Amherst teachers denounce attacks on tolerance, inclusivity

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-24-2023 6:37 PM

AMHERST — The union representing teachers is calling on Superintendent Michael Morris to do more to promote a culture of tolerance and inclusivity at the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham regional schools, including showing support for individuals who identify as LGBTQ and endorsing racial equity by adding anti-racism to the district’s commitment to multiculturalism.

On Friday, the Amherst-Pelham Educators Association issued a statement that it stands in opposition to actions that undermine students’ rights “to a safe, supportive and LGBTQIA+ inclusive PreK-12 education and schooling experience.”

“Extremely harmful and dangerous attacks on public education and marginalized youth are occurring in many states and school districts in the United States, including legal attacks on curricula involving critical race theory and African American history and the histories of other marginalized racial groups, the criminalization of gender-affirming health care services for transgender youth, and the banning of drag performances (i.e. criminalization of gender non-conforming presentation); Amherst is no exception,” the union wrote.

Morris said Monday that the sentiments in the APEA statement are aligned with his views.

“I agree with the principles expressed in the APEA statement ‘In Support of LGBTQIA+ and Racial Equity,” Morris said. “The district has provided extensive diversity, equity and inclusion professional development for all faculty and staff over the past several years, and I look forward to partnering with the APEA as we continue with this vital work.”  

The union’s statement comes as an unrelated letter circulated in advance of Tuesday’s Amherst Regional School Committee meeting advocating for people to come to that session to speak out against allegations that employees at the Amherst Regional Middle School “have been counseling queer students to deny their queer identity and to follow Christian principles and have been praying and reading Bible verses with them on campus during the school day.”

“This is in direct conflict with the state’s anti-bullying law, gender identity law, and student anti-discrimination law and should be addressed immediately given the life threatening short- and long-term effects of conversion therapy,” the letter reads.

That letter was written by Gazit Chaya Nkosi, parent of a child at Crocker Farm School. Nkosi said the information in the letter came from secondhand information, not direct knowledge of anything that might be occurring at the middle school.

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Morris said there are ways to address the matters.

“We encourage anyone who has any concern about a student’s experience at ARPS to report it to either the school principal, the superintendent, or Dr. Marta Guevara, Title IV Officer,” Morris said. “All complaints received are taken seriously and investigated following the process outlined in our employee contracts and school committee policy.”

Claire Cocco, a middle school teacher who handles communication for the APEA, said the issues covered in the union’s statement have been important to educators for years, and that a committee was formed to draft a statement, approved by the APEA representative council on April 13.

“A statement was deemed needed at this time due to community concerns around these issues,” Cocco said.

The Amherst-Pelham Education Association’s statement, beyond asking Morris to create an inclusive education that values every student, including respecting each student’s gender identity, gender presentation, pronouns and sexual orientation, asks that racial equity be a foundation of education in the public schools: “To counteract this harm, we fully believe we need to become culturally responsive and actively anti-racist practitioners. This means we will engage in our own racial identity work, explore and interrupt our implicit biases, build our understanding of the dimensions of identity, strengthen our knowledge of how culture operates in our classrooms, and build actively anti-racist practices.”

Morris is also asked to collaborate with the union to develop a system for safely reporting acts of racism and anti-LGBTQ actions by staff and students, and to make a written commitment and to stop all comments that are anti-LGBTQ in any form.

Actions will also be taken by the union that are in aligned with the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“The APEA will engage all students, staff and building administration to learn about, teach, discuss, have visible references for, and provide books on topics related to racial, gender, socio-economic, queer, linguistic, and disability justice and reflect identities and histories beyond a dominant white, English-speaking, cisgender male, heterosexual, upper and middle class, able-bodied, neurotypical, Christian paradigm of the U.S.’s history and present day.”

“The APEA will support individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+, place racial equity at the center of our educational practices, goals and institutions and interrupt racism.”

The full statement can be read at https://apea.massteacher.org/.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>