Amherst Assistant Superintendent Cunningham files discrimination complaint

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 08-02-2023 6:59 PM

AMHERST — A Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination complaint has been filed against the Amherst-Pelham public schools and its leadership team by the district’s assistant superintendent, who has been on administrative leave in recent weeks.

Doreen Cunningham, the assistant superintendent for diversity, equity and human resources, made the complaint against the district, Superintendent Michael Morris and Douglas Slaughter, the temporary superintendent and finance director, on June 30. The complaint asks for unspecified damages for emotional distress, attorney’s fees and, in case of termination, back pay and front pay.

The superintendent’s office was notified about the complaint in mid-July and Debbie Westmoreland, who handles communications for the office, released a statement from Morris and Sarahbess Kenney, who is vice chairwoman of the Regional School Committee, on Tuesday.

“On July 18, the district received notice from the  Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination of an MCAD complaint filed by Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham. We are working with legal counsel to develop a response to the complaint and look forward to defending the district in this matter.”

In the complaint, Cunningham, who is represented by Amherst attorney Peter Vickery, alleges discrimination under Massachusetts General Laws and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by the district, Morris and Slaughter. Slaughter was the temporary superintendent while Morris was on a recent medical leave, and placed Cunningham on leave as a Title IX investigation is underway into alleged gender-based discrimination, including by staff members, that occurred at the Amherst Regional Middle School.

“Respondents discriminated against complainant on the basis of race/color (Black/African-American), sex (woman) and religion (association with Christians),” the lawsuit contends.

The lawsuit details the circumstances that led to three counselors at the middle school being placed on leave after The Graphic, the high school newspaper, printed an article with accounts of bullying of trans students and the counselors not intervening to stop it. The district allowed the publishing of an article with “allegations and innuendo regarding complainant with the goal of causing her to resign.” Though the article showed Cunningham had not engaged in unlawful discrimination, it alluded to how she had “associated with the accused counselors socially.”

“Respondents knew that alleging (the counselors) had discriminated unlawfully because of their religious beliefs would tend to reduce their standing in the community and expose them to hatred, ridicule and contempt, and would tend to reduce complainants standing in the community and expose her to hatred, ridicule and contempt,” the lawsuit states.

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The lawsuit goes on to contend that the decision to place her on leave was “political” and that her work email was taken away, an unusual practice for someone on leave.

The MCAD investigation will be handled by Josph Greenhaigh, according to the MCAD office.

Meanwhile, with Cunningham on administrative leave, and Jennifer Ortiz, the human resources administrator, on maternity leave, Morris has made changes to the human resources team so that its regular functions can continue. “That work needs to get done,” he said.

Both Carol Newman Rose, assistant to the assistant superintendent and a human resources generalist, and Damany Gordon, equity and diversity specialist, are remaining in their positions

Yahdira Torres, who has worked in human resources administration for 18 years, is the interim assistant human resources director beginning next week. Torres has been the administrative assistant to the Office of Teaching and Learning. She holds bachelor degrees in both psychology and counseling, and a master’s degree in organizational psychology.

Kathryn Mazur and Rachel Rosenfeld, who previously served as the human resources director and the assistant, respectively, have both returned on a part-time, interim basis.

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