The Meltdown at a Middle School in a Liberal Town

Amherst, in western Massachusetts, is the nexus of four liberal-arts colleges and a major public university. It is home to about forty thousand people, including a fluctuating population of undergraduates and grad students. On its woodsy, winding residential streets, Black Lives Matter and “In This House . . .” signs sprout alongside native gardens of holly, bayberry, and

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Amherst, in western Massachusetts, is the nexus of four liberal-arts colleges and a major public university. It is home to about forty thousand people, including a fluctuating population of undergraduates and grad students. On its woodsy, winding residential streets, Black Lives Matter and “In This House . . .” signs sprout alongside native gardens of holly, bayberry, and mountain laurel. In the 2src2src election, more than ninety per cent of the town’s voters went for Joe Biden.

A joke you hear a lot is that, in Amherst, only the “H” is silent. It’s a town known for raucous debate and lefty political infighting. Still, even by these disputatious standards, the arguments that have been carrying on around Amherst Regional Middle School, or ARMS, have been vociferous. How and when they started depends on whom you ask, but they broke into wider public view last May, when Amherst’s high-school newspaper, the Graphic, published a five-thousand-word article headlined “ ‘It’s Life or Death’: Failure to Protect Trans Kids at ARMS a Systemic Problem.” The piece anonymously quoted several trans and gender-nonconforming students, who recounted numerous incidents of bullying and harassment, harmful encounters with guidance counsellors, and fruitless complaints to administrators. Among the article’s striking details was that, at a prayer meeting at school, a guidance counsellor reportedly said, “In the name of Jesus, we bind that LGBTQ gay demon that wants to confuse our children.” (The counsellor later denied making this comment.) That same staffer, the piece alleged, handed out chocolate crucifixes to students.

The article was noticed by the mainstream press—the Boston Globe profiled the students who wrote it—and also by conservative outlets, a few of which implied that Christian educators were being persecuted. Meanwhile, in Amherst, an emergency school-committee meeting was held at the high-school library. By that point, the mother of a trans child at ARMS had formally requested a Title IX investigation into gender-based discrimination at the school, and the two counsellors who featured most prominently in the Graphic article had been placed on leave. But a number of those at the meeting—which attracted an overflow crowd of teachers, parents, and alumni—believed that more needed to be done. They called for an investigation of Michael Morris, the district’s superintendent, and for the resignation of Doreen Cunningham, the assistant superintendent who oversaw human resources for the district and was seen by many as a close ally of the controversial guidance counsellors. Members of the Amherst teachers’ union told the room that they had approved a vote of no confidence against Morris, who had taken an emergency medical leave, and Cunningham.

An uncomfortable fact was that most of the concerned parents were white and the two counsellors under scrutiny were not: one of them, Hector Santos, is Latino, and the other, Delinda Dykes, is Black. Cunningham, who is Black, was the district’s head of diversity, equity, and H.R.; Morris, the superintendent, is white. At the school-committee meeting, which lasted nearly six hours, one of the few people who spoke in Cunningham’s defense was her son, who had worked at ARMS as a student-support specialist. “For a prime example of how women of color get treated in leadership positions,” he told the crowd, “I say look no further than Amherst public schools.” The troubles at ARMS, he insisted, were “not about the L.G.B.T.Q.+ situation,” but, rather, the product of an unusually combative teachers’ union and ordinary racism.

In truth, the crisis was a collision of multiple issues: racial tension, union power, the respectful treatment of queer and trans kids, and the place of religion in schools—not to mention the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and what it has done to the fabric of civic life in the U.S. The public schools in Amherst were slow to return to pre-pandemic normalcy; they reopened for a mix of in-person and remote learning in April, 2src21, only after they were forced to by the state of Massachusetts. “We had physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, and parents writing to us in despair about the impact that remote learning was having on the emotional and mental health of the children in our community,” Allison Bleyler McDonald, a former school-committee member, told me. Leaders of the Amherst teachers’ union “refused to even speak to us about the possibility of opening up schools and classrooms,” she said.

