Amherst Regional School Committee to air differences over task force member’s comments, reprimand

Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2014
AMHERST — The vice chairman of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee has called a meeting for Monday to address comments about a racial assault involving middle school students that were made by the leader of a task force set up to deal with racial issues.

But the meeting could unfold without one prominent participant: Committee chairman Lawrence O’Brien said he has no plans for a board meeting in July.

Trevor Baptiste, who has expressed anger over the reprimand of fellow committee member Amilcar Shabazz by the three chairmen of the school committees that serve the Amherst school district, said he wants to get School Committee members together to address the issue face to face “rather than sniping from a distance through the media.”

Baptiste said the meeting will take place at 4 p.m. Monday in the Pelham Library, 2 South Valley Road. On Wednesday, he was posting notices of the meeting in the town halls of the four communities — Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury — that make up the Amherst Regional School District.

Baptiste said he does not want Monday’s meeting to devolve into “hurling accusations.” He said he wants School Committee members “to use our power to make a statement and to respect all of us on the School Committee.”

But O’Brien, the board’s recently elected head, said in an email message to the Gazette Wednesday that he had no intention of scheduling a School Committee meeting in July. He did not respond to the question of whether he would attend the meeting convened by Baptiste. Baptiste, however, said he got word that O’Brien would not be there.

“It is unfortunate because I was hoping that we could put this unfortunate thing behind us,” Baptiste said.

The three chairmen, O’Brien, Katherine Appy of the Amherst School Committee and Darius Modestow of the Pelham School Committee, sent a strongly worded memo July 3 to Shabazz and 30 members of the Schools Equity Task Force, which was formed to examine racial tensions in the schools.

They chastised Shabazz for referring to an unnamed white student, reportedly assaulted by three students of color, as a racist when describing the attack at a task force meeting June 18. They said that a school investigation found no evidence that the student was being racist. The incident was not reported to police, at the request of the family, according to an Amherst police official, and school leaders have declined to release any details.

However, in their memo, O’Brien, Appy and Modestow said the identities of the students involved were widely known within the school community and that Shabazz risked violating federal student privacy laws by mentioning the incident, even though Shabazz did not name any of the students. They sent a letter of apology to the victim’s parents.

Baptiste had said earlier this week that the Regional School Committee never discussed taking those steps and he was angry that the chairmen did so without consulting other board members. He also expressed concerns that the actions were taken in violation of the Open Meeting Law.

He said his decision to call School Committee members together Monday is an attempt to rectify that. “The purpose is for the School Committee to address the controversy. That’s the way is it supposed to work. That is the normal order of things.”

Baptiste said that while the meeting would entail “admonishing” O’Brien for sending the memo and the letter of apology without the consent of the Regional School Committee, the next step would be to decide how the committee could “speak with one voice” on the issue.

Baptiste said he did not speak to O’Brien himself but plans to contact him personally before the meeting.

“If he is to air out in the open what he thought was Shabazz’s mistake, this would be the time to do it,” Baptiste said. “It undermines the School Committee as a whole to move the way he has been moving, admonishing folks without us deliberating and agreeing that this is the way forward. I hope he can see the logic of this.”

Baptiste said he did not know about the racial attack Shabazz referred to at the June 18 meeting until the memo became public.

Shabazz has been out of town and has not responded to emails and telephone calls from the Gazette seeking comment.

Baptiste said Wednesday that Shabazz will be back late Friday night, and though he has not spoken to him, he expects he will attend the meeting Monday.

“I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t be there,” Baptiste said.

He added, however, that with it being summer vacation season, School Committee members are traveling in and out of town. Still, he said, he expects to get a quorum of five Monday.

Appy is on vacation. She and O’Brien have both said Sha-
bazz’s comments were inappropriate and called for the measures they took.

O’Brien said in an email earlier this week that he does not think the chairmen violated the Open Meeting Law in planning the steps they took because they do not belong to the same public body. While preparing the memo, he said, “there was always fewer than a quorum of the members of a public body” present.

He said the memo warned Shabazz and other members of the task force to be cautious when discussing students because their committee is an offshoot of the Regional School Committee.

“The wording of the memo was a reflection of both the legal and ethical seriousness of the School Committee’s member’s actions on June 18th,” he said in that email. “When a person is elected to a School Board or any other public body they have a moral obligation to communicate thoughtfully, respectfully and carefully when carrying out her or his duties. The statement made at the Task Force meeting on June 18th indicated a lapse in respect and care of specific children and their families in our community.”

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