Amherst middle school science teacher gone without explanation

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 12-17-2023 2:00 PM

AMHERST — An Amherst Regional Middle School science teacher placed on leave in November, putting instruction of her students in limbo, appears to have lost her job, even after appeals from parents and the teachers union that she be allowed to return.

With concerns that seventh graders are being shortchanged on their science education due to the absence of teacher Erin Lawler, and no notification that a substitute has been working since Nov. 9, parents pushed the Amherst Regional School Committee on the matter at a Dec. 12 meeting.

“Erin is an excellent teacher, and her kids were excited to go to class every day,” said parent Jenny Franz. “It’s a shame that they’ve missed out on important curriculum, but they’ve also missed out on one of their favorite teachers.”

“She simply disappeared one day, with no explanation to our children or our parents,” said parent Greta Biagi, who added that Lawler made a positive impact through her teaching and empathy and had been replaced with a “glorified study hall.”

Laura Hunter, whose husband teaches in a neighboring classroom at the middle school, said the situation is troubling.

“There’s chaos in there,” Hunter said. “It’s loud, students are not focusing, are not getting the education they need, and it’s quite disturbing.”

Two days after the meeting, families were informed by Talib Sadiq, the principal at both the middle and high schools, that Lawler would not be returning. The communication from Sadiq acknowledged that the past several weeks have been unsettled for students in her classes.

“I apologize for not reaching out sooner, but recently Central Office has confirmed that Ms. Lawler will not be returning to her position at ARMS, and we wish her all the best in her future endeavors,” Sadiq wrote

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A long-term substitute, with a strong science background, is being hired to serve Team C until a permanent science teacher is on board.

“We assure you that providing Team C students with a high quality educational experience in sciences is our top priority,” Sadiq wrote.

Reached by phone, Lawler said she had no comment.

The circumstances of her dismissal are uncertain, but interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter told the School Committee that personnel matters are private and not under its purview and that plans for filling the science classes would be coming.

Slaughter said removal of an employee doesn’t have to be for a cause or a reason, in the first 90 days after hiring, and that the district takes seriously all hiring decisions and when employees are released.

“There are a lot of factors we keep in mind. I’ll leave it there,” Slaughter said.

But Shutesbury representative Anna Heard said with students not getting science instruction, better policies should be in place to notify families of absences of teachers rather than leaving parents and students hanging.

“What I’m hearing from the community is a very bad communication plan,” Heard said.

Slaughter said communication is a challenge with Sadiq covering two buildings at once. “It is unfortunate, I don’t disagree,” Slaughter said.

While not identifying the employee publicly, middle school teacher Irene LaRoche said over 50 teachers have signed a letter asking for the reinstatement of a colleague. “We are asking: Why is a teacher who did nothing wrong still not back in the classroom?”

LaRoche said that the union, which advocates for a safe and inclusive learning environment, said the union member and teacher was accused of activities outside school and put on leave without investigation and then fired.

“Since then, DCF has investigated and exonerated this teacher from all wrongdoing,” LaRoche told the school committee. “The accusations were found to be unsubstantiated ”

Franz said Lawler may have been targeted with a chapter 51A report, child abuse or neglect, due to her obligation as a mandated reporter to recognize and report suspected child abuse or neglect.

Amherst representative Katie Lazdowski asked what message school officials were sending to a student who may want to make a report and then worry about potentially a staff member losing a job.

Hunter, who unsuccessfully sought a position on School Committee last month, said the district should start listening to the teachers union, parents and students who have asked for a teacher’s return.

“I’m dismayed that there is uneven treatment of how staff are hired and fired, without any transparency,” Hunter said.

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