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Amid probe of treatment of transgender students, Amherst-Pelham district leaders name acting superintendent

Members of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee listened to public comment during an emergency school committee meeting in Amherst May 18.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

Amherst school committee members took quick action on Thursday to appoint an acting superintendent from within the district, just a week after teachers voted no confidence in current leadership and the superintendent said he would temporarily step down.

Douglas Slaughter, finance director of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, will serve as interim superintendent through Sept. 30. His appointment came nearly a week after Superintendent Michael Morris announced he was temporarily stepping down for health reasons.

The Western Massachusetts school district has been under scrutiny over allegations of discrimination against transgender students in the middle school.

M.J. Schwartz, a stepparent of a student in the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, spoke during public comment at an emergency school committee meeting.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

Looking to restore trust and turn the district around amid concerns of how LGBTQIA+ students are treated, the Amherst-Pelham Regional and Union 26 School Committees selected Slaughter over two other candidates.

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Committee members described Slaughter’s temperament as calm, steady, and even-keeled, and his manner as systematic, by the book, straight forward, and impartial.

“He really fits the bill” for “what the district needs” in this moment, member Peter Demling said.

Member Irv Rhodes said he had “extensive experience” working with Slaughter and believed “he is the best person for this job, for this time.”

Slaughter did not speak at Thursday’s meeting, but in his statement of interest for the job, he noted the “tremendous amount of trauma and hurt” circulating among students, staff, and the community.

“The process of repair will likely extend well beyond the term of any acting superintendent, but it must start as soon as possible,” Slaughter wrote. “This will likely be an imperfect and lengthy process, but I hope to be able to put the district on a path toward healing, focusing on the children first.”

Morris’ announcement last Friday that he would be stepping away temporarily from his duties as superintendent due to health concerns, launched an immediate search for an acting superintendent.

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The other candidates considered for the role were Trevor Baptiste, who was chair of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee from 2014 to 2017; and former Greenfield Superintendent Susan Hollins.

Slaughter’s appointment comes amid an outside investigation probing allegations that counselors at the Amherst Regional Middle School discriminated against transgender students. The interim superintendent is expected to receive the results of that investigation, according to the School Committee.

It also follows the Amherst-Pelham Education Association voting no confidence last week in Morris and Doreen Cunningham, the district’s assistant superintendent for diversity, equity, and human resources. The Amherst-Pelham Education Association recently demanded Cunningham’s resignation because of other concerns which include allegations of unethical hiring practices and claims that she created a “toxic” work environment.

At Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, Cunningham said in an e-mail that she would not apologize or resign. “I have done the job that I was hired to do and done it very well,” she wrote.

Cunningham said she looked forward to “the possibility of working with the community to make necessary changes.”

The union also called on the Amherst Regional 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.

Amherst Regional High School’s student newspaper, The Graphic, first reported last week that students, families, and staff alleged three counselors at the 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.

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One 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. Morris told the Globe in an e-mail statement on Monday that he received a complaint from a family last month to investigate the staff members at the middle school then worked with the district’s Title IX officer to find an outside attorney who specializes in Title IX investigations.

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


Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her @adriarwatson. Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her @talanez.