Amherst Superintendent Morris unveils LGBTQ protection plan

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools Superintendent Michael Morris Tuesday announced a series of changes as part of an effort to make the Amherst, Pelham and regional schools safe and welcoming for all students. Gazette File Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 8/1/2023 5:33:05 PM

AMHERST — Enhanced professional development for school employees and adjustments to school policies and student learning, along with a series of other measures, are part of an effort unveiled to the community Tuesday afternoon by Superintendent Michael Morris to make the Amherst, Pelham and regional schools safe and welcoming for all students.

With the recent academic year ending in a cloud over the reported mistreatment of LGBTQ students at the regional middle school and allegations of gender-based bullying not being stopped — which prompted a Title IX complaint over a lack of intervention for harms happening to a student — a multi-pronged approach was described in an email to the school community by Morris that aims to confront the issues head on.

“This is an intentional focus to create structural changes to make sure all kids are feeling safe,” Morris said.

In the email, Morris writes that he is committed to ensuring that every child has a safe, positive environment in which they can learn and thrive as their authentic selves. Morris is also seeking anonymous feedback on the detailed proposal that he and his leadership team have developed.

“Once feedback is received and integrated, the document will be shared again with the ARPS community prior to the start of the school year,” Morris writes. “Additionally, I will be sharing quarterly progress updates on this vital work throughout the school year. These updates will include opportunities for feedback from the ARPS community because we know this work will be ongoing throughout and well beyond the upcoming school year.”

Many of these changes have been urged by parents of trans youths since at least last September, meaning that this plan may not assuage concerns from those in the community who are asking for the Regional School Committee to have a meeting and a vote on whether Morris should be placed on leave.

There has been no formal response to those appeals so far, despite a rally Friday afternoon in front of the central offices at the middle school.

Maxine Oland, who filed the Title IX complaint, said she made many of the requests for the same policies in writing almost a year ago, when she contacted Marta Guevara, the Title IX coordinator, about her child’s experiences. Oland made additional requests again in March, at the time her child was withdrawn from school, and in April, when the complaint was made.

Jena Schwartz, an Amherst parent who helped organize the rally, said that the call for Morris to be placed on leave pending the results of the Title IX investigation is still active, as is the request for the Regional School Committee to hold an open meeting where the public can respond to Morris’ return.

“The central office’s plan to offer more training for students and staff deflects from an important and glaring issue, which is that Morris has lost the trust of too many members of this community to remain effective in his role,” Schwartz said on behalf of others who have protested the school leadership.

“You can train teachers about how to protect trans and queer kids and you can teach kids about how to report bullying, but none of that works if the administration is non-responsive and not accountable.”

Morris said in an interview from his middle school office Monday afternoon that the comprehensive plan is based on what he has heard from families and students.

Morris’ proposal comes in advance of the completion of the Title IX investigation into complaints and allegations that were first publicly aired in May in an article in the regional high school’s student newspaper, The Graphic, about bullying of transgender students at the middle school and middle school counselors who intentionally misgendered students and failed to offer them support.

Four employees, including Doreen Cunningham, the assistant superintendent for diversity, equity and human resources, who hired and was responsible for the counselors, have been placed on leave.

The email follows an earlier one in which Morris announced that Maureen Fleming, a longtime high school adjustment counselor, has been appointed as the schools’ mental health and behavioral administrator. One of her main responsibilities will be to provide support for LGBTQ kids and their families.

A primary support for the initiatives proposed by Morris will be the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth. The intense work will include professional development on LGTBQ topics and a process of informing staff of the “expectation that students and staff members will be treated respectfully and addressed using their preferred names and pronouns.”

One element will be a leadership retreat in mid-August, then mandatory training on the employee level. “Ongoing professional development is about creating an environment, a climate and culture, that is safe for LGTBQIA+,” Morris said.

New staff orientation, before students return in the fall, will be focused on expectations that will apply to all staff, whether in classrooms, food service workers, custodians and bus drivers, substitutes and student interns — essentially anyone with regular interaction with students.

Student learning opportunities will focus on gender and sexuality, including how to honor and respect the differences between people, followed by longer-term curriculum planning.

Morris calls this an iterative process that will have a number of steps. That includes ensuring better recordkeeping, such as for students changing their genders and names, providing a streamlined Google form that will be consistent across the district. This will ensure there is “one-stop shopping” for families, he said.

There will be priority on safety, working with staff in each building to deal with harassment and bullying, and protecting the vulnerable through better surveillance. All bathrooms will be marked explicitly with signs about the school policy that students and staff members should use the bathroom aligned with their gender

New counselors, too, are to show commitment to support LGBTQ students. One of the three counselors who has been on leave has left that position, meaning one permanent replacement is being hired, along with two interims. Morris said it is critical to have schools fully staffed. Candidates for those positions will have to that demonstrate they are culturally competent, especially around LGBTQ issues.

School counsel will review consequences for biased-based bullying and there will be explicit disciplinary consequences for students. There also will be an online reporting system for bullying similar to an existing biased-based reporting system. Morris refers to this as a “see something, say something” process.

“We want to have a culture where everyone feels enabled,” Morris said.

With Fleming appointed, an LGBTQIA+ Family Advocacy Group and a Grades 7-12 Student Advisory Group, for peer support and guidance for students who may be transitioning, will be created. At the elementary school level, one-on-one counseling will be available for students.

At the rally outside the regional middle school Friday, another parent, Kara Knott, spoke of the pain and suffering that has been endured, describing her transgender child facing relentless bullying for two years before he began hurting himself.

“It’s going to take sustained hard work to undo the harm,” Knott said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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