by Ali Wicks-Lim, Lamikco Magee, and Martha Toro
In the past several days Ben Herrington, Allison McDonald and Peter Demling have resigned from the Regional School Committee, each citing some version of the same hero/victim narrative. Notably, Demling stayed on the committee just long enough to secure a significant buyout for Mike Morris prior to the results of the Title IX investigation becoming public, and vote to make sure Jennifer Shaio was not offered the opportunity to lead the School Committee as Chair.
Demling’s resignation letter was by far the longest and most specific. Once again he has stated that he has done nothing wrong and assumed no responsibility for what has transpired. He is also continuing his legacy of narrative-setting by claiming that those of us advocating for the safety of queer and trans kids are bullies. “Constant bullying, harassment and intimidation of public figures (both elected and not) is by far the biggest problem with Amherst civic life,” he wrote.
In actuality, we are witnesses and active bystanders. We have listened closely to what has happened and we are willing to believe those who were hurt and name that what happened to them is wrong. Because awareness brings responsibility, we have been working to ensure no more children experience such harm – all while the School Committee has done everything in their power to ignore our concerns and silence our voices.
When Doreen Cunningham was placed on administrative leave and we asked them to place Mike Morris on administrative leave as well, they refused. This resulted in all of the upset around Morris’s return and in a lawsuit from Cunningham which is likely to be very expensive for the district.
When Morris returned, some of us imagined kids and teachers returning to school in a few short weeks, unheard and unprotected. We requested an emergency, in-person meeting to discuss the problem and were repeatedly denied. Herrington stated publicly (and Demling parroted) that none of our attempts to advocate for a meeting would result in a meeting; not our countless emails, not the requests made publicly, not even a rally covered by the Globe and every local news network would make the committee willing to listen.
When their regularly scheduled meeting approached, we anticipated an opportunity to finally speak out on behalf of the school community about the importance of waiting for the results of an impartial investigation before allowing those implicated in harm caused to children to return to positions where they could again cause harm.
Dozens of people reached out to request an in-person meeting and were told it would be held virtually, citing that it would be too disruptive to hold a meeting in the school so close to the beginning of the school year. It’s hard to imagine that a Wednesday evening was the time earmarked for the district to set up the ARHS library so we are left believing that the RSC was just (again) unwilling to face the public.
Determined to do everything in our power to advocate to protect teachers and LGBTQIA+ children, nearly 80 community members logged onto the virtual meeting despite our upset that we could not have a face-to-face conversation. People waited for nearly three hours while the committee sat in executive session. With no other way to communicate, we used the chat feature, but then the chat was disabled with no explanation. When public comment finally began, Demling was off-camera. After months of being unable to speak to the committee, we were placed in the position of addressing our elected representatives on a screen, in some cases a blank screen. Is that even representation? It sure didn’t feel like it.
During parts of the meeting, members of the public used emoticons to express support or upset about comments being made. Hearts of support flew across the screen to demonstrate care for people sharing their truths. Thumbs-up or thumbs-down emoticons appeared. Unable to tolerate even the visual representation of public opinion, the RSC shut down our ability to use emoticons. By the end of the meeting the message was clear. This committee was unwilling to hear from the public and would take all available measures to avoid and/ or silence our voices.
And now the narrative is that we are the bullies? We are the people who gathered to sing songs and create sign art with children impacted by the ARPS administration’s harmful leadership. We are the people who wrote about accountability publicly because we could not find it in the process designed for it. We are the people who named that when Demling silenced members of the School Committee the public noticed, or that there are concerns when an investigation is run by a private investigator instead of an impartial one, or that when people in power express public doubt about a disclosure of abuse it causes harm. The RSC has always held the power here, and we have always been in the position of trying to be heard. Bullies hold power. Active bystanders try to get help to stop the bullies.
It is true that those advocating for teachers and children have been louder and more visible over time. Rather than seeing this as bullying, members of the public might consider what they would do if they were in the position of fighting for the safety of their own child. If their cries for help were unheard, would they simply keep asking nicely, or would they yell louder? Some might remember that the effort to protect LGBTQIA+ kids in Amherst began with collaborative comments and asks for help. We approached this work wanting to believe that if we asked for transparency, accountability and equity the RSC would deliver. It was not until they refused to listen to teachers, protect children, or hear from the public that we raised our voices.
The hero/ victim narrative set by Herrington, McDonald and especially Demling may appeal to some Amherst residents, but it falls short in a community that claims to care about LGBTQIA+ people. It is uncomfortable when people advocate for change, most of all for those who were happy with things as they were. The RSC has long ensured that comfortable people in Amherst stay comfortable at the expense of those whose needs are not being met. When faced with a scenario where vulnerable LGBTQIA+ children’s needs were not being met, some members of the community chose to do everything in our power to change that. It is easy to suggest that we should have just waited for the results of the investigation, but that would have required trust we don’t have in the investigation itself and those receiving the results. That ask would require us to put the safety of our children in the hands of the very people who allowed harm to come to them and then lied about it. What responsible adult could do that?
We reject the narrative that Demling, Herrington, and McDonald are the victims here, and we are not suggesting that those they are blaming are the victims either. The victims have always been the children who were harmed and the teachers who were unheard. Those of us advocating for them have always been the witnesses and bystanders, not the bullies.
It seems more accurate that these RSC members are reacting to a climate of true accountability. People have organized, witnessed, and reported in meaningful and powerful ways, and that is uncomfortable for leaders who are accustomed to holding power. Demling, Herrington and McDonald leveraged their power toward majority votes in favor of the things that mattered to them. They were body shields for one another when smaller asks for accountability surfaced. They controlled the narrative for a long time, just as they are trying to control it now. Faced with members of some of the most vulnerable communities in Amherst collaborating to work toward better representation for our people, their job, quite frankly, just became a whole lot harder. Instead of listening and working with us, they’ve chosen to stop showing up.
We don’t have to participate in their narrative. Let’s shift our focus back to what children and teachers need in this moment. Let’s celebrate the rise of powerful, intersectional advocacy from vulnerable marginalized groups in Amherst. We are beginning the school year with some challenges – and also many exciting possibilities. When we hear people complain about the change that has transpired it tells us they were comfortable before and would like to stay that way. These witnesses and bystanders who are organizing are offering an alternative, one in which more of us, including LGBTQIA+ kids, can also be comfortable.
Ali Wicks-Lim for the ad hoc LGBTQIA+ Caucus of Amherst
Lamikco Magee for the ad hoc Black Caucus of Amherst
Martha Toro for the ad hoc Latinx Caucus Of Amherst