Amherst rally shows support for LGBTQ students, calls for meeting on Morris

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 07-28-2023 10:42 PM

AMHERST — Continuing to learn more about the likelihood that students at Amherst Regional Middle School have been subjected to transphobic actions by staff, Renee St. Louis said it made sense to travel from Worcester to Amherst to take part in a rally outside the school Friday afternoon.

“I believe it’s important to show up because I don’t want these kids to be standing up here alone,” said St. Louis, holding a sign reading “Support Trans and Queer Folx” and “Call a Vote.”

Mike Stavely Hale of Northampton, who teaches in the city schools, said it was crucial to make a statement that the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee needs to immediately hold a meeting on the recent return of Superintendent Michael Morris from a two-month medical leave, take some sort of vote and action on his status, and demonstrate that the matters are being taken seriously and leaders are being held accountable.

“They need some sunlight on the decisions and who’s making the choices,” Stavely Hale said, adding that the community is in the dark about how Morris could return when there’s a cloud over his leadership.

Held just outside the central offices at the Regional Middle School where Morris works, the rally was designed to show support for LGBTQ+ students and families, and to also demand transparency, accountability and equity from administrators and others overseeing the schools.

The rally came amid an investigation into a Title IX complaint brought by a parent in April who said staff members intentionally misgendered, misnamed, and dismissed the safety concerns of her child, who was potentially suicidal, and just weeks after Morris returned to his position following a two-month medical leave on orders from his doctor.

An impetus for Ali Wicks-Lim to help organize the gathering was so the community could have a say on whether it is appropriate for Morris to be back without any discussion by the School Committee or conversation with families. So far, appeals for the committee to hold an emergency meeting have fallen on deaf ears, she said.

The rally, with chants such as “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re fabulous, don’t mess with us” and “call a meeting, call a vote,” as well as songs and many signs and banners, was reminiscent of one more than two months earlier. In mid-May, more than 200 students, staff and community members came together, as buses and families arrived for the start of school, to lend support to seventh and eighth graders. That included waving rainbow and transgender flags, drawing in chalk rainbow hearts on the sidewalk and on the building, and periodic rounds of applause.

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This demonstration was smaller, with about 50 people, though organizers noted they had little time to put it together, and it was a very hot afternoon in the summer when some people were still at work and families are on vacation.

No committee members were present for the rally.

Attorney Ed Mitnick, executive director of Just Training Solutions in Springfield, is handling the Title IX investigation, with his work possibly being completed by the end of August, according to Douglas Slaughter, who served as temporary superintendent while Morris was absent.

Besides the Title IX investigation, Mitnick is also looking into the alleged mistreatment of other trans and nonbinary students at the middle school, as well as reports of gender-based bullying filed with the middle school nurse during the 2022-2023 school year. Those were forwarded to the principal and Title IX director before they were brought to Morris, according to accounts reported in The Graphic, the high school newspaper.

The Graphic previously detailed transphobic actions by middle school counselors who are now on administrative leave, including not protecting LGBTQ+ students from bullying, and of bringing prayer into the schools. Doreen Cunningham, the assistant superintendent of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion who led the hiring process for the counselors, was placed on leave by Slaughter.

Jena Schwartz, one of the rally organizers, said the idea was for people to share their stories and let LGBTQ+ youth know they are not alone and the community is standing with them.

“We’re here to show the community care and support is around them,” Wicks-Lim said.

Emery Anderson-Merritt, a University of Massachusetts graduate student, grew up in California and, being trans, understands a lot about what is happening.

“Having heard about what’s going on, I couldn’t stand by anymore,” Anderson-Merritt said. “These kids deserve better — by a lot.”

Some of those who spoke during the event expressed concern that, with less than a month before the new school year begins, no plans are in place to address and respond to some of the allegations, such as making sure people use correct pronouns and having consequences for intentionally not doing so.

One student spoke about the challenges continually faced by trans students in using bathrooms.

Katie Lazdowski, a parent of a rising sixth grader, explained her reasoning for taking part. “I’m here because I care about raising my kid to be an empathetic young child,” Lazdowski said.

The Regional School Committee has pledged to act on the results of ongoing investigations, including the Title IX complaint, once they are completed.

The Amherst Pelham Education Association, the union representing teachers, paraeducators and clerical staff, has stood by its no-confidence vote in Morris and other district leaders; its call for an investigation into the leaders and for Cunningham’s resignation; and a public response to claims of unethical and unsafe practices by school personnel.

Alex Lopez, a member of the union’s executive board, promised that teachers will be part of the solution.

“This is our fight, and we’re not going anywhere,” Lopez said.

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