Guest columnists Ali Wicks-Lim, Lamicko Magee and Martha Toro: School board didn’t put children first

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Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Recently Ben Herrington, Allison McDonald and Peter Demling resigned from the Amherst Regional School Committee, each citing some version of the same hero/victim narrative. Before leaving, they secured a significant buyout for Superintendent Mike Morris before the results of the Title IX investigation into the alleged bullying of LGBTQIA+ students at the Amherst Regional Middle School becomes public.

Demling’s resignation assumes no responsibility for what’s transpired. Instead he continues his legacy of narrative-setting, claiming that those of us advocating for the safety of queer and trans kids are bullies.

We are witnesses and active bystanders, not bullies. We believe those who were hurt and that what happened to them is wrong. Awareness brings responsibility; so we’ve worked to ensure no more children experience such harm. The School Committee has done everything in their power to ignore our concerns and silence our voices.

When Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham was placed on administrative leave and we asked them to place Mike Morris on administrative leave as well, they refused. This resulted in the upset around Morris’ return from medical and in a lawsuit from Cunningham.

When Morris returned, we knew kids and teachers would feel unheard and unprotected. We requested an emergency, in-person meeting and were repeatedly denied. Herrington and Demling stated that none of our attempts to advocate for a meeting would result in one; not our emails or public requests; not even a rally covered widely in the news media would make the committee listen.

When their regularly scheduled meeting approached, we anticipated an opportunity to finally speak out on behalf of the school community. Despite many public requests for an in-person meeting it was held virtually, leaving us to believe that the Regional School Committee was just (again) unwilling to face the public.

Determined to do everything in our power to advocate to protect teachers and LGBTQIA+ children, nearly 80 community members logged onto the meeting. People waited hours while the committee sat in executive session. We used the chat feature to communicate until the chat was disabled with no explanation. When public comment finally began, Demling was off camera.

Now the narrative is that we’re the bullies? We’re the people who gathered to sing songs and create art with children impacted by the ARPS administration’s harmful leadership. We wrote about accountability publicly because we could not find it in the process designed for it. We named when Demling silenced some of his own colleagues.

We expressed concerns about an investigation run by an investigator hired by the district instead of an impartial one. We named that when people in power express public doubt about a disclosure of abuse it causes harm. The School Committee has always held the power, and we’ve always been in the position of trying to be heard.

Those advocating for teachers and children have been more visible over time. Members of the public might consider what they would do if they were fighting for the safety of their child. This effort began with collaborative asks for help. We wanted to believe that if we asked for transparency, accountability and equity, the School Committee would deliver. When they refused to listen to teachers, protect children, or hear from the public we raised our voices.

The narratives set by former School Committee members fall short in a community that claims to care about LGBTQIA+ people. It’s uncomfortable when people advocate for change, most of all for those who were happy with things as they were. The School Committee has long ensured that comfortable people in Amherst stay comfortable at the expense of those whose needs are not being met.

Vulnerable children’s needs were not being met and some members of the community chose to do everything in our power to change that. It is easy to suggest that we should have waited for the results of an investigation, but that would have required trust we don’t have in the investigation itself and those receiving the results. It would require us to put the safety of our children in the hands of the very people who allowed harm to come to them and then lied about it.

We reject the narrative that Demling, Herrington, and McDonald are the victims here, and we are not suggesting that those they are blaming are the victims either. The victims have always been the children who were harmed and the teachers who were unheard. Those of us advocating for them have always been the witnesses and bystanders, not the bullies.

These former School Committee members are reacting to a climate of new accountability. They leveraged their power in favor of the things that mattered to them. They controlled the narrative for a long time, just as they are trying to control it now. Faced with members of some of the most vulnerable communities in Amherst collaborating to work toward better representation for our people, their job, quite frankly, just became a whole lot harder. Instead of listening and working with us, they’ve chosen to stop showing up.

We don’t have to participate in their narrative. Let’s shift our focus back to what children and teachers need in this moment. Let’s celebrate the rise of powerful, intersectional advocacy from vulnerable marginalized groups in Amherst.

Ali Wicks-Lim for the ad hoc LGBTQIA+ Caucus of Amherst, Lamicko Magee for the ad hoc Black Caucus of Amherst and Martha Toro for the ad hoc Latinx Caucus of Amherst.