Vigil for Amherst teacher Carolyn Gardner draws 150; action urged on ‘institutionalized racism’

Wednesday, April 09, 2014
AMHERST — During a vigil Tuesday evening on the Common, about 150 community members, former teachers and local students called for an end to what they termed a culture of “institutionalized racism” in the Amherst regional school district.

The vigil was organized in support of Amherst Regional High School math teacher Carolyn Gardner, who has been the target of racist graffiti and threatening notes since October. A number of those in attendance used a portable microphone to deliver speeches, including Sonji Johnson-Anderson, a graduate student from the University of Massachusetts and friend of Gardner’s, who served as master of ceremonies for the event. Many of those in the crowd wore orange ribbons as a symbol of solidarity against racism, and some wore shirts that read “I stand against institutional racism.”

“If anything good has come of these racist attacks, it is that we have been able to re-energize the community of Amherst and beyond,” Johnson-Anderson said.

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She said Gardner had returned to work at the school Tuesday after being absent for nearly two weeks, and that “her message to those who would have her slink away in fear is that she will not be moved, and that she is standing strong.”

“With you at her back, she is going to continue to do so,” said Johnson-Anderson. “With you at her back we are going to continue to energize this community and show those who would want us to be fearful that we are not afraid.”

Gardner also attended the vigil and delivered brief remarks in which she called what has happened to her “a blessing, as difficult as it has been.”

“I did not ask for this, I did not ask for anything that has happened to me, but as difficult as it has been, it is a blessing, because you’re here,” Gardner said. “We need to hear from you in order to change what’s happening in our schools. As much as we don’t like to talk about it, if we do not talk about it then it will not be fixed, so let’s keep the objective ahead of us and change the future for our children.”

In an impassioned speech, Amherst Regional School Committee member Trevor Baptiste, of Pelham, decried the district’s response to the issue.

“I sat two weeks ago in the School Committee meeting and was moved by the experience of one of our teachers. She described the response to institutional racism as anemic, and I’m here to tell you that that anemia rises to the very highest levels,” Baptiste said.

Baptiste noted that the School Committee has yet to discuss the accusations that Gardner brought before it, and said that “problems of this magnitude can easily be swept under the rug” without people who are willing speak out about it.

“That was a very bold action, to stand and say ‘my superiors who supervise me are anemic,’ ” Baptiste said, of Gardner’s decision to speak before the committee.

“To say it to the people who are elected to supervise (the teachers) is something I, in good conscience, cannot ignore.”

He said he hopes the School Committee will soon begin sitting down with people who have different perspectives on the issue, and “discuss and describe what institutional racism really is.”

“Getting rid of institutional racism is not about a feel-good thing for folks with privilege, it’s privilege for free people. Getting rid of institutional racism is required in the 21st century,” Baptiste said.

Amherst Regional High School senior Camila Carpio delivered a speech in which she recounted her own experiences as an Afro-Latina at the middle and high schools. Carpio detailed what she described as the racial disparities in the school district, and accused the administration of taking “fake steps” to address them.

Carpio demanded more meetings with Superintendent Maria Geryk and High School Principal Mark Jackson and spoke of her dissatisfaction with the administration’s response to her request for new hall monitors, which she said were not adequately addressing issues of racism in the school.

After the vigil, many of those who spoke also attended the Regional School Committee’s meeting in the high school library, where they reiterated their concerns during the public comment portion of the meeting.

During the meeting, Geryk addressed the issues surrounding security and safety in the local schools, mainly in response to a number of lockdowns that occurred recently in the schools recently due to suspicious visitors and the hostile notes.

Geryk said the district plans to tighten the schools’ hall-pass systems and establish a routine to have students take their trips to the bathrooms at fixed times, which would help narrow down and identify the perpetrators of incidents such as the graffiti that targeted Gardner. She also said security cameras will be installed inside some of the schools, and would be helpful in identifying suspects.

She also spoke about the difference between a lockdown, where students are not allowed out of the classrooms and which could be triggered by anything from a student becoming ill in the hallways to an incident elsewhere in town, and a shelter-in-place order, which is an indication of an imminent safety threat. She noted that lockdowns are a routine occurrence, although they generally do not happen in such quick succession as has been seen recently.

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone told the meeting he feels “very comfortable with where the district is in terms of safety in the schools.”

Baptiste, however, said the discussion surrounding safety should be focused more on the underlying problems that lead up to situations where a lockdown is required.

“What we’re hearing is, ‘What do we do if there’s a lockdown, what do we do in a worst-case scenario?’ but it’s a systemic problem,” he said, to applause from some. “We should be having a conversation about what is leading up to some of the issues we have seen this year.”

School Committee member Amilcar Shabazz recommended directing Geryk and Jackson to hold elections for the purpose of forming a Student Advisory Committee to the Regional School Committee. The chairman of the advisory panel would sit on the regional committee as a non-voting member for the purpose of increasing student input in the decision-making process surrounding those issues.

He noted that such an action is required by law under Chapter 71, Section 38M of the Massachusetts General Laws, and which the school has not done this year. The committee approved a motion to do so.