Behind closed doors: Amherst Regional School Committee mum on investigation into allegations of transphobic actions at middle school

  • Amherst Regional High School students march to the middle school in support of LGBTQIA+ students last spring. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/13/2023 6:31:20 PM

AMHERST — At least one investigation that began last spring into allegations of transphobic actions by counselors at the Amherst Regional Middle School, and possibly the hiring practices used by the assistant superintendent at the time, appears to be complete.

While members of the Amherst Regional School Committee acknowledged Thursday evening that the school district has received a report, no details about what is contained in the document, or who was the subject of the investigation, are yet being made public.

Within 15 minutes of commencing a joint meeting with the Union 26 Superintendent Committee at the high school library, members of the committees voted to go into executive session and all members left the building, along with interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter and Marc Terry, the school committee’s attorney, to meet with the employee subject to the report. The executive session was then held elsewhere in the high school, though committee members did not disclose where.

A Title IX investigation was begun April 14 after a resident alleged her transgender child had been harmed by the actions of school employees and was potentially suicidal after intentionally being misgendered and misnamed by three employees. That led to Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham and three other staff members being placed on leave amid the investigation, while Superintendent Michael Morris left his position at the end of August.

In early September, the Gazette filed a public records request seeking the Title IX investigation and associated reports when complete. Debbie Westmoreland, who handles communications and operations for the district, responded by email that she “will process it as soon as the report has been received and prepared for public release” and based on requirements under state law. The paper on Friday reiterated its request for the information in light of Thursday’s meeting.

Before the meeting began, members of the committees were greeted by more than a dozen people in the hallway outside the library, all holding signs “Release the Reports” and “Transparency. Equity. Accountability,” with one of the signs showing the more than $70,000 figure paid to the investigator, Ed Mitnick of Just Training Solutions, as of early September. Many of those who came to the meeting have been vocal in calls for investigations since in The Graphic high school newspaper detailed the anti-LGBTQ activity by the counselors in an article, which also put blame on Cunningham for hiring those employees.

Irv Rhodes, the Amherst representative who chairs the Union 26 Committee, told those gathered that he was uncertain if the committees would be able to release the report that was the subject of the executive session. He said that would depend on if the person at the center of it wanted a discussion to be in public session.

Initially, Rhodes appeared confident that an open session would be held, rather than going into executive session for the purpose “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.”

“It may absolutely come out,” Rhodes said of publicly releasing the report when asked by Ali Wicks-Lim, who has organized a group called the ad hoc LGBTQIA+ Caucus of Amherst.

‘Unequal access’

Before the decision to go into executive session was made, and with a motion already made and seconded, Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao expressed frustration, observing that the district had received what she said was a 119-page report on Oct. 5, and both Rhodes and Regional School Committee Chairwoman Sarahbess Kenney had access to it at that time.

But the report was not made available to the remaining members of the committees until Tuesday. Shiao said this “unequal access” to material was problematic and unacceptable.

This elicited approval with snapping fingers by those attending the meeting, who entered the library and continued to hold their signs.

Amherst representative Katie Lazdowksi, too, said she was concerned about the delay in seeing the report through the Indigenous People’s Day weekend.

Rhodes, though, defended what he and Kenney had done, noting that he worked with counsel to ensure there was a procedure by which members could pick up and read the redacted and unredacted copies of the report and protect the district from any liability. Rhodes said that exceeded their duty in making the contents available, after earlier being informed by Slaughter that even School Committee members would have limited access to the report.

“We have all of the responsibilities of being responsible to the public, of being responsible to the School Committee and of being responsible to the community at large,” Rhodes said.

He also called out Shiao and another unnamed School Committee member who were invited to read the unedited copy of the report in the superintendent’s office at the middle school. They attempted to leave with it, Rhodes said.

“They picked up a copy and said they were leaving with it, despite the wishes of the chair,” Rhodes said. Rhodes said this caused a “totally unprofessional relationship” with the other members of the School Committee.

As Rhodes laid out his concerns, Kenney repeatedly attempted to interject, pressing Rhodes to move on and get to the vote on the motion.

Pelham representative William Sherr said he was with Shiao in the superintendent’s office and was approached beforehand about signing a nondisclosure waiver. But Sherr said he wasn’t aware of any policy giving the chairs such power to ask for that. He added that he was unaware anyone attempted to leave the office with the documents.

The vote to go into executive session finally happened when Amherst representative Gabriela Weaver said the report appeared to be a personnel matter and it was appropriate to go behind closed doors. In the end, Lazdowski was the only member to vote against going into executive session, and as members left the high school library, onlookers began chanting “release the reports.”

Among those participating in the action was Laura Jane Hunter, a candidate for School Committee, who said the past several months have been a challenging moment for the district as it continues to struggle to address the harms caused to students.

Hunter said she would like to see a summary of the contents of the reports and have real information given to the public. “I’m confident this School Committee will do the right thing,” Hunter said.

Hunter also said that the narrative that she and others have been bullies who have pushed volunteers off the School Committee is not accurate, that their concern is to speak out on having a safe and health learning environment.

“All of us family members want safe spaces for our students and our teachers,” Hunter said.

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