to create a false perception of broad community acceptance and support. Those who present facts and reasons that question the validity of these opinions are accused of being personally lacking in one or more progressive values.

Counter-arguments are met with personal attacks, openly celebrated as acts of resistance to the attempted “silencing” of those who speak on behalf of marginalized voices. This justification plays on our sincere desire for social justice, and echoes the driving principle of the group dynamic: if you disagree with our conclusions, then by-definition you do not share our values.

So disagreements are framed as threats. “You don’t care about teacher safety if you want your kids to learn in-person.” “You don’t value paras or care about income inequality if you refuse our contract demands.” “Requiring masks is punishing teachers”. “You don’t care about keeping LGBTQ kids safe if you support the Superintendent.” “You’re racist if you disagree with us about how to combat racism.” Us vs them. Good vs evil. With us or against us.

Establishing The Other in this way dehumanizes people, which then justifies – and in the case of truly just causes, obligates – group members to attack. Harassment and intimidation receive affirmation and encouragement, absolving members of having to consider that the people they’re attacking all have values, feelings and inner lives just as valid and real as their own.

And because of the drive to promote opinions as unquestioned truth, there is a hunger to back-fill opinions with justifications. This is when disinformation is generated, with a preference for claims that trigger the most emotional outrage, amplifying opinions while also preventing countering facts and reasons from being considered.

The largest (but not only) platform for spreading disinformation in Amherst is the “Indy” blog. It welcomes personal attacks and celebrates conspiracy theories. It is a vehicle for personal opinion and political agenda that presents itself as objective reporting. It is packaged for consumption to trigger and amplify resentment, hostility and mistrust. 

Of course not all content from these groups is misinformation, and not all members support such actions or even sincerely believe the claims their groups promote. But the harassment and personal attack of public figures goes largely unquestioned and unchallenged publicly in Amherst, so the end result is still personally damaging and politically effective.

I first ran for School Committee six and a half years ago because I believe in public schools and I wanted to help make a difference. I feel at peace with my decision to leave now, knowing that I’ve made positive contributions in a number of areas; and there will be time to reflect more on that later.

Looking forward however, I worry that the departure of a well-respected Superintendent coupled with an unchecked atmosphere of bullying, harassment and intimidation will make it even harder to attract and retain staff and families to our district. But I feel I’ve done all I can do, and this is not something that can be solved individually. The future direction of our schools and our town is a collective choice that our community will have to make together over time.

Will we accept and endorse bullying and personal attacks as “democracy in action,” part of a necessary and righteous holy war that must be waged in the name of progressive values? Or will we begin to push back, and publicly support those who do, by saying, “we also share these progressive values – but this kind of behavior is not acceptable.” Because even the most righteous ends do not justify employing any means whatsoever.

I know the majority of town residents do not condone these actions. But this knowledge is not enough to prevent the damage being done. The silent majority has to be less silent if it wants to change this. If we want public schools and government where this doesn’t dominate, we’re going to have to work for it. Outreach to all with open hearts and minds, of course; but combined also with attention to elections and periodic public support of representatives.

Our individual opinions are not always based on correct information, even in the sincere and necessary pursuit of noble and just causes. Disagreeing without dehumanizing each other is essential for achieving sustainable and meaningful progress of our shared social values. I think Amherst has a lot of work to do to get there. I sincerely hope that we do.

-Peter Demling
Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committees, 2017-2023

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11 thoughts on “Peter Demling Resigns From School Committee

  1. My thoughts reading Petter Demling’s resignation letter today are the same I had yesterday reading Allison Mcdonald’s letter. After neglecting to meaningfully embrace the criticisms brought by the LGBTQ community, they now want to treat queer people as “bullies”. I know Peter Demling views himself as an LGBTQ ally, but real allies don’t do that.

