Amherst School Committee chairman calls for apology, ‘profoundly offended’ over accusations

  • ERIC NAKAJIMA ERIC NAKAJIMA

Staff Writer
Published: 11/13/2019 11:35:08 PM

AMHERST — During an emotional speech reflecting on his biracial heritage, the chairman of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee asked a former colleague Tuesday to retract a published comment that accuses him, and other school and law enforcement officials, of condoning sexual assault.

“I think I’m owed an apology for it,” said Eric Nakajima, in reference to a recent social media post in which Vira Douangmany Cage wrote that he, along with Superintendent Michael Morris, Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, has upheld “the underpinnings of rape culture.”

Speaking at the school committee, Nakajima said he is “profoundly offended anyone would think I would support a culture of rape, sexual assault or violence.”

Cage, who served on the committee from 2015 to 2018, made her comments in response to information released by the school district that members of the boys ultimate team last spring engaged in “conduct unbecoming” during an off-campus incident.

Morris told the committee that, once he learned of the incident, he was quick to notify police and the Department of Children and Families, as well as to launch an internal investigation that ran parallel to the others.

“This is standard operating procedure,” Morris said.

The investigations determined no crimes, sexual or otherwise, had occurred during the incident, according to Morris.

Nakajima also expressed disappointment that Cage referred to him as one of the “white men” when she wrote that he and other officials are “great examples of white men upholding the underpinnings of rape culture and white privilege.”

Nakajima noted that Cage is chairwoman of the state’s Asian American Commission and that what she wrote served to “deny and eradicate” his existence. When he was a high school student in Amherst, Nakajima said, many of his fellow students saw him only for his Asian heritage, despite having parents from both a European background and a Japanese background.

Such criticism, Nakajima said, runs the risk of losing the tools of empathy needed to advance the welfare of all students.

 “This impedes the ability of our work as a team to service children in the district,” Nakajima said.

Records request

Cage said Wednesday she has questions about how the school and other authorities conducted their investigations into the ultimate team and wanted those questions answered by Nakajima.

“These are the questions I am hoping Chairman Nakajima would ask ... instead of seeking an apology from me,” Cage said.

Cage added that she sought public records of the investigation from Amherst Police. Those have since been denied, according to a response from the department, because the incident may fall into one of several categories under which state law prohibits the release of information, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, juvenile abuse and juvenile arrest.

Morris said sharing any information about the incident was difficult because of the need for student privacy. But he said the investigation was approached with “authenticity” by the school district, which did take action, including reducing the spring ultimate schedule and working to change the culture of the team.

Morris also denied online news reports that described a more serious hazing situation of an unconscious student. Rather, he said, the behavior in question was inappropriate as it related to damaging a jersey of a rival team.

In addition, Nakajima called out online commentary by Amherst parent Chrissy Ryan. He characterized the material as accusing school officials of all sorts of wrongdoing.

He questioned whether Ryan’s commentary — including her description of an alleged incident that led to the investigations — violates an anti-harassment policy of the district.

What disturbs him about Ryan’s commentary is “the intersection between harassment and bullying discussed previously and the way in which this other incident was discussed,” Nakajima said.

He said he is bothered by this “in every way” because school employees and officials are being targeted.

Ryan said Wednesday that officials are concerned because of what she has previously reported, such as administrators with lapsed licenses.

“What has School Committee so terrified about me is that for 18 months I have been providing evidence via public records of their non-compliance in licensure, special education and financial mismanagement to the public via an accountability website … as well as to the attorney general, Department of Secondary Education and Office of Civil Rights, because they refused to acknowledge serious systemic problems harming students,” Ryan said.

Meanwhile, School Committee member Anastasia Ordonez said her concerns with Cage’s actions led to her decision to resign from the board of Amherst Media, where she has been the committee’s representative.

“I’m very disappointed in the direction of some of our community members,” said Ordonez, who announced her resignation from the organization Monday night.

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


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