Many officials OK with Amherst school's handling of racially-motivated assault, community still has questions

Last modified: Tuesday, July 08, 2014
AMHERST — A white middle school student was attacked this spring by students of color apparently because of his skin color, but school officials did not report it to police at the request of the victim’s parents.

That fact was confirmed by an Amherst police captain Monday, though details on the assault remained sketchy.

And while police and Amherst’s town manager offered support for the school department’s internal handling of the assault, others in the community are raising questions.

Chief among them: Did the leader of a task force against racism violate privacy laws — and should he have been reprimanded last week?

Police Capt. Jennifer Gundersen said Monday that police confirmed that the assault occurred by talking with school officials earlier in the day.

Gundersen confirmed that the fight involving four middle school students took place, but declined to discuss details, including the racial identities of the students involved and whether the fight took place on or off school property. “I am not concerned that they did not report this because they took the request of the parents into consideration,” Gundersen said.

She said she had no information about whether it was an incident of bullying or a hate crime. A spokesman for the Northwestern District attorney’s office said the DA will not confirm nor deny whether it is investigating a case involving juveniles.

Town Manager John Musante said he, too, has no concerns over how the matter was handled. “The school department has protocols which were followed,” he said.

The incident came to light when it was mentioned by School Committee member Amilcar Shabazz at a meeting June 18 of an Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee task force formed to study racial tensions in the schools.

Shabazz’s remark, which was said to refer to the white student as a racist, prompted a memo from the chairmen of the three school committees that serve the Amherst school district, chastising him for bringing the incident up and warning him that he risked violating federal student privacy law.

Shabazz, who is also a member of the Regional School Committee, has been out of town and has not responded to emails and telephone calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, the vice chairman of the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee, Trevor Baptiste, is angry that the chairmen — Lawrence O’Brien of the regional committee, Katherine Appy of the Amherst committee and Darius Modestow of the Pelham committee — wrote the memo and a letter on behalf of their committees apologizing to the white student’s family for public disclosure of the incident.

Baptiste said the Regional School Committee never met to discuss taking those actions. “I am really concerned that this is a violation of the Open Meeting law,” he said Monday in a telephone interview. “A decision was made for the body without the body being informed. I’m pretty perturbed by that.”

Baptiste said he did not know about the racial attack until the memo became public.

He said the chairmen were out of line and that he planned to call a meeting of the full board to disavow the steps they took.

“However egregious the chairman thinks this is, he has to bring it to us in open session to discuss,” he said.

Appy is on vacation and did not respond to requests for comment Monday. She and and O’Brien have both said Shabazz’s comments were inappropriate and called for the measures they took.

O’Brien said Monday he does not think the chairmen violated the Open Meeting Law because they do not all belong to the same public body.

Michael Burkart, a task force member, said he spoke by telephone to Shabazz, who is visiting family members down South, during the weekend and learned that Shabazz brought the issue up at the meeting to underscore the serious problems that exist in the schools. “He talked about this as an example of how we’ve got to gain an understanding of what leads kids to do this,” said Burkart, who was not present at the meeting.

Burkart said he had no details about the assault.

Betsy Dinger, the former Amherst Regional Middle School principal who stepped down July 1 to return to teaching, could not be reached for comment.

The story revealed

Superintendent of Schools Maria Geryk, O’Brien and Appy have earlier declined to discuss the incident, citing student confidentiality laws. But in the memo sent to task force members last Thursday, they said a white student was “aggressively and seriously” assaulted by students of color in an incident that was “well known throughout the community” and that Shabazz was at risk for violating the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act by discussing it in public.

They said his description of the incident, saying “students of color decided to identify and beat up the greatest racist student they could find,” had the effect of identifying the white student as a racist and that in the investigation of the incident “no issue was raised about the student being a racist.”

After meeting with Shabazz, they sent a letter of apology to the student and his parents and cautioned committee members about “legal and ethical standards of conduct when representing themselves as Committee members.”

Russell Vernon Jones, a retired elementary school principal and member of the task force, who was at the meeting, which was attended by about 25 people, said Shabazz did not name anyone, “and most of us sitting there had no idea who the students were he was talking about.”

