Racism, gender bias top topics for Amherst school board candidates

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 09-17-2023 9:22 AM

AMHERST — How anti-racism policies and protections for LGTBQ students could be enacted in the public schools are expected to be among the questions interim candidates for the Amherst School Committee will field when they are interviewed by the Town Council and the remaining two elected committee members on Sept. 26.

During a joint 90-minute session discussing potential questions last week, the consensus appeared to be that candidates should focus on how harms can be addressed going forward. The discussion was scheduled to resume Monday to finalize the questions.

“We all have to be actively and proactively anti-racist all the time every day, because we all swim in this white supremacy world that is the default for many organizations and institutions,” said Jennifer Shiao, one of the remaining School Committee members.

District 2 Councilor Pat De Angelis noted that just asking someone about their thoughts on diversity, equity and inclusion would be less challenging than asking about being anti-racist.

“I’d like to know if someone feels really uncomfortable if I ask them about gender bias, or if I ask them about being anti-racist,” De Angelis said. “We’re raised in a racist culture — of course we’re racist.”

Residents have until Sept. 20 at 4 p.m. to submit letters of interest for the three vacancies to the Town Council clerk.

The appointment process comes as the public schools have wrestled with reported transphobic actions by middle school counselors and a Title IX investigation into at least one student who was harmed, as well as the resignation of Superintendent Michael Morris last month. Also resigning late last month were School Committee members Allison McDonald, Peter Demling and Ben Herrington.

Irv Rhodes, the other remaining School Committee member, said anti-racism is not a specific idea, and he would instead prefer a broader question about how to make sure the School Committee’s practices, processes and decisions include the values of diversity, equity and inclusion.

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His concern is that anti-racist is not something that can be made operational. “It becomes some kind of mantra without a meaning, a mantra that all is show and no tail,” Rhodes said.

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said she would like to see candidates talk about core experiences in areas such as mediation, leadership hiring, LGTBQ rights and being anti-racist, as it will make deciding on new members easier. “The conversations become very hard in the absence of what we’re looking for,” Bahl-Milne said.

De Angelis said that while the School Committee will be spending time on preparing the budget and kicking off the hiring process for a new superintendent, candidates should be able to say how they’ve been discriminated against in the past, and how they’ve handled it.

“Within this three-month period there has to be a real period of repair for harm that has been done, and I think that has to be addressed,” De Angelis said.

District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier, though, said this may be asking someone to relive trauma.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said harms caused to students are her chief concern.

“The idea of any bullying of any child is absolutely outrageous,” Pam said. “There should be no bullying in our schools — that’s the first requirement of a school and it seems there was a culture of bullying that was allowed to go on, and that must be decried, as well.”

Before the discussion, several residents offered public comments, including Vincent O’Connor of Summer Street, who said he will be seeking one of the temporary positions, calling what has happened at the schools a “sad and tragic situation.”

O’Connor said the failure of people in authority has led to a situation of really angry feelings about what is going on in the schools, and significant community feedback should come before decisions are made on who to appoint.

“There’s something dysfunctional where you can only speak at the beginning of the meeting,” O’Connor said.

Amherst resident Halley Kelly said the transphobic abuse in the schools and demonization of queer people mean the interview questions need to focus on how candidates will address transgender rights.

“If the Amherst community is going to heal, then the ‘us versus them’ narrative between School Committee and queer people needs to be ended and condemned,” Kelly said.

Kairo Serna of Clark Hill Road said candidates need to admit that students were terrorized and traumatized.

“Without acknowledging what went wrong, we cannot move forward and we cannot better our schools, so questions for candidates must center the needs of the students, especially those students who were targeted and harmed,” Serna said.

Scott Merzb ach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>