Amherst Regional School Committee meeting roiled over principal pick

Letha Gayle-Brissett, the middle school’s school’s climate and cultural coordinator, speaks at the School Committee meeting Tuesday.

Letha Gayle-Brissett, the middle school’s school’s climate and cultural coordinator, speaks at the School Committee meeting Tuesday. SCREENSHOT

Letha Gayle-Brissett, the middle school’s school’s climate and cultural coordinator, speaks at the School Committee meeting Tuesday.

Letha Gayle-Brissett, the middle school’s school’s climate and cultural coordinator, speaks at the School Committee meeting Tuesday. SCREENSHOT

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-11-2024 4:01 PM

AMHERST — An internal choice to become the new interim principal at Amherst Regional Middle School no longer wants the position following a tense Regional School Committee meeting on Tuesday in which a parent of a student who was repeatedly bullied at the school objected to her hiring. The ensuing debate led to accusations of racism across the school district.

Letha Gayle-Brissett, the school’s climate and cultural coordinator, was interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter’s choice to take over for Talib Sadiq, who has been leading both the high school and middle school since last summer. But Gayle-Brissett said Thursday she has declined the role following the public comments at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting.

At that meeting, Kara Knott of Shutesbury raised concerns about Gayle-Brissett’s leadership of the restorative justice program at the school and about her allegedly ineffective efforts to stop bullying of LGBTQ students. “I think this is the wrong choice,” she said.

Knott said her child, Lee Khashu, now a ninth grader at the high school, endured persistent anti-trans harassment and bullying at the middle school that the restorative justice program didn’t resolve.

“I placed great faith in the district to take seriously concerns that we raised to follow through on action items that were promised,” she said.

“We need a leader right now for school who’s well-versed in supporting LGTBQ youth, well-versed in gender identity issues and well-versed in gender-affirming practice, and in our experience that was not Dr. Gayle-Brissett,” Knott said.

For Gayle-Brissett, though, a self-described Black immigrant woman, the LGBTQ rights and so cial justice issue is being weaponized against her and unfairly damaging her reputation.

“There have been whispers that some members in the middle school community are intent on removing people of color, especially Black people, from leadership positions,” Gayle-Brissett said. “It is not unreasonable to believe that these false claims are part of this agenda.”

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After several investigations last year into anti-LGBTQ behavior by staff members, including a Title IX federal discrimination complaint, Gayle-Brissett said, there was no evidence of any misconduct or exclusionary behavior by her toward any LGBTQ student.

“On the contrary, I was a source of support and refuge for LBGTQIA students,” she said, becoming visibly emotional. “I’ve been part of the solution, not the problem.”

Knott elaborated that Gayle-Brissett’s work further traumatized her son, as he was placed in rooms with bullying students who repeatedly used anti-trans language, deadnamed him, outed him and made it so he couldn’t use the bathroom. He was also told he should be more patient and understanding, because the trans issue is still new to people, she said.

“Not only was it not a helpful experience, her interventions, her lack of understanding and familiarity with gender identity issues and gender-affirming practice, further exacerbated the harm caused to our child,” Knott said.

Khashu said it was as if Gayle-Brissett didn’t care. “It kind of felt like she wasn’t listening,” Khashu said. “It just made everything feel so much worse.”

Gayle-Brissett said the accusations of anti-trans behavior come as a surprise and disappointment and are “categorically false and professionally damaging.” “Let me be clear that these allegations are false, clearly false,” she said.

Coming to the school after previously working in the Caribbean and in the United States, Gayle-Brissett said she has tried to find less punitive approaches, to resolve conflicts in sustainable ways, and be “consistent with my social justice training and my personal values,” she said.

“I have dedicated myself to the welfare of students and staff without prejudice,” Gayle-Brissett said, adding that she takes particular care for LGBTQ students.

Others who spoke to the School Committee praised Gayle-Brissett.

“I want to speak to the utmost integrity that she has exhibited as a staff member, as a colleague,” said middle school teacher Mick O’Connor. O’Connor said Gayle-Brissett has open-mindedness and open-heartedness and a commitment to the well-being of students of all identities.

“I can say without a shadow of doubt that she’s a woman of integrity,” said Georgia Malcolm, administrative assistant at the high school. Malcolm also said Blacks are being targeted.

“It’s really sad, Amherst is racist, the staff is racist and there’s a target on the back of Black people in the district,” said Malcolm, who is Black.

The district is facing two bias lawsuits filed by Black women with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, one from former assistant superintendent Doreen Cunningham, and another from Lamikco Magee, a special education department leader.

‘A race problemin Amherst’

Slaughter said he wouldn’t speak publicly on personnel matters and that they are also not the purview of the School Committee. Internal mechanisms can work through any questions or issues that arise, he said.

“It’s a difficult circumstance when we have personnel matters come before the School Committee because it makes things public that are often not well done in a public setting like this,” Slaughter said,

Shutesbury representative Anna Heard said she wants to know more about the restorative justice program at the school and have a better understanding of how it works, following an appeal from Knott for the School Committee to get more information about the practices.

“Restorative justice is difficult to do well, and it doesn’t fit all circumstances,” Slaughter responded.

Heard said a larger discussion about healing divisions should be on the agenda.

“There’s a race problem in Amherst,” Heard said. “It seems clear that there’s some work to be done in the Amherst community, the regional district community, to make everyone feel welcome and valued and not targeted either for being a minority or for talking to minorities.”

Slaughter said the “Mirror Project” is reaching out to communities and identifying areas of conflict. There is also a longer-range plan to bring more diversity to the schools, but also to preserve identity and culture and be welcoming, open and supportive of all points of view.

Amherst representative Irv Rhodes, who is Black, said what he heard is extraordinary, especially after years of efforts of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and outreach and recruiting of Black, Indigenous and people of color candidates for jobs, and programs that would include them and encourage them to stay.

“It is painful to me, when I hear there is continued racism in Amherst and the Amherst school system, that people of color do not feel welcome,” Rhodes said. “It is painful to hear parents, students, faculty, staff members say that racism is persistent in our system.”

“We have some work to do, it’s not just for the staff to do, but it’s also for the School Committee in terms of its policy to be proactive in this, and not just reactive,” Rhodes said.

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