Remark by Amherst Regional School Committee member allegedly identifying student as ‘racist’ prompts apology, reprimand

Last modified: Friday, July 04, 2014
AMHERST — School officials have reprimanded a task force examining racial issues in the schools after the panel’s chairman allegedly identified a white student involved in racial tensions at Amherst Regional High School as a racist, and have also apologized to the student’s parents.

The remark was allegedly made by Amilcar Shabazz of Amherst, a member of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee and chairman of the Equity Task Force, at a public meeting June 18.

Amherst School Committee chairwoman Katherine Appy declined to discuss the incident, citing student privacy laws, but confirmed in an email that a number of people who attended the meeting reported the remark by Shabazz and that two School Committee representatives met with him and then a sent a letter of apology to the student’s family.

Shabazz could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In a memo sent Thursday to members of the task force, Appy, Lawrence O’Brien, chairman of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, and Darius Modestow, chairman of the Pelham School Committee, said comments Shabazz allegedly made during a description of racial hostilities at the high school revealed details about students whose identities are “well known throughout the school community. The Chair spoke about an incident which occurred this spring when secondary students of color decided to identify and beat up the greatest racist they could find. ... As an official of the Regional School Committee, the Chair risked violating the FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) rights of these students by making this public statement,” the memo said. “The white student was aggressively and seriously assaulted. An investigation was conducted and no issue was raised in the course of the investigation about the student being a racist. Yet the chair has now inappropriately and publically exposed this student as one who is racist.”

According to the memo, 15 members of the 30-person task force were present at the meeting and roughly one-third confirmed the comment made by Shabazz.

Vira Douangmany Cage of Amherst, a parent and member of the task force, said in an email that she stands by Shabazz, although she was not present at the June 18 meeting.

“I decline to comment on hearsay,” she wrote of the claim that Shabazz referred to the white student as a racist. “It is reckless and irresponsible for the district to forward unfounded allegations without a hearing, discussion or investigation. Furthermore, Dr. Shabazz’s position is nowhere in the memo. The chairs jumped the gun on this one.”

Douangmany Cage called for a public meeting “to decry the climate of fear and intimidation emblematic of our school district for speaking the truth to power at all levels.”

The memo reminds task force members that while School Committee policy provides “great latitude for expressing an individual opinion,” it also holds members “to an ethical and legal standard of conduct when representing themselves as Committee members. It is a basic expectation that School Committee members share only correct information and that false accusations not occur.”

Like Appy, O’Brien declined to comment on the incident but said in an email that the purpose of the memo is “to correct inaccurate information that was discussed at the SETF’s June 18 public meeting. Today’s memo is one of a series of corrective steps taken by us to rectify this unfortunate situation,” O’Brien wrote. “I have full confidence in the leadership and members of the School Equity Task Force in their capacity to continue the difficult, but important work they are engaged in on behalf of our schools.”

The task force was formed at the initiative of Shabazz this spring in response to a series of racial incidents at the school. Those included hostilities which were triggered by a white student’s use of the N-word in a congratulatory message to a friend on Facebook post. Other incidents included racist slurs and hostile notes aimed at a math teacher, Carolyn Gardner, who, as a result, left her job before the end of the school year. The task force, made up of School Committee members, school personnel and other members of the community is one of a number of steps the school district is taking to address the tensions.

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