Talking to people in town, one gets the sense that the discord of that period has never fully gone away. “Things really ramped up with COVID,” Ben Herrington, who is also a former member of the school committee, told me. “The language changed. People became comfortable with being blatantly hostile. We were no longer having normal conversations.” Several people told me about an incident from the fall of 2src21, when the school committee approved a policy that would have allowed some unvaccinated staffers into school provided that they wore masks. In response, McDonald said, the union’s president at the time, Lamikco Magee, “accused us of wanting to inflict genocide on teachers.” (Magee denies invoking genocide.)

The ongoing fight in Amherst seems to press against every bruise that public schools have sustained in recent years, and the continued fallout—multiple investigations, resignations, a persistent leadership vacuum in the schools—doesn’t inspire confidence in our collective capacity to work through the inevitable frictions of a pluralistic society. Even in a liberal and largely affluent district, certain conflicts and tensions have come to feel irresolvable. As one person I spoke to in town told me, “The left is eating its own all over the country—it’s not just Amherst.”

Another joke you hear, albeit less often, is that Amherst has more Black Lives Matter signs than Black people. Just over twelve per cent of the city’s residents are Black or Hispanic; about seventy per cent are white, and roughly thirteen per cent are Asian. But the public-school district is more racially diverse than the wider community—about a quarter of students are Black or Hispanic—in part because of the number of white and Asian families that opt for private or charter schools. Herrington, the former school-committee member, who is Black and has a son at the high school, told me, “Amherst is a town that loves to bill itself as being a woketopia. We have this Berkeley East persona that we put out. We aren’t really like that, though.”

Thirty years ago, the N.A.A.C.P. filed a federal lawsuit against the district over its academic-tracking program, which assigned a disproportionate number of kids of color to the lowest tiers. More recently, the district reached a six-figure settlement with a Black math teacher at the high school who, in 2src14, was a target of racist graffiti. In the midst of that controversy, Michael Morris became assistant superintendent under Maria Geryk, a white woman. (During a June, 2src14, meeting of the school committee, as the members were formally approving Morris’s appointment, a group of protesters began singing “We Shall Overcome,” forcing the meeting to adjourn.) Later, Geryk issued a stay-away order to a Black mother; this parent had been in frequent contact with staffers about her child, who was having difficulties at school. Geryk was roundly criticized for the decision, and ultimately stepped down. Morris replaced her. It was “a ridiculously volatile situation,” Herrington told me. “So, when Mike came in, it was like he had to do something.”

Morris introduced a new administrative position, assistant superintendent of diversity, equity, and human resources. In recent years, D.E.I. has become a target of right-wing ire, with multiple states, including Texas and Florida, passing legislation to restrict D.E.I. initiatives in public colleges and universities. But, for Morris, improving racial diversity among Amherst faculty was “a civil-rights issue for our kids,” he said in 2src17, citing research that showed, for example, that Black students who have Black teachers perform better on standardized tests and are more likely to enroll in college. That year, he selected Cunningham, then an assistant principal in Connecticut, for the job. “There was a lot of racism in the district,” Cunningham told me recently. “And I came, and a lot of people of color started to feel safe, not because they thought that I would not hold them accountable but because they knew that somebody would hopefully understand where they were coming from.”

Under Cunningham, Amherst instituted a two-step hiring process, intended to root out implicit bias: one committee chose candidates and another asked the applicants a uniform set of questions. The interviewers did not see the applicants’ résumés ahead of time and were largely kept from talking to one another about the candidates. Cunningham told me that she “trained everyone—anyone who was going to be part of the committees was trained to look at their bias.” But multiple district employees told me that Cunningham often screened the candidates herself and made final decisions, even overruling principals at times. She denied this: “I’m not the one who hired anyone.”

By 2src23, the percentage of staffers of color in the Amherst district had grown from twenty per cent to thirty-four per cent. But many of the new hires were paraprofessionals—low-paid, hourly employees who provide support to certified, full-time faculty. Kerrita K. Mayfield, who leads the science department at ARMS, described the push for diversity as more performance than reality. Mayfield recalled an incident with Dykes, the guidance counsellor, who was perceived as being close with Cunningham: one day, when Mayfield was in the middle of teaching a class, Dykes burst in unannounced and presented her with a wooden plaque honoring her as the first Black science teacher in the district. “It was this weird ceremonial moment,” Mayfield told me. “My students were, like, ‘What’s going on?’ I’m, like, ‘Hell if I know, children.’ ”

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