By Ali Wicks-Lim, Lamikco Magee, and Martha Toro
Thursday, October 12, the Regional and Union 26 school committees met to discuss the results of the non-Title IX investigations which were requested by the Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) administration to look into “allegations that the district failed to appropriately address allegations of misconduct toward LBGTQIA+ students and whether certain ARPS staff members violated ARPS policies.”
The meeting was held in executive session in accordance with M.G.L. c. 30A, section 21(a)(1) which allows the committee to move to executive session “to discuss the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.” They did not return to open session.
Despite public requests for the release of redacted versions of the reports and for an answer to what was addressed in executive session last Thursday, ARPS administrators and the chairs of both school committees have remained silent, leaving the public to speculate, and once again failing to build trust through transparency (see here, here, here, and here). We have been told that Assistant School Superintendent Doreen Cunningham’s personal belongings have been removed from her office, which leads us to believe she’s either been terminated, or there’s been a settlement or buyout with the district to put a stop to her lawsuit. (see here).
A moment like this should come with a sense of relief. If the investigations proved that Cunningham played a role in the harm caused to LGBTQIA+ students (see also here) then removing her from her position is appropriate, however there is a glaring injustice which many are feeling and which must be named.
In Amherst, a town that prides itself on the idea that it is a largely progressive community, a white man and a Black woman were both involved in the failure of leadership that resulted in harm to LGBTQIA+ students. What does it say about Amherst that the white man was allowed to come and go at his own will throughout the investigation while the Black woman was placed on forced leave?
We know that ultimately that former School Superintendent Mike Morris was rewarded, financially. His name was cleared with a statement from former Regional School Committee and Union 26 chairs Ben Herrington and Peter Demling that his resignation did not indicate any wrongdoing on his part. As a result he was able to find new employment in another district and he’ll receive double salaries from the state for the next 10 months.
Cunningham was placed on forced administrative leave until she was (presumably) either terminated from her position or granted a settlement. Whether she was terminated or not there have been equity issues in the treatment of her case verses Morris’. Community members advocated for accountability forboth Morris and Cunningham. If this district chose no accountability for either, then they have signaled to the LGBTQIA+ children who were harmed that what happened to them was OK with ARPS leadership. In either case the disparities between how Morris and Cunningham were treated cannot be acceptable and must be named and addressed. To remain comfortable in a town with glaring and pervasive racism, sexism, and homophobia is to be complicit.
The contents of the report discussed last week may also have provided information about Morris’ actions and inactions, but without access to the reports, the public is left to speculate about his culpability. What we know for certain is that as superintendent ,Morris held even more power than Cunningham and with power comes responsibility. Leadership failures lead to the harm experienced by LGBTQIA+ students and Morris, as the person with the most power and greatest responsibility in the district, should have been held accountable for those failings. In refusing to hold Morris accountable the Regional School Committee’s handling of this crisis became yet another failure of leadership.
We must each start to ask ourselves and one another to try harder and do better if we are to even begin to repair the harm caused and exposed. Let’s start by naming some uncomfortable truths:
Amherst is unable to hold white men accountable yet willing to make Black women expendable. Amherst is unable to protect LGBTQIA+ children in our schools but unwilling to prioritize LGBTQIA+ representation on the school committee to help ensure their safety. At a recent vote for interim school committee members there were two members of the LGBTQIA+ community who applied for the position and were not chosen by the majority of the current members of the Amherst School Committee and Town Council, even now, at a time when that representation is so necessary. Some vocal people in Amherst seem more appalled when people drive through neighborhoods with signs asking adults in power for change than when vulnerable children are harassed and bullied in school. Amherst voters continue to support the same power structures that are failing vulnerable individuals and communities, while claiming progressivism.
For too long, Amherst’s leadership strategy has been to cause or allow harm, avoid meaningful accountability, and resolve issues with big checks in the form of lawsuit settlements and severance packages. Wouldn’t it be better to just start doing the right things to begin with and spend our money on things like excellent programming for students andpaying teachers what they deserve?
At a time when we are about to make significant decisions about who our leaders are, it is important to note that these patterns have all occurred while candidates endorsed by Amherst Forward have held dominant majorities in powerful elected positions. Three of the School Committee members who recently resigned (Demling, Herrington and Alison McDonald) (see also here and here) were all endorsed by Amherst Forward and they were all reliable supporters of Amherst Forward’s issues and agendas.
School Committee members endorsed by Amherst Forward supported and protected Morris rather than hold him accountable. They refused to hear the concerns of the public about Morris’s leadership and possible return. They led the public to believe that they were unwilling to act because they were waiting for the results of the Title IX investigation, and then took action to guarantee Morris a smooth resignation before the results were available. They ignored the public’s concerns about the inequity in the treatment of Morris and Cunningham and in doing so they left the district vulnerable to a significant lawsuit from Cunningham and expensive payout to Morris. And by the time there were investigation results to respond to they had abandoned their positions, cast criticism on those of us trying to protect children, failed to offer any accountability or take any responsibility for their role in the harm to LGBTQIA+ students, and left a giant mess for the remaining and new school committee members to clean up. If this is the kind of leadership Amherst Forward supports, why would we trust their next round of endorsements?
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
Read more about the Ad Hoc Caucuses of Amherst here.