State LGBTQ Youth Commission bringing trainings to Amherst Regional school staff

  • Amherst Regional High School students march to the middle school in support of LGBTQIA+ students earlier this month. gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Thursday, June 01, 2023

AMHERST — State agencies that collaborate to promote the safety, well-being and rights of LGBTQ students intend to work with the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts for training that will benefit educators, staff and families in the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional schools at the start of next school year.

As a response to the recent allegations of transphobic actions by counselors at the middle school, the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth announced Friday that the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, a program developed with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that has offered training and technical assistance to public school districts since 1993, will partner with the Stonewall Center to assist the Amherst school district.

Molly Wexler-Romig, program manager for the state commission, said that planning for the trainings, which will involve consultation with students, is in the early stages, and will require cooperation from Douglas Slaughter as acting superintendent.

“Trainings for educators and staff typically take place during scheduled professional development sessions,” Wexler-Romig said. “Our hope is to involve as many participants as possible, but the exact plan will depend on many factors.”

The Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students also supports LGBTQ student clubs called GSAs, or gender and sexuality alliances, and develops student leadership; assists districts with policies and practices that align with state anti-bullying and anti-discrimination laws and guidance on gender identity; and trains educators and staff to understand the needs and experiences of LGBTQ students, interrupt anti-LGBTQ bullying, and incorporate positive representations of LGBTQ people in curriculum.

According to a statement it released announcing the trainings, the state commission noted it has long held Amherst Regional High School “as a shining example of LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum,” pointing to the LGTBQ literature class taught by Sara Barber-Just for more than 20 years.

But the district has had limited interaction with the program recently. The middle school, for instance, has not had a program training since 2009, even with a rapid rate of turnover among educators, counselors and administrators statewide. The program offers technical assistance to school administrators to develop policies that better protect youths from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

In addition to the hope for more frequent training, the commission observes that the student handbook for Amherst Regional schools mentions LGBTQ identities in the heading of its nondiscrimination policy, but doesn’t go into detail about prohibited behaviors, and, unlike Northampton, the Amherst Regional anti-bullying policy does not mention LGBTQ students as common targets of bullying who need additional protection.

Even with the concerns, the commission points to the middle school having an LGBTQ student club, which is much less common than at high schools, as being an important piece of a broader network of support for queer and trans students navigating school, family and life. The commission is aiming to support the expansion of clubs at the elementary school level.

The Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students is also developing an education, outreach and advocacy program to increase positive engagement of parents and caregivers of LGBTQ youth. Despite that, over 40 Massachusetts districts this school year have reported anti-LGBTQ activity, including book challenges, lawsuits, threats of violence, and the banning of Pride flags and other queer and BIPOC symbols.

The commission had requested a $3.1 million budget for its services, but this was omitted from the state budget, and it is hopeful that Gov. Maura Healey will grant the additional requested funds.