Union Charges District With Weaponizing Child Welfare System Against Staff
According to a January 31, 2024 report in MassLive, an Amherst Public Schools educator has tendered her resignation after the district filed a 51A report against her with the Massachusetts Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) for alleged child abuse or neglect of a student. Erin Neil Kolasinski, who has been working in the district since 2018 as a school adjustment counselor, said that the district filed the report without informing her or discussing their concerns. The report against Kolasinski was judged by DCFS to not merit investigation. Kolasinski nonetheless said that the school district no longer felt safe for her and hence is leaving. She will continue in her position until March 1 and then take some time off to heal before returning to her full-time practice as a clinical social worker.
Middle School Science teacher Erin Lawler was fired in November prior to the conclusion of a 51A investigation resulting from a parental complaint against her. She was subsequently “fully exonerated” by that investigation according to the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA). Lawler had been a teacher for 17 years prior to coming to Amherst in the fall of 2023, but was fired without being given a cause within her first 90 days. Her firing and subsequent exoneration by DCFS prompted widespread demands from parents for her reinstatement as well as complaints about her treatment and denial of due process by the district. Interim School Superintendent Doug Slaughter has declined to comment on that case other than to note that the district does not need to have a reason to dismiss an employee within their first 90 days of employment. Lawler is currently teaching at Chicopee Academy.
During the 36 days after Lawler’s firing, the district filed six 51A reports against staff and educators. Four of the six reports, including Kolasinski’s, have been deemed unsubstantiated or not worth investigating by the DCFS. Three of the six educators named in the reports have gone back to work at the middle school, according to Alex Lopez, a member of the APEA executive committee.
Lopez said the number of 51A reports is “highly unusual” and marks an increase from years past. He worried about the impacts of these complaints on staff morale, on their feelings of safety, and on their willingness to speak up in response to observed misconduct. Both he and Kolasinski noted that the complaints against staff were filed without any prior consultation or inquiry, and that staffers were not advised that the complaints had in fact been filed. “The district appears to be weaponizing the 51A, making it the go-to action instead of giving educators due process,” Lopez said.
Claire Cocco, Communications director for the APEA said “This is about the district starting at the highest level of action and alarm, and long-time veterans of the district have not seen anything like it, ever. Traditionally, the district has used a range of interventions when concerns or complaints around educators arise, including: administrators talking with the educator, holding a meeting with all parties to clarify events and expectations, or more seriously, Human Resources may conduct an investigation.” She echoed concerns that these actions are over the top, noting that, ”The state has screened out these complaints, which means that the state has not found cause to investigate.”
Cocco added, “The APEA is not against the idea of 51As, of course–the process is important for children’s protection. We object to their inappropriate use and the chilling effect they have on educators. Even though we know these filings have been thrown out by the state, it is still frightening to educators that in the course of doing their professional duties, the district has used them with abandon.”
The complaints follow a tumultuous year at the middle school, where charges of extensive bullying of LGBTQIA+ students by both students and staff were confirmed by subsequent Title IX and non-title IX investigations that faulted the district for failing to protect students from harm and for protecting perpetrators of that harm. In the wake of that scandal, then-Superintendent Mike Morris and five members of the school committee resigned. Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham was placed on administrative leave in May of 2022, and subsequently left district employment (see here and here). Three school adjustment counselors, Hector Santos, Delinda Dykes, and Tania Cabrera, were implicated in the harassment charges, and were placed on leave at the same time as Cunningham. All subsequently left the district.
Kolasinski suggested that the flurry of 51A complaints was an overreaction on the part of the district in the wake of their failings of the previous year. She told MassLive that “one instance over the past year that made her realize she needed to put in her resignation was when the district filed a 51a report against her without having a conversation with her or informing her that they had done that.”
Read the full report on Kolasinski’s resignation in MassLive here.
Read a follow-up MassLive report on Lawler here.