Amherst teachers decry parent’s ‘abusive actions,’ call on administration to act

  • Members of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, wear red shirts to show their solidarity during a meeting of the Amherst Regional School Committee, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019 at Amherst Regional High School. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Teachers union members applaud after a speech by union president Mick O’Connor, front, at the Amherst Regional School Committee meeting Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mick O'Connor, at microphone, who is the president of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, speaks to the Amherst Regional School Committee, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2019 at Amherst Regional High School. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/10/2019 11:34:36 PM

AMHERST — Fearing that a safe learning environment is being lost at the public schools, the head of the local teachers union is calling on the school administration to take immediate action to end a series of personal attacks and ongoing harassment directed at teachers.

In what he called an “urgent warning,” Mick O’Connor, president of the Amherst Pelham Education Association, told the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee Tuesday that a hostile workplace has been created mostly by one parent, whose tactics of disparaging the district he said have been enabled by appeasement and inaction by Superintendent Michael Morris and his team.

“The administration must act now to end harassment and abusive actions aimed at educators,” O’Connor said. His remarks were followed by loud and lengthy applause from about 50 members of the union, most wearing red, along with several supporters, who packed into the high school library.

O’Connor said teachers can’t stand by if what they view as abusive behavior continues. “We shall do whatever necessary to protect the safety of educators and students,” O’Connor said.

While O’Connor did not identify the parent at the heart of the complaint, a memo sent out in advance “to denounce the hateful attacks” identified her as Chrissy Ryan, and stated that she is using “her position as a student advocate to harass and bully staff members of the Amherst and Amherst Regional schools.”

The teachers’ memo states further: “She has targeted teachers, service providers, paraeducators, and ETL’s with racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic language and personal attacks. She has also attacked the personal and professional integrity of many APEA members at meetings, in emails, and on a blog she writes.”

Ryan, who was present at the meeting, attempted to defend her blog, public records requests, emails and public comments.

“I was repeatedly discussed in this forum and I am going to speak here uninterrupted,” Ryan said.

But when she continued to speak beyond the 3-minute time limit for public comments and refused to heed acting Chairwoman Allison McDonald’s gavel, the meeting was recessed.

Ryan then demanded that the contents of what she was going to read be placed in the minutes of the meeting.

At a forum last month, Ryan told School Committee members that she doesn’t recognize their authority because they have violated student and teacher civil rights, and haven’t addressed “a lack of allocation of equal spending in the budget that has harmed marginalized students and families.”

At that time, she called her blog an effort at promoting transparency and argued that she was not bullying or harassing anyone. “It’s me as a parent and looking at this group and saying where is your accountability,” Ryan said.

Morris praised the district’s educators and talented staff members and sympathized with the concept that they shouldn’t feel attacked as employees.

“We are working to support staff in all avenues possible,” Morris said.

That is coming, in part, through the committee’s adoption of a revised anti-harassment policy, which was adopted Tuesday by a 7-0 vote.

That policy spells out harassment of protected classes and a higher standard of conduct, which “clarifies that there is conduct that, although not unlawful harassment based on protected class status, could still interfere with work or academic performance by creating an environment that is not conducive to professional academic and/ or social-emotional success for students or employees.”

The union’s concerns about maintaining a safe work environment were echoed by Katherine Appy, a former Amherst School Committee chairwoman. Appy said local politics can be contentious and mean-spirited, but that what has been happening in recent months is a new level of “venom and unfounded smears” and “character assassination”

Farah Ameen, a parent of a Crocker Farm School student, said it is “disgusting and disheartening” to see the safe space of classrooms being disrupted.

Jim Brissette, parent of a 2015 high school graduate, endorsed the anti-harassment policy.

“I urge you to take whatever action you can as promptly and quickly as you can,” Brissette said.

“This is really about protecting the people who work in this district,” said parent Deb Leonard.

But Ryan’s approach to bringing up sensitive issues, such as disparity in discipline among children of color compared to white students, and raising questions about how money is being spent, also had support from some in the audience.

Caridad Martinez, a member of the School Equity Task Force, said the School Committee needs to better investigate and deal with the topics.

“Address it in a proper way, address it in an official way,” Martinez said.

Mary Lou Conca of Shutesbury said the ire of teachers and the School Committee was being misdirected at Ryan.

“Don’t shoot the messenger. Listen to the messenger,” Conca said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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