Editorial: Amid Amherst conflict, proper goal is healing

Last modified: Wednesday, July 16, 2014
We read through reporter Scott Merzbach’s story about an unusual Monday meeting in Amherst noticing first the things people disagree about. Later, we searched his account of the Amherst Regional School Committee meeting for points of agreement.

We think it best to start there.

After a bad year for race relations in Amherst schools, and decades of frustration over unequal outcomes for students of different races, 30 people signed up this spring for a task force. This body, led by Amilcar Shabazz, seeks to ensure all Amherst students learn “in an environment that embraces racial, cultural, and socio-economic diversity.”

On Monday, even as they took an action that deserves a special place in municipal meeting history, five of nine members of the regional school committee spoke candidly about their hopes for local education. They agreed that the new task force exists to “provide a venue to heal our community .... This work is paramount for improving the district’s responses to actual as well as perceived inequalities.”

Later Monday, Katherine Appy, chairwoman of the Amherst School Committee, said she too is eager for progress on that front. “I’m hopeful that in the coming months we can get back to our work of improving our schools for every student and continue implementing the important programs and initiatives that strive to finally close our achievement gap.”

And a few days earlier, Lawrence O’Brien, chairman of the regional committee, declared in an email to the Gazette: “I have been and continue to be eager to sign any statement that expresses strong support for the continued work of our School Equity Task Force and Professor Shabazz’s leadership of it.” O’Brien said he voted to create the group and remained “a committed supporter of this endeavor.” Clearly, all parties begin with the same commitment.

The task force’s mission is broad. It seeks to identify what stands in the way of educational fair play, research ways communities seek equality in their schools, gauge how community members perceive equity and recommend improvements.

Not an easy assignment, but a crucial one. And, yes, helping to “heal our community” is an important part of the job description.

People in Amherst will disagree on how much that’s needed, or how readily it can be achieved. But this is the effort now underway. Dozens are showing up for meetings hopeful they can make a difference by working together.

There is all that pleasing goodwill — and then there is the unfortunate conflict: disputes over words spoken at a June 18 task force meeting, first, and now Monday’s odd school committee session, convened under protest from O’Brien, its chair, who boycotted it along with three other members.

This all demonstrates just how badly reconciliation is needed.

The dispute began following a June 18 meeting at which Shabazz seemed to label an unnamed middle school student a “racist.” That word came up during a discussion of an assault that took place at the middle school, in which two students of color beat up the white student. While there is debate about what Shabazz said, there is no escaping the fact this assault took place. (Still missing is any account of that racially motivated attack, which school officials characterized as aggressive.)

After hearing accounts of what Shabazz said, O’Brien, Appy and Darius Modestow, the chairman of the Pelham School Committee, decided to send a July 3 memo reprimanding Shabazz. They said he violated student privacy.

On Monday, members of the regional committee — minus four colleagues — acknowledged that what Shabazz said caused “confusion and distress.” But they declared that the move to sanction him was ill-considered and anti-democratic, since they had not been consulted.

We hope those who cheered Monday’s vote to lift the cloud from Shabazz take this win gracefully and put this statement of confidence in the task force to good effect. O’Brien, chairman of the regional committee, can show his support for the task force by accepting Monday’s reversal and not continuing to argue the session was held illegally.

He asserted Friday that as chair, he is the only one who can call a special meeting. The town clerk in Shutesbury, seeking guidance on the legality of the meeting from the attorney general’s office, was informed state law does not specify who on a committee holds that authority.

Disagreements like that are not unusual in the law. It’s why we have layers of courts in the judicial system. But this is not a legal dispute worth litigating.

No one can deny that a legal majority of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School gathered Monday and rejected the decision to reprimand Shabazz. Its action — crafting a statement at a widely announced public meeting — was in keeping with the spirit of the Open Meeting Law.

More importantly, the committee’s judicious message embraced the shared hope that good people, working together, can improve on the promise of equal access to education.