by Art and Maura Keene
The following letter was sent to interim School Superintendent Doug Slaughter and the Amherst Regional School Committee on November 1, 2023
Dear Superintendent Slaughter:
The necessary project of rebuilding the public’s trust in district leadership following last year’s debacle is off to a dreadful start. In the wake of failed leadership on matters of student safety, which fostered an adversarial relationship with Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) staff and the community, we are writing with some suggestions for how you might act purposefully to start to repair those damaged relationships without running afoul of your attorney, who you report has advised you to not share any information with the public that touches on personnel issues.
Make no mistake, we think that you have been given terrible advice and that there is much that you ought to share with the public about the investigations into staff malfeasance that resulted in harm to children, and we regard the district’s position on this to be hyper-conservative, unnecessarily opaque, and not in the public interest. But putting that aside, there is still much that you could share outside of those suggested restrictions.
At the Regional School Committee meeting of October 17, you announced that in lieu of making public the reports on investigations of alleged discrimination at ARMS, you will draft your own report based on the contents of the recently released Title IX investigation. You indicated that most of the information in the Title IX report will remain confidential. Nonetheless, you said that you hope to convey ”that the district is taking corrective action and that processes and procedures are being used to confront anti-LGBTQIA+ behavior in the schools.”
You also noted that your report “will be clear about whether failures happened, what follow-up actions have been taken, and what could have been done better.”
If communications about what the district has done thus far are any indication, how will a report showing that “proper action” and vague “precautions” are being taken to protect students reassure ARPS parents and promote confidence in the district’s preparedness to prevent a recurrence of such events?
Seeking Answers to Some Basic Questions
One way to produce some faith in your anticipated “corrective action” is to be unfailingly transparent in describing what is happening on the ground right now within ARPS. The community needs to see that things are changing, as there are very few indications.
For example: how many bullying reports has the school received since the start of the term? Are things better or worse than last year and what is the basis for that assessment? Which components of the “safety plan” from last July have been implemented so far and to what effect?
As of this writing, the district has not addressed these questions publicly. Why is that? The district should be proactively sharing the answers to these kinds of questions, but so far, has not. Currently, communication on the district’s “safety plan” is as vague as when it was first proposed in July of 2023 by then-Superintendent Mike Morris. An email sent to parents on August 1, 2023 reported on what the district intended to do to ensure student safety, but offered no operational details about the plan. Further, Superintendent Slaughter has yet to publicly answer the questions School Committee William Sherr posed to him directly at the October 17 meeting
Students, parents, and members of the community deserve to know that the conditions that produced last year’s crises have been addressed to good effect. And they are telling us, at this moment, that they don’t know that. So we raise our concern that your report on the district’s plans will have little credibility, which will breed frustration and mistrust of ARPS community relations.
Here is but one example.
The planned implementation of a “pronoun registry” that would allow students or parents to register the preferred name and chosen pronouns of their child is part of the safety plan. It is important since one of the charges against school staff from last year is that they refused to use the chosen names and pronouns of LGBTQIA+ children, even though state and school policy requires that they do. Here are basic questions that we can’t answer about the registry.
- Is the registry active?
- Have parents been informed that it is available?
- Have educators and staff been informed of its existence, and has its use been mandated by all ARPS personnel?
- Have staff been informed that state policy requires them to use the chosen names and pronouns of students?
- What should students or parents do if a student believes that they have been purposefully mis-named or mis-gendered?
- If use of chosen pronouns is required by school and state policy what will be the consequences of failing to abide by this policy, and who is responsible for enforcing those consequences?
If there are not yet answers to these basic questions about a key element in the school safety plan (but hardly the most important one), then we’d like to know who will be working on developing these answers, and when we might expect to receive them.
None of the above questions intersect with personnel procedures or protocols. There is no danger of increased liability to the district in answering these questions (or those in the long list we have attached to this letter). So we ask, reasonably, why don’t we know these things?
We asked half a dozen educators at the Amherst Regional Middle School (ARMS) and Amherst Regional High School last week about the registry, and not one had heard anything about it.
More Answerable Questions
We have attached an additional list of similar questions, mostly related to the safety plan and its implementation. These were published in the Indy weeks ago, but no one from the district offices or from the school committee has given any indication that they have thought about them or intend to answer them.
Last year, the district developed a fortress mentality, sharing as little information as possible with ARPS families and the wider community, while fostering an adversarial relationship with some parents and teachers. We understand that complying with a request to become more transparent about your actions will not come easily, given how little practice the district has had with transparency and accountability in recent years. It will require a purposeful change in the internal culture of district leadership. Sharing specific and measurable details of the safety plan and its implementation, and promptly addressing future questions that are posed by the school committee and by the community will go a long way in making that much needed change.
Art and Maura Keene
Art and Maura Keene are residents of Amherst’s District 5
24 Additional Questions District Leadership Can Answer Right Now To Foster Trust (Read the original op/ed here).
- If a student experiences threats or harm in any ARPS school, what are they to do about it? To whom do they report?
