Assistant superintendent under fire in Amherst middle school transphobia case

  • Doreen Cunningham, assistant superintendent for Diversity, Equity and Human Resources for the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, speaks at a joint school committee meeting Thursday night in Amherst. Cunningham said she won’t resign from her position, despite calls from many for her to do so. AMHERST MEDIA SCREENSHOT

  • Doreen Cunningham, assistant superintendent for Diversity, Equity and Human Resources for the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, speaks at a joint school committee meeting Thursday night in Amherst. Cunningham said she won’t resign from her position, despite calls from many for her to do so. AMHERST MEDIA SCREENSHOT

Staff Writer
Published: 5/17/2023 4:09:27 PM

AMHERST — The assistant superintendent in charge of hiring three middle school counselors who committed alleged transphobic actions that came to light last week defiantly said that she has no intention of departing her role amid calls for her resignation at a heated joint school committee meeting Tuesday night.

Doreen Cunningham, assistant superintendent for Diversity, Equity and Human Resources, told members of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee and the Union 26 School Committee that she is staying put, even in light of a report that a child was potentially suicidal after intentionally being misgendered and misnamed by three employees, while three staff members have been placed on leave amid a Title IX investigation.

“I am not resigning,” Cunningham said. “And I am looking to the possibility of working with the community to make the necessary changes.”

“Today is yet another dark day in the Amherst community, and I hope we can work together to bring our community jointly back to the light,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s pushback on allegations leveled against middle school staff members came in the high school library room filled with people holding signs expressing support for the trans community and demanding her termination and the firing and investigation of Superintendent Michael Morris. Others waved rainbow and trans flags and some wore shirts expressing support for LGTBQ+ students.

Most were there to share their outrage that transphobia had allegedly been allowed to fester for a year or more, with complaints going unaddressed. One after another, people spoke about the harm reportedly happening to children.

Celia Maysles, the middle school nurse, confirmed the accuracy of the allegations, reported using mostly anonymous sources in an article last week in The Graphic, the high school newspaper.

“It’s bad,” Maysles said, adding that she felt the pain families and children were going through.

“All you have to do is call me and ask me what’s going on,” Maysles said. “There is a big problem. We know where it lies and we need you to help fix it,” she told the two school committees.

One parent provided written comments about the experience of the child at the center of the Title IX complaint filed on April 14 that remains under investigation. That complaint was also filed with the state’s Office of Civil Rights and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the town’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Human Rights departments.

Community sounds off

In separate testimony, school community member MJ Schwartz spoke as a nonbinary, transgender adult who faced merciless bullying as a child. Schwartz asked for allegations of nepotism and prayer in school to be investigated, and said school leaders need to be aware of the public health emergency that poses liability. “We are discussing issues of life and death,” Schwartz said.

“This is about our integrity of a school district with a reputation for being inclusive” added partner Jena Schwartz.

Members of the Amherst Pelham Education Association teachers union, Kerrita Mayfield and Alicia Lopez, told the committee that they lack confidence in Morris, who is on medical leave, and want Cunningham to resign for what they described as unethical hiring practices and undermining equity.

“We call for the immediate resignation of Doreen Cunningham and call for an investigation into the leadership of Mike Morris,” Lopez said.

“We can’t work for our children under these conditions,” Mayfield said.

Lopez added that she is puzzled why Cunningham isn’t quitting. “Why would someone want to stay in a district where so much staff has said they have no confidence in you?” Lopez asked.

Former School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage spoke through tears. “You have to believe and act like these are your children,” Cage said, adding that if the committees had compassion they would find a way for Morris and Cunningham to salvage their reputations and then depart. “Stop the slaughter,” she said.

Students are suffering, said Jean Fay, a retired paraeducator. “They just want to come to school to feel safe, our students,” Fay said.

Sara Eddy, whose children went through the public schools, said trans kids need protection. “It’s just terrifying for me to think about them being here when this was going on,” Eddy said.

Problems with the hiring process, including privileges offered to some people, have been known, said retired educator Martha Toro. “It gives me pain to see how things are ignored,” Toro said.

Rebecca Tew of Leverett, who works as a therapist in the community, said the situation seems unusual for people who are supposed to protect children. Characterizing the counselors, she said, “It’s very rare to see so many therapists with this same kind of harm.”

The gaslighting and diminishing of staff concerns needs to stop, said Laura Hunter, a parent who is married to an educator in the school system.

“Anyone who speaks in support of Doreen Cunningham is essentially saying any student who has come forward bravely is lying,” Hunter said.

Hunter also criticized efforts to quiet children’s voices. “The idea that the APEA would be conducting a conspiracy to shut down Doreen Cunningham by using transphobia, homophobia, bullying, torture of students, is absurd,” Hunter said.

Cunningham’s defenders

Cunningham, though, offered to support and protect the safety of staff and students, while continuing to highlight the objective of racial diversification, for which she and her team have been praised.

“Supporting our LGBTQIA+ youth has been a nationwide conversation, and I’m grateful to have this conversation here in Amherst, too, though I wish it was under better circumstances,” she said.

A contingent of those who defended Cunningham included Greg Gardener, a former student support specialist in the Amherst schools and Cunningham’s son, who called the complaints a “driven narrative by the union to overthrow this leadership.”

“I was a pawn for the union to prepare for moments like this,” Gardener said, noting that he had faced false allegations from members of the union when they realized he was Cunningham’s son. “For a prime example of how women of color get treated in leadership positions, I say look no farther than the Amherst public schools.”

Cunningham, too, in written comments, claimed Lamikco Magee, the union president who put her name into the running for the middle school principal, but wasn’t forwarded as one of the finalists, helped scuttle the middle school principal search, which ultimately failed.

Amy Kalman, a resident and speech language pathologist, blasted the public outing of Magee. “She models what it is to be a Black female leader in our school, so I wonder why it is another individual is divulging what I believe to be confidential information to this public body,” Kalman said.

Another who defended the current leadership was Ada Demling, a 2021 graduate and child of Amherst representative Peter Demling. Demling said while having respect for teachers, there is blatant misinformation, and that the allegations mark the culmination of “yearslong misplaced blame as a prompt of justified anger about your circumstances.”

The meeting began with Peter Demling observing that difficult comments would be heard. “Our first charge tonight is to ensure public safety,” Demling said. But there was nearly a scuffle when Gardener was returning to his seat after speaking, and someone called him “disgusting.”

Lucia Lopez, a high school senior who worked on The Graphic article, said students wanted to investigate the claims and then write the piece because they cared about the issue. It’s an unusual circumstance revealed in town.

“This doesn’t happen here, and to any queer students who are listening, or any parents who are scared for their children, there is hope,” Lopez said. “This is not us, this not what we value, this is not the norm for our community.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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