Interim teacher hired to replace Carolyn Gardner at Amherst Regional High School

Last modified: Thursday, August 28, 2014
AMHERST — Math teacher Carolyn Gardner, who left her job at Amherst Regional High School in May as anonymous racial and hostile threats aimed at her continued, was not expected to be back in her classroom on the school’s opening day Thursday.Schools Superintendent Maria Geryk and high school Principal Mark Jackson said Wednesday that a replacement teacher has been hired but circumstances will be adjusted if Gardner decides to return.“I wait every day to hear,” said Geryk. “I don’t know what the outcome will be.”Attorney Luke Ryan of the law firm Sasson Turnbull Ryan & Hoose confirmed that he and a partner, Cindy Turnbull, are representing Carolyn Gardner, but beyond that declined to comment. In an email response to a question from the Gazette about legal action Gardner may be contemplating, Ryan wrote, “We are not prepared to make any statements at this time.”Geryk declined to address whether negotiations about Gardner’s work status are taking place. “I’m not going to talk about discussions. What I will say is that I’m waiting to hear what the plans will be. At this moment we know that Carolyn will not be back (Thursday) and we have a wonderful person in place to teach her classes,” she said.That person is Joshua Coutu, a teacher new to the Amherst school district. Jackson called Coutu an “interim teacher.”“We plan those kinds of arrangements for the year,” he said Wednesday. “If that changes, we’re happy to adjust, but right now the plan is for the students to have this particular teacher for the year.”Jackson said he has empathy for Gardner. “Our main concern about Carolyn Gardner is her well-being. Last year affected her deeply — personally and professionally. I’m acutely mindful of the difficult position last year’s circumstance left her in. At the same time, we had to take steps to provide math instruction for her students and we’ve done that in the person of Joshua Coutu.”Geryk said she holds Gardner in high regard. “I wish the best for Carolyn, always.”Gardner has not been available for comment and did not respond to an email from the Gazette Wednesday. Sonji Johnson-Anderson, who is a close friend of Gardner and has spoken for her in the past, said she has not talked to Gardner in the last few days and is not up to date on her plans. She said Gardner is “feeling very stressed. With the new school year starting this is a difficult time for her.”Amherst Regional High School teacher Nina Koch, who worked alongside Gardner in the math department, referred to past public comments she has made about valuing her former colleague’s contributions to the school.“We certainly wish her the best as she moves forward to her next position,” Koch said in an email Wednesday. “She has a lot to offer.”Three other teachers, Shari Abbott, Gloria Davis and Samantha Camera, responded to a request for comment with a joint statement. “Our immediate responses when we learned Carolyn was not returning to teach this year were sadness and disappointment,” they wrote in an email. “Sadness Carolyn will not be here as a valued teacher collaborator and disappointment more students will not benefit from her passion and skills. We will miss her.” Special education teacher Momodou Sarr sent an email Thursday morning. “Walking into the building and knowing that Carolyn was not here broke my heart and I can only imagine how she must be feeling,” he wrote. “We all miss her and especially me, because we were just forming a strong bond as colleagues. That an exceptional teacher who demanded and expected the best from students is unable to carry on the relationship she developed with the majority of students she just met is very unfortunate.”Gardner, who lives in Amherst, began working at Amherst Regional High School last year after teaching for 10 years at Northampton High School.Just two months into her new job, a threatening note naming her was found in a girls’ bathroom. The following morning a racial reference was found on the nameplate on her door. In March a message directed at Gardner including the N-word was found in a girls’ bathroom prompting the teacher to take a leave of absence. Just as she was about to return a week later, a vulgarity aimed at her appeared on a wall in a boys’ bathroom. School and community rallies and vigils were held to support her. When Gardner came back to work in April, school officials took multiple steps to assure her safety, including increasing the monitoring of halls and bathrooms and the hiring of a security guard to accompany her at all times. In May, another hostile note containing her name was found in the school library, which led to Gardner leaving her job for the remainder of the school year. While a suspect was identified in the nameplate incident, police and school officials have been unable to determine who was responsible for the others. Debra Scherban can be reached at dscherban@gazettenet.com.