- What actions should students who are experiencing threats or harm expect from the school?
- What are these students to do if the threats or harm persist?
- What actions will be taken toward students or school personnel accused of bullying or discrimination?
- What precisely is in place now?
- All of the above is apparently not widely known. What has the school done and what will it do to ensure that procedures, protocols and consequences are widely known?
- Has all of the information regarding bullying that was requested by RSC member William Sherr been provided. (see above). If not, when can he expect to receive it and when will it be shared with the public?
Regarding the district’s safety plan:
- What has been done thus far to implement the plan? Which aspects have been enacted and when, and which aspects remain to be enacted and when will that happen?
- Who is responsible for the plan’s implementation?
- Who is responsible for monitoring the efficacy of the plan? Who is responsible for reporting to the RSC? How frequently can the RSC expect updates, and will those updates be posted for the public?
- What is being done to monitor the overall efficacy of the plan?
- There are multiple instances in the safety plan that say that failure to comply will result in “severe consequences”. In each instance, what are those consequences and who is responsible for enforcing them?
- What recourse does a student have if they report bullying and nothing is done?
- If a teacher declines to use a student’s chosen name and/or pronouns, what recourse does the student have? Where are they to report violations of policy? And given the alleged persistence of violations of this policy last year, what is being done to ensure that violations of policy do not persist?
- What are the protocols for ensuring that there will be no retribution for the reporting of violations of school safety policy?
- The safety plan says that the district will undertake the actions listed below. Have they? And to what degree have these particular recommendations been implemented, and who is responsible for their implementation?
- 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.
17. Since bathrooms were a common site of bullying of trans students last year, what else is being done to ensure safe bathroom use for all students?
18 The plan states, “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.” What was the outcome of those meetings?
19. Training:The safety plan recommends training in LGBTQIA+ issues for all administrators, staff, and educators. This training apparently happened during the summer and at the start of the fall term. What kind of assessment is being done on the efficacy of the training? Who is responsible for doing that assessment, and how will the assessment be used to create more effective training?
Beyond the specific recommendations of the safety plan there is much that could be addressed.
20. Fail Safe: Last year, complaints (including those that resulted in the Title IX investigations) were dismissed at the highest levels of the school administration. Dr. Slaughter himself has said that the district will need to put in “a system of checks and balances similar to what exists in the Finance Department, where the person who writes checks cannot sign them”. What protocols have been or will be put in place to ensure that dismissing complaints does not happen again and that all complaints will be properly investigated? Will there be an alternative destination for complaints to ensure that they cannot be improperly dismissed by administrators?
21. Whistleblowers and Retribution: Last year, several educators and staff testified to their efforts to protect children and to call attention to malfeasance but their efforts were met with threats of retribution from school administrators. We hear from employees that those fears of retribution persist. What actions has the district taken or will it take to protect “whistleblowers” from retribution?
22. Repair the Restorative Justice program at ARMS: If the Restorative Justice (RJ) program at ARMS, which at its core is meant to repair harm, left victims of bullying with the idea that they had brought it on themselves or if victims left the process feeling that no effort had been made to repair the harm done to them, then the RJ program itself needs to be repaired. What is the district doing to address last year’s failings of the ARMS RJ program?
Issues Beyond Bullying
The safety plan fails to address other persistent issues of toxicity within ARPS and especially at ARMS and these matters too need attention. Here are just a couple of things that district leadership could do with regard to racism in the schools and the toxic and retributive environment at ARMS attested to by educators and staff, and the deteriorating relationship between the district and parents, educators and staff.
23.In a recent column in the Indy, Katie Lazdowski raised concerns about the district’s adoption of the “Language! Live” reading curriculum which she alleges contains troubling racist content. She raised a number of important questions about the curriculum including asking who was responsible for the decision to adopt it and what is being done to address concerns about the content. The district has issued two responses to those concerns that included a promise to establish a DEI review committee to evaluate the curriculum. Those responses do not specify who will sit on that review committee, when it will begin its work, when an assessment can be expected, and what guidelines/questions will inform that work. Nor do they specify how the curriculum came to be adopted in the first place and how it was vetted. It is important to share this information widely so that the ARPS community can trust that the work is indeed being undertaken in a timely manner and that the concerns raised are being taken seriously.
24. The reported toxic, retributive atmosphere at ARMS that made it hard for educators and staff to come forward with concerns last year, even when the wellbeing of children was at stake, has yet to be publicly addressed by district leadership. Schools that suffer from a toxic climate rarely have the wherewithal and necessary perspective to resolve such issues internally, especially when toxic behaviors have been deeply ingrained over time. The district would benefit from bringing 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 and give the school processes and benchmarks to ensure that it does not backslide into the current status quo. We have made this request before (see e.g. here) and we grant that it is not insubstantial nor inexpensive. But it will produce healing and transformation that ARMS needs. Will the district consider bringing in school climate consultants? And if not, what does leadership plan to do to address the persistent toxicity within ARPS?