Calvin Terrell says missteps contributed to uproar in Amherst over his anti-bullying presentations

Last modified: Saturday, October 18, 2014

AMHERST — Social justice activist Calvin Terrell of Phoenix said if the steps he suggested to school officials had been followed, it’s unlikely his anti-bullying presentations to middle schoolers earlier this month would have upset so many people.

Parents will get a chance to see Terrell’s program in January, when he returns to the community to work with Amherst College on a separate project.

“It seems that the district not sending out parent notifications prior to the assemblies, not engaging the students in the pre-discussion materials and not holding the community night the same day as the assemblies contributed to the uproar,” he said in an email to the Gazette.

School Superintendent Maria Geryk said the date for the parent presentation has not been set, but it will be during the weekend of Jan. 9 to 11. Terrell is expected to be in town then to train students in an Equity Leaders Program at Amherst College, in which college students will mentor Amherst public school children.

“I have acknowledged that mistakes were made on the part of the district,” Geryk said in an email response to Terrell’s claims Thursday.

Terrell, who has been working as a consultant at the schools on racial issues for the past year, presented three assemblies on bullying Oct. 2, one for ninth-graders at the high school, and two for seventh- and eighth-graders at the middle school. As part of his program, he asked students to imagine violent scenes involving themselves and their loved ones, and asked students to talk about their personal experiences with violence, according to parents whose children attended. The assemblies left many students sobbing, with some having to be removed from the auditorium by school staff, according to the children’s descriptions. The next morning, a group of parents met with Terrell and Amherst Middle School Principal Marisa Mendonsa to express their dismay.

After that, Geryk, who said she also got positive feedback from those whose children found the assemblies inspiring, sent messages to parents apologizing that school officials neither checked Terrell’s material nor sent the parent “notification opt-out forms” in advance. Geryk called the content “developmentally inappropriate for the student population.”

Likewise, Mendonsa sent an apology to parents and held followup assemblies and discussions at the middle school. Both administrators offered support to parents and children.

Terrell, who has not been available for an interview, said in his email this week that he also offered twice to meet with parents in recent weeks and both offers were turned down, in one case because of “miscommunication,” according to Geryk, and the second because of the schools’ scheduling conflicts. Had school officials followed his protocol, Terrell said, “we may be in a different place now.”

While Geryk declined to specify who was responsible for the lapses, she said she had discussed the matter with the person directly. “I can assure you that I have provided appropriate feedback as warranted in this situation,” said Geryk.

In a survey Geryk sent last week to parents of middle school students, of the 103 people responding, 46 percent said their children reported an “overall positive” experience, 30 percent said it was “overall negative” and 24 percent said it was mixed. Among the compilation of parent suggestions, 16 people said the district “should continue the work begun by Calvin Terrell.” Geryk declined to release the written comments she received saying they include “information that could be considered student records,” and is protected by state privacy laws.

Terrell’s defense

In his email, Terrell said the backlash in Amherst is “not typical” for him. “I have presented the ‘Coward to Warriors’ presentation regarding bullying/violence prevention and prejudice reduction throughout the country for the past 20 years, hundreds of times, and received amazing responses from diverse communities,” he wrote.

Terrell, who heads an organization called the Social Centric Institute in Phoenix, has been the keynote speaker at conventions for the nationwide Minority Student Achievement Network, including the one hosted by Amherst Regional High School last year.

Also, according to his website, he has given presentations at various Native American reservations, the Phoenix Head Start convention, the Girl Power conference at Arizona State University and he continues as a consultant to the Connecticut State Education Resource Center and the Cleveland Municipal, Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Windsor, Connecticut, school districts. The website says he has worked with Oprah Winfrey’s staff, Chief Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Janet Napolitano, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, among other people and groups. Social Centric says Terrell offers presentations on a number of topics besides bullying and racial issues. Those also include parenting, gender equity and “collegiality, conflict & communication.”

Amherst parents have reported that their children told them that during the assemblies here Terrell asked the students to close their eyes and envision being chased down the school hall by a gunman, older and younger relatives being shot by that gunman and then to imagine those loved ones in their coffins.

While Terrell did not address the connection between those images and the topic of bullying in his response to the Gazette’s emailed questions, he said the presentation was meant to be ”powerful.”

“I tailored the assemblies based on national standards for covering Holocaust units for middle schools,” he wrote. “It has proven to be effective throughout the country for the past 20 years.”

When school scheduling conflicts stood in the way of Terrell making his presentation to parents last week, Geryk asked him to send a tape of it, which he declined, preferring an in-person meeting, she said. In a note to parents she said Terrell’s assemblies “are highly interactive experiences that cannot be truly replicated by passively watching a video. Experiencing the assembly live will allow parents to better understand their children’s reactions, whether positive or negative.” In the meantime, she added, Terrell is developing an outline of his presentation that parents can use as talking points with their children.

In the past, Terrell wrote in his email to the Gazette, he has modified the “Cowards to Warriors” assembly depending upon the feel of the group and level of maturity he detects.

The middle schoolers in Amherst, according to Terrell, “were very mature, engaged, and asked relevant questions” to the high school students who were involved in role-playing skit scenarios, which were also included, on how bullying and prejudice arise in everyday situations.

The “call to warriors” segment comes at the end of the assembly, he said. In that, “students are invited to apologize for transgressions, thank others who have been allies, and make requests to better the climate.” He called it a “public apology component based on the Olweus research on bullying.” Dan Olweus is a Norwegian psychologist whose program on bullying prevention, developed in 1983, is used worldwide.

Terrell said he will continue to offer his assemblies with modifications when necessary, but with more caution.

“This controversy has heightened my vigilance in vetting communities that I work with and reinforces the need to assert that districts follow the prescribed protocol,” he said.

Debra Scherban can be reached at


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