A show of support: High school students, staff rally for middle schoolers after alleged transphobic actions revealed

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-18-2023 4:33 PM

AMHERST — After several days of publicity surrounding alleged transphobic actions by staff members at Amherst Regional Middle School, more than 200 students, staff and community members rallied Friday morning to lend support to seventh and eighth graders, with rainbow and transgender flags waved, rainbow hearts drawn in chalk on the sidewalk and on the building, and periodic rounds of applause.

“I’m a transmasc[uline] student and want the students here to know that the high school is a welcoming place, where a lot of staff foster an inclusive environment,” said LC Wilson, a high school student who joined other high schoolers in walking to the neighboring building to start their day. “The high school welcomes them and we will welcome them and we will do our best to protect them.”

It was important, too, for Eva Lagrant, another high school student, to make the short journey to the middle school.

“We wanted to support the kids and put some fight back against the administrators who thought they had the right to make them uncomfortable in school,” Lagrant said. “We need to hold them accountable for their actions.”

The rally came after The Graphic, the high school newspaper, printed an article on Tuesday alleging that counselors had intentionally not referred to students by their correct pronouns, invited a staff member to a prayer circle and posted anti-trans rhetoric on social media.

Superintendent Michael Morris announced Thursday that a Title IX investigation is underway, and that three district employees had been placed on administrative leave. Those accused in the newspaper article have denied any wrongdoing.

As middle school students got off buses and out of vehicles, they were greeted by people holding signs reading “A Trans Ally,” “Support Trans Kids” and “Proud Trans ARMS Grad,” people wrapped in rainbow and trans flags, and others wearing T-shirts and other clothing indicating their support for trans students.

The event was planned on multiple fronts, including in the high school art class of Kristen Ripley, who joined her colleague, Elena Betke-Brunswick, who teaches photography at the high school, in putting out information on social media. Ripley said students also wanted to join in.

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“We wanted to be supportive and it just exploded,” said Ripley, who was wearing a shirt with a rainbow-shaped heart. “We care deeply about our students and see harm in what is happening, and need to interrupt this immediately.”

“It’s unacceptable that any of our students are treated in this way,” Ripley added. “We’re all adamant that some big systemic change happens now.”

“We really wanted to show up for students,” Betke-Brunswick said. “Students deserve a whole lot more support and we wanted to be there to show them support for who they are.”

“When I was in middle school this would have been great for me,” said Ari K., a trans student who is active in the high school’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance.

Among those acknowledging the rally was Marta Guevara, director of student achievement and accountability.

“Thank you everyone for being here,” Guevara said.

Some students at the middle school were also there to participate on behalf of their fellow students.

“It is terrible my peers aren’t able to feel safe at school,” said Inanna Balkin, an eighth grader. “You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe.”

Balkin said while there had been rumors about hostility toward trans students, until The Graphic article was published she didn’t realize the extent of what was happening.

Cora Chalif, also in eighth grade, said she has noticed a sad feeling in the halls of the school and believes her classmates and seventh graders will appreciate the rally as a way to lift their spirits, showing them all that no one is alone.

“I love supporting the LGBTQ+ community. It is extremely important at this time,” Chalif said.

Erin Neil Kolasinski, adjustment counselor for the Gay Straight Alliance, the LGBTQ club at the middle school, said the action should pay dividends.

“It’s been heartbreaking watching this unfold,” Kolasinski said. “This allows for critical conversations and examinations of the system, and hopefully some systemic change.”

Kolasinski added that it will be a positive experience for the middle schoolers, including those in the LGBTQ club.

“For them, it’s completely beautiful,” Kolasinski said.

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