Amherst opted for silence on white student 'aggressively, seriously' assaulted by students of color

Last modified: Friday, July 04, 2014
AMHERST — Amherst’s top school official said Friday a spring incident in which a white student was targeted and “aggressively and seriously” assaulted by students of color was investigated and resolved internally.

Superintendent Maria Geryk said in a telephone interview Friday that the altercation was unrelated to other racial incidents at Amherst Regional High School this past year that led to the creation of an Equity Task Force that is exploring ways to reduce racial tension.

The new incident came to light Thursday when the leaders of the three school committees sent a memo to the task force reprimanding it after the panel’s chairman, Amilcar Shabazz of Amherst, allegedly referred to the white student involved in the incident as racist at a June 18 task force meeting.

That student was targeted, according to the memo Thursday, after students of color decided to “beat up the greatest racist they could find.” An investigation by the school found no evidence that the student was being racist, the memo said.

Geryk declined Friday to answer several questions about the attack, including when and where it took place, whether the white student was injured to the point of needing medical attention and whether the students responsible were disciplined.

“I will not discuss issues related to children because their rights must be protected, whether they are the victim or the aggressor,” Geryk wrote in an email Friday night, in response to follow-up questions from the Gazette.

“Adults must maintain confidentiality, and therefore I will not be providing more specific responses to your questions,” she said. “I would prefer the focus not be on the kids. We are trying to protect the confidentiality of students on both sides of conflicts.”

She said school officials handled the case of the assault internally and spoke with the family of the white student who was assaulted. Geryk said that procedure is standard for the school department.

Geryk said she did not know whether the family went to police to report the attack.

An Amherst police officer on duty at the station Friday said he was not aware of the incident, nor was another officer reached by phone later Friday, who deferred questions to detectives who were off for the July 4 holiday.

Geryk said the attack was not related to earlier racial incidents that led to the task force’s creation. Those included a white student’s use of the N-word in a congratulatory message to a friend on a Facebook post, and his subsequent threat to bring a gun in January that forced the school to close. That student, Dylan Akalis, was later banned from participating in graduation ceremonies. Other incidents included racist slurs and hostile notes aimed at a math teacher, Carolyn Gardner.

“It’s totally unrelated,” Geryk said of the newly disclosed assault. “This was not a situation that was discussed with the School Committee or anyone else.”

Unlike the incident in January, in which the school was forced to close, Geryk said this altercation was not addressed publicly because school officials do not discuss any student discipline issues with the public.

“The incident in January was addressed publicly because it involved a threat that closed the school, and therefore needed to be shared with the public,” she wrote in an email.

As for the letter from the School Committee chairs to the task force, Geryk said leaders of those committees have a responsibility to call attention to things said or done by committee members that are judged to be inappropriate.

Shabazz, who is also a member of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, allegedly referred to the student who was the victim of the assault as a racist, though he was not identified by name.

Two attempts to reach Shabazz for comment in person at his home in Amherst on Friday were unsuccessful, as were telephone calls Friday and Thursday.

Amherst School Committee chairwoman Katherine Appy declined to discuss the incident Thursday, citing student privacy laws, but confirmed in an email to a Gazette reporter that a number of people who attended the June 18 meeting reported the remark by Shabazz and that two School Committee representatives met with him and then sent a letter of apology to the student’s family.

In the letter 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 by Shabazz revealed details about students whose identities are “well known throughout the school community.”

It went on to say, “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, Shabazz 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,” the memo said. “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 publicly exposed this student as one who is racist.”

Phone messages left for O’Brien and Modestow were not returned Friday. Appy’s voicemail said she is away until July 21.

In an email on Thursday, O’Brien said he was “reticent to answer any questions about incidents that happened or might have happened in our schools out of concern that it would jeopardize the privacy or students and their families.” He said the purpose of the memo sent to the Equity Task Force members was “to correct inaccurate information that was discussed at the SETF’s June 18 public meeting.”

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

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.”

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.