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Amherst school district investigating transgender discrimination complaints, teachers union calls for resignations

A rally for LGBTQ+ community at Amherst Middle School on May 12.Irene Rotondo/MassLive

An outside investigator is probing allegations that counselors at the Amherst Regional Middle School discriminated against transgender students, after a parent claimed that school administrators failed to respond to concerns with the treatment of her nonbinary child for more than a year.

The union representing district teachers has also called on the Amherst Regional School Committee to conduct its own investigation, and has separately demanded the resignation of one of the district’s top officials because of other ethical concerns.

The Amherst-Pelham Education Association said in a letter to the School Committee on Saturday that educators “overwhelmingly” voted no confidence last week in Amherst-Pelham Regional School District Superintendent Michael Morris and Doreen Cunningham, assistant superintendent for diversity, equity, and human resources.

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The union called on Cunningham to immediately resign, alleging that she has used unethical hiring practices, and asked the School Committee to conduct its own investigation into Morris, claiming he failed to promptly address complaints of anti-LGBTQIA+ actions by some district staff members.

“Our district needs change, our students need change, and our educators need change,” the union said in the letter.

The union also alleged Morris failed to properly supervise district offices and collaborate with staff in creating “positive leadership.” Additionally, the union wrote that Cunningham used her position to “enrich self on school time,” undermined the district’s equity and excellence mission, and created a “toxic” work environment.

Cunningham did not immediately respond to the Globe’s requests for comment on Monday.

Morris announced Friday that he would be taking a “temporary leave” from his role as superintendent for health reasons. The School Committee is scheduled to have a closed door meeting Monday night to discuss with an attorney how to negotiate a contract for an acting superintendent and a second meeting Tuesday night to determine temporary leadership.

“Problems have been allowed to fester under [Morris] and Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham’s leadership,” the union wrote. “Superintendent Morris’ decision to go on leave occurred as educators in the district voted overwhelmingly this week that they have no confidence in the leadership of both the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent.”

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The union’s letter to the School Committee comes days after The Graphic, Amherst Regional High School’s student newspaper, first reported last week that students, families, and staff alleged that three counselors at Amherst Regional Middle School have purposely misgendered students, failed to support students who faced gender-based bullying or harassment, and expressed religious beliefs in conversations with students and staff.

Members of the Amherst public school community rallied together in support of transgender and all LGBTQ+ students at the Amherst Middle School on May 12.Irene Rotondo/MassLive

One parent who spoke to The Graphic using a pseudonym told the publication that one of the counselors routinely misgendered her child, even when the student wore a hat with a large pin that had their pronouns on it. The parent also told The Graphic that the counselor resisted prompts to use the correct pronouns during their phone calls, and told the parent “she was learning, and she hoped I would grant her mercy.”

The parent told The Graphic that she had brought complaints about the counselor and school climate for more than a year before she filed a Title IX complaint in April.

The three counselors allegedly involved — Hector Santos, Delinda Dykes, and Tania Cabrera — said in three separate but nearly identical statements to the Globe on Monday that they deny the allegations and that any investigation into the matter would show they have not engaged in “any wrongdoings.”

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“I cherish my relationships with students and staff, and so it saddens me that false allegations have been made against me,” all three said in their statements. “However, I will continue to serve this school community to the best of my ability. I am confident that proper procedures will be followed with regard to these complaints and that I will be vindicated.”

Morris said in an e-mailed statement to the Globe on Monday that he received a complaint last month from a family to investigate staff members at Amherst Regional Middle School. He then worked with the district’s Title IX officer on April 14 to “secure an outside attorney” who specializes in Title IX Investigations: Title IX refers to the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on a person’s sex at education institutions that receive federal funds.

“This action was taken over a month ago, before the media coverage of ARMS began, and is continuing with additional concerns and complaints that have come in since then, which have been immediately forwarded to the investigator,” Morris said, adding that he will not be taking any more questions or media inquiries “due to the ongoing investigation and privacy concerns.”

MassLive reported last week that three unnamed staff members in the district have been placed on leave amid the investigation.


Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her @adriarwatson.