Amherst-Pelham school union doubles down on call to investigate superintendent’s ‘failures’

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 08-03-2023 10:48 PM

AMHERST — Having already taken a no-confidence vote in Superintendent Michael Morris, the union representing the teachers, paraprofessionals and clerical staff in the Amherst-Pelham public schools is reiterating its appeal for the Regional School Committee to launch an investigation into what it calls “failures” of his leadership.

A statement issued by the Amherst-Pelham Education Association late Wednesday comes as a Title IX complaint into gender-based bullying at the Amherst Regional Middle School continues to be investigated and after Morris unveiled an in-depth plan to make the schools a safe and comfortable learning environment for all students in the coming school year.

“While the APEA supports an impartial and independent investigation into the Title IX complaint around anti-LGBTQIA+ issues at Amherst Regional Middle School, the union is also calling for a separate inquiry into the failures of Dr. Michael Morris’s leadership, failures that encompass but go beyond the Title IX gender discrimination issues,” the statement reads. “The investigator should be agreed-upon by both the Regional School Committee and the APEA.”

The latest union appeal supplements the May 13 no-confidence vote in both Morris and Doreen Cunningham, the assistant superintendent for diversity, equity and human resources. The union has also asked for Cunningham’s resignation.

In an email Thursday, Sarahbess Kenney, a Pelham representative who serves as vice chairwoman of the Regional School Committee, said that a previous response from Amherst representative Ben Herrington, who chairs the committee, stands. Though there were demands by those at a rally in support of LGBTQ students on July 28 at the middle school to investigate Morris and put him on leave, Herrington said there is no intention to call a special meeting or to make that decision.

Morris, who had begun a two-month medical leave at the time of the union’s no-confidence vote, returned to his position in mid-July.  Cunningham is currently on administrative leave, and has filed a complaint to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination contending she was discriminated against on the basis of gender, race and religion.

An article in The Graphic, the high school newspaper, in May outlined how three middle school counselors intentionally misgendered students, brought prayer into the schools and didn’t intervene when gender-based bullying was occurring.

The APEA’s no-confidence vote cited the what it characterized as Morris’ failure to address actions that harmed students and created toxic work conditions; his failure to properly supervise the district offices and people in his employ, especially Cunningham; his failure to promptly deal with complaints of anti-LGBTQIA+ behavior on the part of some staff members, which created an unsafe environment for children, especially those whose identities are marginalized; and his failure to collaborate with staff in planning how to support positive leadership in the schools.

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“It strains credulity that Dr. Morris, as he has publicly claimed, did not know about bullying and intentional misgendering of students by some other students and a few staff,” says Claire Cocco, ARMS teacher and APEA communications chair. “Especially when many other staff were taking the lead and raising red flags with the administration.”

The union claims that Morris approved the granting of early professional teacher status to two of the counselors who remain on leave during the Title IX investigation, even though such status is usually earned after three years of observations and evaluations by administration, and provides an added layer of protection from job dismissal.

Union: Systemic issue isin administration

While Morris has offered a plan to address LGBTQIA+ issues in the district, including staff training and professional development, the teachers union is rejecting the implication that anti-LGBTQIA+ activities are systemic within the schools.

“In fact, the vast majority of staff are proactive and sensitive about teaching queer issues and topics, about giving students room to explore and honor their identities, and even about teaching each other through internal professional development,” the union said in its statement. “The systemic issue, the APEA contends, lies with this administration’s lack of responsiveness to concerns about student well-being in favor of protecting certain staff.”

Peter Demling, an Amherst representative on the Regional School Committee, said he has previously questioned whether the no-confidence vote was as strong as the union contends, pointing to a letter from seven educators, submitted as a public comment, that they supported Morris returning to his role when he was healthy, as well as accusations from the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and Massachusetts Association of School Committees that such “tactics are designed and intended to discredit district leaders, particularly during contentious contract negotiations.”

Speaking for himself, Demling said he doesn’t understand why the union would question the need for professional development and personal growth, though also appreciating that there can be a natural defensive resistance to doing so.

“I think confronting our own bias like this takes real and sustained effort, and we surely go about it imperfectly and with varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment over the course of our lives,” Demling said. “But I think embracing the challenge — and supporting others doing the same — is the best way for us to collectively improve the way we treat each other.”

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