Amherst school officials grapple with rumors staffers mistreating LGBTQ+ students


Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 03, 2023

AMHERST — Alleged homophobic and transphobic comments toward children at Amherst Regional Middle School, and the possibility that LGBTQ+ students are being told to deny their gender identity and sexual orientation, are issues of concern for several parents, guardians and community members, though there is uncertainty about what is actually happening.

Responding to reports circulating through emails and listservs that staff members have intentionally misgendered students and led prayers focused on gender identity and sexual orientation, Amy DiCaprio, a parent of a seventh grader at the middle school and a third grader at Crocker Farm School, said any such action would represent violence toward the trans and queer youth experience and “flies in the face of Amherst regional school district’s own mission.”

“If these allegations are true, these employees are in violation of the Massachusets anti-discrimination law and gender identity law,” DiCaprio told the Amherst Regional School Committee on Tuesday.

Jena Schwartz, who has a child at the high school, expressed similar sentiments after hearing that conversion therapy, which is prohibited by state law, is allegedly being practiced.

“While technically, conversion therapy is a whole program, not just an individual being told not to be gay or trans, any instance of using religion, prayer, or other forms of coercion and guilt when speaking with a young person who is searching is certainly on the same continuum,” Schwartz said. “Such approaches are related and abusive — and have absolutely no place in our schools.

“Any counseling tactics employing religion are in direct violation of separation of church and state,” Schwartz said.

But until a formal complaint is filed, Superintendent Michael Morris told both the School Committee and those who attended the meeting, his hands are tied. While he said it would be impossible to investigate based only on hearsay, Morris said it is important to understand the harm, and repair the harm, if such things are occurring.

“We need an actual complaint, as well as some evidence around that so we can investigate that,” Morris said, noting that a paper trail and concrete evidence are not needed to begin an investigation. “Anecdotes or experiences so we can verify information, and understand what harm may have occurred, if any, and then take the necessary steps as a result of that.”

A process under Title IX often begins with a building principal, he said.

“We want to do this. If there are people who have been harmed or have experienced harm, we want to follow up, we want to make this the safest environment for our students as possible,” Morris said.

Those who came to the meeting acknowledged mostly that they have no firsthand information about anything that might be happening, but called for both intervention by the administration and a thorough investigation to uncover any potential “abnormalities,” as one resident put it.

Amherst representative Peter Demling said he is concerned that what was presented during public comment is unverified, and that accusations against any staff members may be fabricated.

Should a complaint be filed, Morris said it can’t be anonymous, as staff members, based on their contracts, generally require someone to be known when filing a concern.

“I need more information. I don’t know what’s true until we investigate it, that’s how we approach it. We do investigate claims that we receive,” Morris said.

“We need more information, and we take this very seriously,” Morris said.

Representatives from the Amherst Pelham Education Association also spoke about the need to be more inclusive around gender identity and supportive of LGBTQ concerns and add being anti-racist to the school district’s mission statement. Morris said he is comfortable with these goals.

“It’s painfully obvious that work needs to continue around LGBTQ+ issues,” Morris said.

Those at the meeting said actions were needed to dispel what at this point are only rumors.

“I would urge a full investigation by the School Committee and the superintendent,” said Amber Cano-Martin, adding that she stands in solidarity with the Amherst-Pelham Education Association and parents.

Kathleen Anderson, a former School Committee member, said what she has heard is appalling and that the school leaders need to make it stop.

“We want our children to be happy and safe, not tormented and tortured,” Anderson said.