'This secrecy is really dangerous' Amherst middle school assault news to most students, residents

Last modified: Wednesday, July 09, 2014
AMHERST — A racially fueled assault on a middle school student that Amherst school leaders say was “well known throughout the school community” is a mystery to residents and middle and high school students interviewed across Amherst Monday.

Furthermore, reactions are mixed as to how school administrators and elected officials are handling the latest report of racial tensions inside what is widely considered one of the most diverse public school systems in the region.

Some parents are calling for greater transparency and want to know more about a newly revealed incident that led school officials last week to reprimand Amilcar Shabazz of Amherst, who during the June 18 Equity Task Force meeting allegedly referred to a white middle school student who was involved in a racist assault.

Reprimand of Amherst Equity Task Force Chair over comment

Shabazz is chairman of the task force and, according to a memo from the leaders the town’s three school committees, “spoke about an incident which occurred this spring when secondary students of color decided to identify and beat up the greatest student racist they could find.”

An investigation by the school found no evidence that the student was being racist, and that Shabazz’s comments created an “outing” of the student who has been labeled a racist, according to the memo.

“I’m scared of what’s going on, I’m scared for the kids,” said Michael Hootstein, a Shutesbury resident whose grandson is an eighth-grader at the middle school.

Hootstein has been an advocate for “restorative justice,” which focuses on the needs of both the victims and the offenders, since his wife survived a shooting in Asheville, North Carolina, in the 1990s.

The school administration, he said, should be up front about any incidents that are occurring, no matter the race of the aggressor or the victim.

“This secrecy is really dangerous,” Hootstein said. School officials, he said, “have a duty to tell us about what acts are happening at the school and any violations of civil rights.”

Others interviewed Monday agreed.

“I think they should be transparent about that,” said Amherst resident Stacey Temple, when presented with the memo school officials sent to the Equity Task Force last week.

Amherst resident Elana Osborne, a semi-retired psychologist and credentialed school administrator who works as an educational consultant, said Shabazz stepped over a line if he made the comments as alleged at the June 18 meeting.

“To identify or to talk about individual cases is not appropriate,” said Osborne, who was at the War Memorial pool next to the Amherst Regional High School with her grandchildren Monday.

If in fact a group of students set out to target another student based on race, she finds that deplorable. “We have to be positive instead of having a vendetta culture,” Osborne said.

Having observed the responses to racial incidents at the high school this year, Osborne gives the school administration high marks for how it has handled them.

“I think all of us are sickened by the tension that has arisen,” she said. “I’ve admired the delicate balance that the School Committee has maintained in this very delicate issue. It has to protect the privacy of all the people involved. I feel that the administration has conveyed a sense of dismay about the incidents and they have taken action in trying to take steps to change the climate.”

Shavahn Best, an Amherst Town Meeting member who has children going into the first and eighth grades, said she has been following the controversy surrounding Shabazz’s alleged comments. She first learned about them and the alleged incident from the newspaper. Best said she believes Shabazz was being unfairly accused of impropriety for what sounded to her like appropriate remarks.

“It’s not newsworthy because there are white racist students just like there are white racist adults,” Best said. “I can say that, too, but I’m not going to be called out because I’m not a black man who is on an anti-racism task force.”

Best said she feels the accusations against Shabazz have diverted the discussion from where it should be.

“To call him out for calling a white student a racist, as if that’s a racist comment, is misguided and erroneous,” she said.

Others say that while school administrators have done well and reacted quickly to racial incidents when they occur, the response is always reactionary.

“They’ve been oblivious to what’s going on,” said Keith Dixon, 17, who will be a senior at the high school next year and said he believes the problems could get worse before they get better. “There’s got to be some way they can be proactive about these things.”

