Controversial comment about racially-motivated 'aggressive' assault in Amherst school has task force member defending chairman’s work

Last modified: Tuesday, July 08, 2014
AMHERST — A member of a new task force exploring ways to reduce racial tensions in the Amherst school system said that its chairman, Amilcar Sha- bazz, is doing “incredibly important and difficult work” and hopes recent controversy surrounding his remarks at a June meeting can be put in the context of the larger discussion taking place.

“Let’s not let one unfortunate comment tarnish the reputation of a dedicated, courageous, and much-needed leader in our community,” Kelly Norris, one of 30 people named to the Equity Task Force, said in a letter to the Gazette.

At a June 18 task force meeting, Sha- bazz, a member of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, is alleged to have referred to a white student who was the victim of a violent assault this spring as a racist. He did not identify the student by name. Leaders of the three school committees subsequently sent a memo to the task force reprimanding it for Shabazz’s comments. In it, they said Shabazz “inappropriately and publically exposed this student as one who is racist.” They also said an investigation by the school found no evidence that the student was being racist.

Reprimand of Amherst Equity Task Force Chair over comment

The white student was targeted and “aggressively and seriously” assaulted, according to the memo, after students of color decided to “beat up the greatest racist they could find.”

Superintendent Maria Geryk said Friday the incident was unrelated to other racial incidents that occurred at Amherst Regional High School this past year. A task force member who declined to speak on the record Sunday said the assault occurred at the middle school. Geryk did not respond to a Sunday message seeking confirmation, though on Friday she declined to discuss details of the assault for student privacy reasons.

In an effort to shed further light on the controversy, the Gazette over the weekend called and emailed 14 members of the task force and 11 members of the Amherst School Committee, the Amherst-Pelham School Committee and the Pelham School Committee.

A handful of the task members said they could not comment because they either weren’t at the June 18 meeting or did not want to speak about the issue. Others did not respond.

Other than Lawrence O’Brien, chairman of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, none of the School Committee members responded. Attempts to speak with Shabazz at his Amherst home Saturday and Sunday night were also unsuccessful.

Geryk said Friday that the incident was investigated and resolved internally, though she would not discuss specifics to protect the confidentiality of the students involved.

It is still unclear whether the student’s family went to police to report the attack. Mary Carey, spokeswoman for the Northwestern district attorney’s office, said the office cannot confirm or deny that it is involved, as is the case with juvenile matters.

Norris’ letter said that at the June meeting, Shabazz was speaking passionately about the need to empower children so that they do not feel they have to resort to violence. During those comments, Shabazz cited the incident where two kids of color assaulted a white student as evidence of the urgent call we have to support students in our schools who are feeling frustrated, Norris said.

“And Shabazz is doing just that,” Norris wrote. “He has demonstrated his concern for the well-being of our youth by stepping up to the task of examining the district’s history of equity and providing leadership for a diverse group of voices to come together and problem solve — no easy feat.”

O’Brien said in an email Saturday that Shabazz made “inappropriate and significantly inaccurate comments” at the task force meeting that were reported to O’Brien and Katherine Appy, Amherst School Committee chairwoman, by task force members and corroborated by others at the meeting.

O’Brien said he and Appy reviewed the statements and deemed Shabazz’s comments unsuitable for a public meeting, particularly coming from an elected official. Superintendent Maria Geryk confirmed that the comments were “considerably erroneous in a manner that was egregiously unjust to one of our students,” O’Brien wrote.

“Ms. Appy and I feel terrible that a fellow Committee member acted this way ...,” O’Brien wrote. “Over the last ten days, we have taken steps to try to correct this injustice that was done to students and families in our school community.”

He said he could provide no information about the assault because the law — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — prohibits him from obtaining any information on it.

Staff writer Gena Mangiaratti contributed to this report.