Amherst school panel reverses reprimand of Amilcar Shabazz over use of ‘racist’ term for student
Amilcar Shabazz, right, an Amherst School Committee member, speaks during a vigil at Amherst Regional High School in April 2014 for Carolyn Gardner, a teacher at the school who has been the target of racist graffiti. Beside him is Jean Fay, from right, president of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, Sarah Talbot, a paraeducator, Terry Ominsky, a secretary, and others. Purchase photo reprints »
Amilcar Shabazz, chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at Umass, is now a candidate for the Amherst School Committee. Purchase photo reprints »
PELHAM — A quorum of the Amherst Regional School Committee on Monday faulted the decision of its chairman to reprimand member Amilcar Shabazz for allegedly calling an unidentified middle school student a racist.
But to those who signed the memo that chastised Shabazz for his comments, including Chairman Lawrence O’Brien and Katherine Appy, chairwoman of the Amherst School Committee, the afternoon session at the Pelham Community Center violated the Open Meeting Law because it was not called by the chairman, ran counter to school committee policy and undermined legal advice from the school district counsel Regina Tate.
At the same time, Shabazz used the meeting as an opportunity to issue an apology and make his first public comments since the memo came out.
“I profoundly regret how my words were misunderstood,” Shabazz said.
All five members of the nine-member panel who attended Monday’s 45-minute session voted in favor of a resolution to “disavow the process that led to the creation of the memo” signed by O’Brien, Appy and Darius Modestow, chairman of the Pelham School Committee, and stated their full confidence in the work of the School Equity Task Force Shabazz leads.
They also asked for the full school committee to meet at the earliest possible opportunity.
Monday’s meeting, which brought out more than 50 community members, was called by Trevor Baptiste, committee vice chairman and Pelham representative.
Baptiste said the adopted resolution demonstrates how important the task force’s work is to accomplishing both short-term and long-term actions to improve cultural, racial and socieconomic diversity in the schools.
“We need to be a model of how we appropriately use our power,” Baptiste said.
Baptiste said he sees the meeting as healing rifts and uniting members toward the goals of improving education for all students.
“Going forward, in the future, the school committee will be able to demonstrate how to interact with each other,” Baptiste said.
O’Brien, who didn’t attend the session, said in an email Monday night that he continues to support the July 3 memo, issued about two weeks after Shabazz made comments about a school incident in which he is alleged to have described students of color as seeking to beat up “the greatest racist they could find.”
“While I continue to respect of all my colleagues on the regional committee, I also continue to stand by all of the corrective steps the three committee chairs took in response to Professor Shabazz’s comments at the June 18th School Equity Task Force meeting that did an injustice to some of our students and exposed our district to significant legal and financial liability,” O’Brien said. “Since today’s gathering was not an official meeting of the regional committee, the public can rest assured that the protections and measure of justice that resulted from our actions still stand.”
O’Brien has said that the memo brought a measure of justice to children in the district he said were harmed by Shabazz’s statement and gave the committee legal and financial protection from violating both federal and state privacy rights of those same students. He suggested Monday’s vote could expose the five members to legal consequences.
Daniel Robb, a Pelham representative, said it was important to talk about the matters raised recently and ensure that any statements come from the committee as a whole.
“My hope is that soon the entire regional school committee will have a chance to sit together and address all of this,” Robb said.
Appy, who is on vacation, said in an email that she is distressed that five members met in defiance of the Open Meeting Law. O’Brien and Appy, as well as the Leverett and Shutesbury representatives, didn’t attend.
“I stand by the memo that we as chairs sent to members of the Equity Task Force, in our effort to protect individual members of the School Committee and the district from liability,” Appy said.
Appy said she shares the goals of this task force. “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,” Appy said.
Shabazz said Monday he agrees that it was inappropriate for him to bring up the alleged assault in the way he did.
“(But) to make it clear, I called no one a racist,” he said.
He said he also apologizes to the victim that such an assault could happen in a school district he serves.
“I apologize for what that young student endured,” Shabazz said. “I want a district with zero assaults.”
Shabazz’s comments came after a school year in which math teacher Carolyn Gardner, who is black, was repeatedly targeted by racist graffiti and other hostile incidents, and in which a white student at the center of a racial dispute posted a Facebook claim that he was carrying a gun to school for protection.
One of the task force’s aims, he said, will be to find ways to create schools that respect the humanity and dignity of each person — students, teachers and administrators. Shabazz said he will work “harder and smarter” to move the district forward and, through the task force, to find ways to implement corrective measures
He ended his statement recalling the words of Abraham Lincoln.
”We are not enemies, we are friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion might be strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Committee member Kathleen Traphagen said she wants to look forward and get to work and set ground rules, and not hold an inadvertent comment against a member. The task force, she said, can be a place for people to speak their minds and focus on challenging issues.
“We are all going to mess up. This work is very difficult,” Traphagen said.
Two of those who have served as school leaders were in attendance and indicated their support for the vote to disavow the reprimand issued by the chairpeople.
Gaylord Saulsberry, who spent more than two decades as an Amherst Regional High School principal and social studies and English teacher, said he commended the segment of the committee that chose “to meet power face on.”
The school committee, Saulsberry said, has a history of putting a lid on issues that make people feel uncomfortable, and that must change if progress is to be made.
“You must be diligent. You must be forceful,” Saulsberry said.
Susan Kennedy Marx, a former assistant principal at Fort River School, offered an apology to Shabazz, whom she described as being invested in the children in the Amherst schools.
“This is a very sad moment for someone who has loved the community,” Kennedy Marx said.
She said she appreciated that many parents brought their children with them to the meeting.
Like Saulsberry, Kathleen Anderson. president of the Amherst Chapter of the NAACP, described the five members as showing a willingness to stand up to power.
“I’m glad this group of people stood up and said power resides in us,” Anderson said.
Anderson said many issues of disparity have arisen over the decades and many superintendents and school committees have so far been ineffective.
“They need to understand whiteness and what that means for them as white people,” Anderson said.
“This is a great day for the Amherst Regional School Committee,” said Vera Douangmany Cage, a member of the Equity Task Force who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the School Committee against Appy last spring.
Douangmany Cage said the meeting served as an example of an open, transparent and legal process the committee should follow, describing the last 10 days as painful ones for those who are trying to improve the school climate for children of all races.
“The nightmare is over and now the hard work comes into play,” Douangmany Cage said.
She said the meeting showed how the committee could act in a transparent way, arguing that it has resisted hiring people of color to fill positions, despite demands from the community for more diversity among teachers and staff.
Dougnmany Cage said the vote by a majority of the committee illustrated that Shabazz did nothing wrong.
“I’m glad folks are able to see fraud from truth,” she said.