Guest columnist John Bonifaz: Probe of school’s Title IX complaints must be independent

By JOHN BONIFAZ

Published: 08-16-2023 2:36 PM

As an Amherst parent, I have been deeply concerned about the reports of mistreatment of LGBTQ+ students at the Amherst Regional Middle School. Like many, I have questions about how Superintendent Michael Morris could have ignored complaints and allowed the harm to continue for so long. I was initially relieved to hear that there would be a Title IX investigation into the complaints, and hoped for a resolution that would bring healing for the families involved.

As an attorney, I have been appalled to learn that the Title IX investigation is being conducted by a private attorney who was hired by the school district. While the initial investigation may have centered around the counselors accused of causing direct harm to LGBTQ+ children, Doreen Cunningham and Morris should also be central to the investigation as they were in the role of hiring and overseeing the counselors involved and of receiving reports of the incidents that led to the complaints. There is no way for there to be an impartial investigation when people who are paying the investigator are among those needing to be investigated.

The public has been told to expect the results of the investigation this month. However, there has been no transparency about the fact that this is not an independent impartial investigation.

Further, once those results of the school district’s current investigation are ready to be shared, who will receive them? If it is anyone within the district who is involved in paying the investigator, that would be an alarming conflict of interest. And, who will decide what to do with the results of the investigation once they are released? Is Superintendent Morris going to have a say in what happens next, or will it be someone who works for him? Either way, that’s a problem.

Many community members are looking forward to the results of the Title IX investigation, in hopes that they will lead to a path of healing. I am concerned that the very nature of the investigation itself makes it dangerous to feel confident in the results. How can we accept the results of an investigation by someone hand-picked by those in close proximity with the people being investigated? How can we have any confidence in an appropriate response to the investigation if the people providing that response work for the people implicated? I am left with questions about why the school district chose not to pursue an independent investigation. Why wouldn’t the district want a full, impartial investigation in a matter of such importance? They could certainly have asked the U.S. Department of Education or the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (or both) to investigate this matter rather than hire their own private attorney. Their decision not to do so should raise red flags.

The Amherst Regional public school district is facing serious and credible allegations that students in their district have been subjected to transphobic and homophobic abuses and bullying, in violation of federal and state civil rights laws, and that those in charge did not take appropriate action when they first learned of these allegations. Consistent with basic principles of our democracy, the public must have confidence that any individuals implicated by such wrongful conduct will be held accountable regardless of their position or status. That can only happen with an independent impartial investigation of this matter.

John Bonifaz is an Amherst parent and a constitutional attorney.

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