Amherst school officials mum on consequences resulting from Facebook threat, continue investigation of racism, bullying allegations

Last modified: Thursday, February 20, 2014
School officials have finished “assigning consequences” concerning the Facebook threat that prompted them to shut down the high school and its alternative program for a day last month, though they won’t say what those are and how many students are involved.

“Specific student consequences are confidential and will not be shared,” Superintendent Maria Geryk said in an email Tuesday. She also did not respond to the question of whether the student alleged to have written the Facebook message, a senior, was back in school. At the end of last week, she said he was not.

As for related allegations of bullying and racial harassment, she said, “We are now engaged in a thorough investigation and are focused on addressing the behaviors of all involved. These are serious allegations that are being given the attention warranted.” She said there is no time line for its conclusion. “Our work on this will be ongoing for as long as it takes.”

The student in question allegedly posted a message on a Facebook page aimed at Amherst high school students Jan. 25 claiming that he had been carrying a gun into school to protect himself from bullying. Amherst Regional High School on Mattoon Street and South East Campus on South East Street were closed for a day while police investigated. No criminal charges resulted and school reopened the next day.

Officials have acknowledged that there was racial antagonism surrounding the incident, which involved other students as well. The alleged author of the Facebook threat is white and reportedly used the “N-word” in a congratulatory message to a black friend in a previous social media post. That angered other students and there reportedly was a confrontation in school as well as a flurry of insults passed back and forth via social media.

Since the episode, administrators have been holding student and staff assemblies, talking with community members and conferring with consultants in an “after-action” review to determine their next steps and strengthen future procedures, Geryk said in her email.

The consultants, all whom have worked with the Amherst school district in the past, are:

■ Rossi Ray-Taylor of Ray-Taylor Associates in Ann Arbor, Mich. Ray-Taylor is the former executive director of the Minority Student Achievement Network, a national coalition of 25 suburban high schools of which Amherst is a member.

■ Pat Romney of Romney Associates of Amherst. Romney is a former Hampshire College and Mount Holyoke professor and clinical and organizational psychologist whose consulting practice focuses on diversity initiatives, team building and leadership development, according to its website.

■ Christopher Overtree, director of the Psychological Services Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Overtree is also a child, adolescent and family therapist who has been working with the Amherst schools over the past two years on school climate, diversity and equity issues.

Incidents, including the harassment of a teacher of color who was the object of a threatening note and a racist slur, have been troubling administrators since the fall. In November, a forum was held involving teachers and students where students were invited to express their feelings about racism in the school.

Amherst Regional Middle School held a No Name-Calling Week. This week the high school is holding a series of events with the theme “From Cowards to Warriors: Courage to Act,” inspired by a visit last fall to Amherst by Calvin Terrell, a social justice activist and educator from Phoenix. The events, which include skits, the airing of messages about standing up to prejudice and the showing of the film “Central Park Five,” about black and Latino teens wrongly accused of raping a white woman, were organized by a collection of student groups. These include People of Color United, Minority Student Achievement Network scholars, the School Climate Control Group, Latinos Unidos, the Gay/Straight Alliance and the Intergenerational Equity Cohort.

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.