Demling becomes 3rd member of Amherst School Committee to resign this week, cites ‘nonstop personal attacks’

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 08-25-2023 4:53 PM

AMHERST — Peter Demling, a member of the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees since 2017, has resigned, becoming the third member to leave the panels in the past week and, like those who did do before him, is citing facing a “relentless stream of bullying and personal attacks.”

“Thank you for the support you’ve given me over the years and for the opportunity to serve our schools,” Demling wrote in a post to his official Facebook page Friday morning. “I feel like I’ve worked hard and made a positive difference, but after more than six years in the Amherst spotlight, the non-stop personal attacks just got to be too much to take on a daily basis.”

Demling joins Allison McDonald, who resigned Thursday, and Ben Herrington, who resigned Monday, leaving the Amherst School Committee with just two active members, Irv Rhodes and Jennifer Shiao. The full Town Council and Shiao and Rhodes are having a joint virtual meeting Monday to discuss the process for getting new members to serve on an interim basis. All five School Committee seats are also up for election at the Nov. 7 town election, with the winners to be seated on Jan. 2

The committee resignations means that Amherst doesn’t currently have majority membership on the Regional School Committee, with four of the six active members from Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett.

Meanwhile, Sarah Hall, who chairs the Pelham School Committee, also resigned this month.

Demling’s departure comes a week after a separation agreement for Superintendent Michael Morris was announced. Morris informed Demling, as then chairman of the Union 26 Committee, and Herrington, as then chairman of the Regional committee, that his leadership was untenable as a Title IX investigation into alleged harms committed against LGBTQ students at the middle school continues. Morris will work his last day on Thursday.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Easthampton to use $100K to assess Town Lodging House site for affordable housing; neighbors upset with plans
Fan base conflicted on UMass’ decision to leave Atlantic 10, move to the MAC
South Hadley preps for new cart-based trash system
Former Easthampton school paraeducator charged with child sexual assault
MassDEP’s Clean Heat Standard poised to advance energy shift
Amherst board relaxes zoning for big project next to UMass

At a joint meeting Wednesday where the committees discussed future leadership and reorganized, Demling acknowledged that he has been one of the divisive members.

“There is an appearance, rightly or wrongly, I think, that the most polarizing figures on the region are myself or Jennifer in some order, one or two,” Demling said.

In leaving the committee, Demling wrote that his personality doesn’t allow him to be quiet.

“I could have just shut up and not spoken my mind when I knew it would conflict with groups prone to these attacks, but that never felt genuine to me,” he said. “If this was worth doing at all, it was worth doing for reals, no matter the blow-back. But I could only let the other aspects of my life take the hit for so long before having to stop and reassess how much more I could/should reasonably put up with. And the answer was, this is the end of the line.”

Rhodes wrote on his School Committee Facebook page that this shouldn’t distract from next week’s school openings.

“The teachers who have always provided a rich, loving, caring, respectful, and welcoming school environment for all of our children will continue to do so in a professional and loving manner,” he wrote. “These teachers and administrators are the backbone of our schools and they will continue to receive, to the fullest extent possible, the full support they deserve from the Amherst School Committee and the Amherst community.”

Demling posted a lengthier explanation about his reasons for leaving, noting that he didn’t intend to run for reelection and would have only served four more months.

He defended his actions in response to reports of harm to LGBTQ students at the middle school: “Despite repeated claims otherwise I have never called these reports false or denied their seriousness. I am and have always been a proud public supporter of LGBTQ rights. I find the reports heartbreaking and deeply troubling; but there’s nothing I can say to those who reject the authenticity of my feelings because we disagree about how to act in response.”

But it was “the relentless stream of bullying and personal attacks from those who disagree with me” that he said he could no longer endure.

“The cumulative and sustained stress of it all has taken a physical, mental and emotional toll on myself and my family. I’ve experienced this from the start, it got worse during COVID and the fight over teaching in-person, then reached its apex this year with the ARMS reports and the Superintendent change.”

He went on to call it a dominant paradigm in Amherst discourse, for there to be “constant bullying, harassment and intimidation of public figures (both elected and not).”

By name, Demling called out leadership of the Amherst Pelham Education Association, the union representing teachers, paraeducators and clerical staff, and the Amherst Indy, an online blog.

“Not every group member participates in or endorses such actions. But these groups sow seeds that enable their most fervent supporters to justify the behavior,” Demling wrote. “It starts when groups state opinions loudly and repeatedly through multiple channels to create a false perception of broad community acceptance and support. Those who present facts and reasons that question the validity of these opinions are accused of being personally lacking in one or more progressive values.”

Chris Herland, president of the teachers’ union, said members look forward to building new, trusting relationships with the new school leadership.

“Every member of the APEA works tirelessly every day to ensure that our students have the best learning environment possible, and the union will remain diligent in supporting our union siblings,” Herland said.

Art Keene, managing editor of the Amherst Indy, said that the publication has an “unapolegetic progressive orientation” and delineates between the news and opinion it presents.

“It is our judgment that those public officials who accuse the Indy of bullying are unhappy with the comprehensive coverage that the Indy has devoted to their actions and inactions during the crises in the Amherst Public Schools and that what they are actually objecting to is the critical public scrutiny they have received,” Keene said.

Halley Kelly, an Amherst area resident and nonbinary at-large member of the Democratic State Committee, said Demling’s resignation letter, like McDonald’s, shows contempt for the Amherst community, and that their resignations are a victory for democracy.

“After neglecting to meaningfully embrace the criticisms brought by the LGBTQ community, they now want to treat queer people as bullies,” Kelly said. “I know Peter Demling views himself as an LGBTQ ally, but real allies don’t do that.”

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