  2. I think it’s absurd that Demling and others are saying they’ve received “personal attacks.” The expression of justified concerns and questions about committee members’ priorities based on their actions and lack of apparent concern for students doesn’t constitute a “personal attack.” I was one of the people who sent my concerns to school committee members through social media. It’s laughable to describe anything I said as a “personal attack.” The entlitlement it must take to think valid criticisms and concerns are “attacks” is mind-blowing.

  3. Reporting facts is not misinformation. Questioning actions of an elected official is not intimidation or bullying. Publishing submitted comments and opinions, including those of representatives of Amherst Forward, is not spreading conspiracy theories. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instead I will look towards November and think long and hard before casting my votes.

  4. Perhaps I haven’t followed this current controversy as closely as I could have, but I think that mass resignations at a time of crisis are irresponsible and only compound the problem. Elected members of the School Committee ought to stay and work on behalf of the community who put its trust in them. I voted for Ben Herrington and am disappointed that he didn’t see his term through. Same with the others. And all their finger-pointing isn’t a good look either.

  5. People can resign, of course, but in thinking about it, it does seem to me that the third person to resign, to eliminate the quorum, was quite a significant decision.

  6. It’s a very common bullying tactic for bullies to claim they are the ones being bullied. What I’m getting from these letters is that it’s more important for adult committee members to protect themselves from being questioned than it is to ensure that vulnerable kids have adults they can trust to protect them. As a parent my job is to make sure that the adults who I put in charge of my kids care about their safety as their first priority.

  7. How else to explain the decision of the third SC member to resign? Some bodies require the body itself to accept the resignation, but that’s not the case here; this is what Massachusetts General Law has to say:

    Such strategic resignations to deny a quorum have a storied past — and the past has become the present! — but there is a way to prevent this from happening in the future:

    Readers may decide whether these 3 decisions to resign were cynical; however, if the 3 resignations were coordinated, then they may constitute a violation of Massachusetts Open Meeting Law — some “legal eagles” might want to look into that….

  8. If the third person to resign was to eliminate a quorum, what would be the purpose in that? Is there some vote somebody would want to delay until the replacement members came on board? What’s the motive?

    This is not to say Morris was not at fault. It seems like he had to have been somewhat at fault. But unlike those who were put on leave, he did not do the bullying, they did. So removing them was “plugging the leak”, which was urgent, as opposed to accessing blame for “who let it leak for so long”, which is important, but not so urgent as to warrant short circuiting due process.

    And in the meantime, this (link below) was put out as what action was being done to try to correct this, so unless this was complete BS, it’s not like nothing was being done, right? Or wrong?

    I guess a complaint is that more meetings were wanted about this and were refused. Are you sure that the meetings that had already taken place did not already illuminate the problem? Were extra meetings wanted to give more information on what had occurred, or was it simply to talk about why Morris should have been put on leave (which he was anyways for much of the summer)? Note his employment status cannot be discussed by SC members in public per his contract. And unfortunately, that email that got sent to the entire committee by a member did violate his contract and was sure for sure used as leverage in the separation meeting.

  9. … to be clear, I was not implying any strategic purpose in the third person resigning … maybe I’m not cynical enough …

    Just that, I would hope that whomever was in the position of if-I-resign-I-destroy-quorum, would have very carefully considered and been clear that they felt their personal need to resign right then and there was commensurate with the cost.

    Fair or not, but the third person to resign is in quite a different position than first and second.

  10. “I was not implying any strategic purpose in the third person resigning”
    ^ Not you Laura, Rob was: “Such strategic resignations to deny a quorum have a storied past — and the past has become the present! ”

    “the third person to resign, to eliminate the quorum, was quite a significant decision”
    ^ Yes, agreed.

  11. Actually, Rick, I was simply offering this for the readers’ (e.g. your) consideration.

    I’m agnostic on the matter, and the 3 nearly simultaneous resignations of a majority could be pure coincidence. If you can provide evidence that is the case, then I imagine the readers would appreciate seeing that. Furthermore, I pointed to a way under Massachusetts General Laws that Amherst could prevent this from happening in the future:

    But if evidence emerges that the 3 members coordinated their resignations….

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