Apart from the latest report out of the middle school, officials have had to deal with at least two other high-profile incidents this past school year, including anonymous racist slurs and notes that forced former Amherst high school math teacher Carolyn Gardner to leave her job. Also this year, a white student’s use of the N-word in a congratulatory message to a friend on a Facebook post, and a subsequent comment indicating he was bringing a gun to school for protection, forced the school to close in January and to ban that student, Dylan Akalis, from participating in graduation ceremonies. Those incidents led to the creation of the Equity Task Force.

Like others interviewed, Dixon said he had no inkling of the middle school student who school officials say was “aggressively and seriously assaulted” this past spring. With brothers in the elementary and middle schools, “I would have heard about it if it happened,” Dixon said.

Jacob Kris, 16, will be in the 11th grade next year and had not heard of the incident referred to in the memo. Generally speaking, he feels school officials have overreacted to the events of the past year.

“I think it’s just stupid,” he said. “It’s a school, it’s not a business.”

Tabitha Klamm, 18, who graduated from Amherst Regional High School this year, also was not aware of the incident Shabazz brought to light. Her take on the events of this year were that the administration didn’t do enough to keep students informed.

“They kind of keep us in the dark,” Klamm said, noting that it took many months before students learned of the events that led to Gardner’s departure.

Describing a video shown at the school of Carolyn Gardner addressing the students, Klamm said, “it made me feel like she was playing the race card and trying to make us feel bad. ... But it’s not my place to judge because I don’t know the whole story.”

The situation that led to Gardner’s departure was troublesome, some Amherst parents said.

“It disturbed me,” said Carolyn Holmes, an African-American woman who has a son at Crocker Farm School. “I think any issue you have, you should try to handle it as quickly as possible.”

She said the racial problems in Amherst do not seem so large compared to the Springfield school system, where her son was previously enrolled.

“In Springfield, I’ve seen the gamut,” Holmes said. “Overall, with the people I’ve met at the (Amherst) elementary levels, and from all different backgrounds, I’ve had a wonderful and positive experience.”

Sitting on a bench nearby at the Mill River Recreation Area was Deep Chinappa, who was a class parent at the Fort River School where he has two children enrolled. Chinappa said he believes Amherst officials must be more transparent and that parents in the elementary school have been worried about how school officials are handling situations in the school system.

“I feel like there is no clarity in terms of the whole lockdowns of the schools,” Chinappa said. “It was unusual to have that many lockdowns. What is really going on?”

Taj-Amir Torres, 17, who will be a senior at the high school next year, was walking past the tennis courts near the middle school. He was not aware of the incident in the memo. Commenting on the racial incidents of this past year, he said, “It’s not a big deal. We have to find a common ground, obviously.

“Sometimes in life you just have to let things go, because not everything is fair,” he added. “There is a lot of racial tension, so you have to focus on things that are more important, like school and sports.”

Racial tensions are not the only problems that lead to physical altercations and bullying in the Amherst schools either, former and current high school students say.

Students of different races can end up in fights, verbal or physical, but the reason doesn’t always involve race, according to Dixon. He recalled how during the past year, a high school student or students were disciplined after a fight over the theft of expensive sneakers.

As a new student at the high school, Dane Manderfield, now 20, talked about how he was repeatedly thrown into bushes by a group of students because of his reddish-orange curly hair. The assaults eventually ended when he physically beat one of his assailants, he said.

“It’s a smaller form of racism, but it’s still there,” said Manderfield, while hanging out with some friends outside a downtown cafe in Amherst. “It’s always been there, but people care about it more now.”

Fred Lowenthal, 17, said he dropped out of the high school last year because he didn’t want to be a part of the school community anymore.

“I see students getting bullied in the high school all the time,” said Lowenthal, wearing a Donald Duck baseball cap and walking through downtown Amherst. “There are kids getting harassed every day, by other students.”

“I don’t want to be part of a community that turns their heads,” he said. “They (school staff) do their best, but honestly, it’s not enough.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com. Gazette Staff Writer Scott Merzbach contributed to this story.