Guest column with Jena Schwartz: Protecting the wrong people in Amherst


Published: 07-20-2023 6:33 PM

On July 13, just as abruptly as he announced he’d be going on indefinite medical leave two months ago, Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools superintendent Mike Morris announced that he’d been “cleared to return to work.”

He referenced the community support he received during his leave but made no mention of a community in crisis, a vote of no confidence in his leadership, several active investigations, and the LGBTQIA+ children at the Amherst Regional Middle School who suffered harm on his watch.

Exactly one week before his return, the Regional School Committee held a virtual meeting. Several nearly identical written public comments were submitted in what was appeared to be an orchestrated effort to create a narrative favorable to Morris. These comments, some of which the Gazette coverage quoted, are deeply concerning. Let me explain why.

Those defending Morris have understatedly but concertedly called into question the reliability and integrity of anyone calling for him to be placed on administrative leave until the investigations are complete. They have suggested that we are teaching our children “blame, reactivity, and scapegoating.” One of the writers added, “This can be an opportunity to teach them to pause, interrupt harm, listen, gather facts, respond, and repair.”

At first blush, “pause, interrupt harm, listen, gather facts, respond, and repair” sounds good to me, absolutely what I would hope we would model for our kids. Indeed, a world where we practice these things and teach them to our children would be, one would imagine, a world where harm is less likely to occur in the first place and is properly addressed when it does.

But by positing itself as the voice of reason — slow and measured — it subtly (or not so subtly) suggests that more urgent responses to reports of harm are somehow reactive and thus, untrustworthy or even unhinged.

A small number of folks in our community have been painting a picture that there is some unfounded, rushed call for accountability and that those of us who continue to speak to that are in some way “blaming and scapegoating.” But calling for accountability is the ultimate form of responding and repairing.

This is dangerous territory, and we must consider it closely and critically.

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Context matters. In the context of the harm that has occurred due to Morris’ breach of leadership, this language is a manipulative form of silencing. It paints people like me and those who are unapologetically, unwaveringly focused on the well-being and safety of LGBTQIA+ kids as reactive.

Further, it carries on a pattern of protecting those in power rather than the people we should all be focused on protecting: the children. It casts doubt on those who are suffering — the impacted students, their families, and the teachers and staff whose efforts to intervene went unheeded — and instead creates a circle of care around the one person who could have stood up and interrupted harm as it was happening.

This is the same weaponizing of language that has shape-shifted through American history to undermine those who are angry, hurt, and asking to be heard, acknowledged, and respected.

Under the skillful and meticulous guidance of one of Amherst’s best teachers, the students in Sara Barber-Just’s journalism class conducted a painstaking and thorough investigation that they reported the high schoolstudent newspaper, The Graphic. Their findings left me and many others in tears. The party line is that there are legal reasons for waiting for the “official” investigations to conclude before making determinations about Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham and Mr. Morris. But the refusal to confront the obvious failings of our district leadership and to make excuses for them, i.e. “nobody is perfect,” is beyond troubling.

I urge readers to sit with the question: What kind of community are we really? No number of written statements affirming LGBTQIA+ students, in-school trainings, or other short-term approaches will matter if, at the end of the day, we don’t address the deeper, more systemic problems of our district.

Morris’s nonchalant return to work is antithetical to the values Amherst and ARPS claim to embody. Put aside your personal allegiances and ask yourself: Whose voices are we listening to?

Are you looking to protect the reputation of a district leader who has been effective for some people’s children while failing to respond to ongoing anti-LGBTQIA+ abuses in our schools?

And most importantly: What about the kids?

The same people preaching that we should “pause, interrupt harm, listen, gather facts, respond, and repair” have not done any of those things, including Mike Morris himself. To defend Morris while speaking of repair is the height of hypocrisy.

 Jena Schwartz is an Amherst resident and school parent.