He said Shabazz’s mistake was in saying the students of color went after the “greatest racist student in the school,” when, in fact, Vernon Jones said, what he has heard since, is that the students of color zeroed in on the “whitest student in the school.”

O’Brien has said that he sent the memo to correct inaccuracies in Shabazz’s description to the task force.

Vernon said Shabazz’s discussion of the incident followed reports by Amherst Regional High School Principal Mark Jackson and Dinger about positive steps their schools had taken concerning race relations over the past school year. Shabazz, he said, remarked that despite the good work there continued to be issues of racial tension and inequity in the schools and it was part of task force’s job to address those issues and to come up with recommendations in regard to them.”

Burkart, who was not at the meeting, said after discussing the matter with Shabazz it was clear to him that Shabazz did not intend to characterize the white student as a racist.

“Inevitably you do things in which he outcome doesn’t match the intention” he said, adding that he is also certain that Shabazz’s comments did not violate the privacy act, as the School Committee chairmen warned in the memo.

According to the U.S. Department of Education website, FERPA “generally prohibits the improper disclosure of personally identifiable information derived from educational records. Thus information that an official obtained through personal knowledge or observation or has heard orally from others, is not protected under FERPA.”

Baptiste noted that because Shabazz is not a teacher or an administrator, he doesn’t have access to material that would allow him to violate the law.

O’Brien noted that the memo stated only that Shabazz risked violating the privacy law.

“The most important point, however, is that our legal counsel vetted our memorandum and confirmed the legal validity of our statement about FERPA rights,” O’Brien said.

Baptiste said the chairmen’s memo hurts Shabazz’s reputation.

“Dr. Shabazz is beyond reproach,” Baptiste said. “The work of the Equity Task Force is very serious, important work for the district and I fear this will undermine it.”

Task force’s mission

Burkart pointed out that the equity task force, made up of School Committee members, school staff and other community members, was initiated by Shabazz — a supported by the Regional School Committee — to address racial tensions that marred the recent school year at Amherst Regional High School.

Those included racist notes and graffiti that forced a black math teacher to leave her job in May and a fight between students of color and a white student over the white student’s casual use of the N-word which boiled over into hostilities in January. Those led to the white student saying he was being bullied and was carrying a gun to school for protection.

Referring to the spring incident involving the middle school students, Burkart said, “Shabazz mentions that something disturbing is going on in our culture. In this case kids of color are hunting for a white kid. We have to understand what’s going on so we can intercept that kind of pattern so that it doesn’t continue and kids in the school learn how to deal with race in a way that’s a whole lot more productive.”

Baptiste said the task force was formed to gather information from the community that the School Committee has not been getting from school leaders.

“There are so many things that happen in the schools that we aren’t privy to because we get our reports from the superintendent who gives us the rosiest picture possible.” The task force, he said, gives community members a forum to report what they know.

“So if in the process of this a story comes out about something that actually happened, I can’t help but see (the chairmen’s actions) as a heavy-handed tactic to prevent such reports from getting to us.”

Burkart said that the chairmen’s reprimand of Shabazz is having a negative effect on people in Amherst’s communities of color who already don’t believe the board reflects their views or listens to their concerns.

“They’re upset,” he said.

Vernon Jones said concern over Shabazz’s comments could have been better handled through a conversation with Shabazz. “Instead we get a memo from the three committee chairs very critical of Dr. Shabazz. I think it is very unfortunate to have the School Committee chairs publicly criticizing and undermining one of their colleagues whom they have voted to take on this very important work. In my opinion Dr. Shabazz is doing an excellent job.”

Pat Ononibaku, an Amherst restaurant owner, has had five of her own children pass through the Amherst school system and has foster children attending the schools now.

She declined to discuss what she knows of the attack on the white middle school student, saying the situation has become “too volatile” but said she wanted to apologize to him.

“I do not condone or support any form of violence, physical, emotional, psychological, including bullying,” she said. She added that she hopes the students of color who were the aggressors get help in non-violent conflict resolution and managing frustration.”

But, she said, the reprimand of Shabazz has been upsetting to the youth of color in town that she knows.

“They feel that a leader they look up to is being disrespected. ... It’s a deflection, an attempt to humiliate him, to silence him and to shame him.”

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