AMHERST— Eleven-year-old Kai Schwartz stood tall on Friday afternoon, a rainbow flag tied around his shoulders, as he chanted along with a crowd of about 50 people protesting the school district’s treatment of LGBTQ+ students.
“It’s a queer world, after all,” the group loudly sang, to the tune of the Disney song “It’s A Small World.” Kai, who uses he/they pronouns, said the singing and chanting was his favorite part of the event.
“I like the singing a lot,” he said in an interview. “I’m trans and I feel proud to be here.”
Kai, who is going into sixth grade this fall joined other community members to rally outside Amherst Regional Middle School in support of the district’s LGBTQ+ students and to demand transparency from district leaders about an ongoing investigation into whether district employees discriminated against transgender students.
The rally comes just weeks after Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools Superintendent Michael Morris returned to his role after a two month medical leave amid the Title IX investigation.
Though not present at the rally, Morris was a prominent point of conversation. Sara Eddy, 56, is a resident of Amherst who sent her children, now 20 and 23, through the public school system.
“Morris is a good man and I have a lot of respect for him, but he left kids in harm’s way knowingly,” Eddy said in an interview. “I am appalled.”
One rising sophomore at Amherst Regional High School, who asked his name not be used because his mother works at the school, said that he faced bullying while a student at the middle school because of his gender identity. He is trans.
“This is a systematic issue that has been present for a long time,” the 15-year-old said. “This is a horrible thing that could’ve been stopped a lot earlier if adults had properly investigated what was going on.”
Jena Schwartz, a rally organizer who is not related to Kai, said the primary purpose is to show transgender and queer youth there are people in the community who want the district to be “a safe place to learn and thrive.” But they are also rallying to demand the School Committee call for a meeting to discuss placing Morris on administrative leave during the ongoing investigation, Schwartz said.
In an emailed statement to the Globe on Thursday, Regional School Committee Chair Ben Herrington said committee members are aware of some parents’ demands “but do not currently have sufficient cause to place the superintendent on administrative leave.”
In May, Amherst Regional High School’s student newspaper, The Graphic, first reported families and staff alleged three counselors at Amherst Regional Middle School purposely misgendered students, failed to support students who faced gender-based bullying or harassment, and expressed religious beliefs in conversations with students and staff.
One parent told the publication that one of the counselors routinely misgendered her child, even when the student wore a hat with a large pin with the correct pronouns on it. The parent also told the newspaper she had raised concerns about the counselor and overall school climate for more than a year before she filed the complaint in April.
Sara Barber-Just, the teacher who advised the newspaper’s project, and Talvin Dhingra, a student reporter who worked closely on the story, were both present at the rally.
“I’m proud of the work that we did and I’m glad it’s come to light,” Talvin, who is 17, said. He is a rising senior at Amherst Regional High School, and plans to continue reporting on the issue in the fall.
Drew Chasse, Kai Schwartz’s older sister, went through the Amherst schools. Now 25-years-old, she said she was surprised that the schools are still dealing with these issues.
“I wasn’t comfortable being out when I was a student there,” Chasse, who is queer, said in an interview. “I’m still pretty shocked that nothing has really changed. It’s disappointing.”
Julian Hynes, who attends the high school, is disappointed in the School Committee’s reaction.
“It shows you who they are serving and who they aren’t,” Hynes, 18, said in an interview.
Three staff members and one of the district’s assistant superintendents have been placed on leave.
Morris announced in May, amid the investigation, he was temporarily stepping away from his duties for health reasons. Following his announcement, the Amherst-Pelham Education Association voted no confidence in Morris and asked the School Committee to conduct its own investigation into him, alleging he failed to promptly address complaints of anti-LGBTQ+ actions by some district staff members.
Morris declined multiple requests for comment on Thursday.
He addressed the investigation in a recent letter sent to the district community and said regardless of its outcomes, “it is clear that we must expand our training for faculty and staff and our learning opportunities for students with regard to gender identity, sexuality, and understanding of the need for justice for members of the LGBTQIA#[sic] community.”
“We will be reviewing our reporting systems to ensure they are clear, easily accessible, and provide multiple ways in which concerns can be officially shared with schools and the district offices,” he said in the letter.