Amherst School District Releases Report on Mistreatment of LGBTQ Students

A completed Title IX report found evidence that leaders in Amherst Public Schools failed to adequately protect LGBTQ+ students from discrimination, which was perpetuated by three counselors at the middle school.

Amherst School District Releases Report on Mistreatment of LGBTQ Students
A rally at the middle school earlier this year called for support for LGBTQ students and for the resignation of the superintendent. Photo courtesy MassLive. 

Reports released by the Amherst-Pelham School District (ARPS) confirm allegations of discrimination against LGBTQ students at the Amherst-Pelham Regional Middle School (ARMS) by counselors Delinda Dykes, Hector Santos, and Tania Cabrera. The reports also describe the way former Assistant Superintendent of Diversity, Equity, and Human Resources Doreen Cunningham failed to take action in the face of the counselors’ homophobic and transphobic behavior.

They add that “since many staff believed [Former Amherst Schools Superintendent Michael Morris ’00] gave Cunningham unwavering support, by extension they perceived they could not complain to Morris about any concerns regarding Santos or Dykes.”

The Amherst-Pelham Regional High School (ARHS) newspaper, The Graphic, broke the story last May in an exposé accusing the counselors of failing to address bullying of trans students and continual misgendering of students.    

The Graphic’s article reported that Dykes said, “In the name of Jesus, we bind that LGBTQ gay demon that wants to confuse our children” in a private prayer circle in Santos’ office. When a trans male student came to Cabrera for support, she gave her sympathies towards his parents who “lost their daughter.” Santos also misgendered a student “approximately 10 to 15 times” during a staff meeting despite repeated corrections from others, according to one of the reports.    

Cunningham had a personal relationship with the counselors she supervised. The ARHS article included one of Santo’s Facebook posts, which features him, Cunningham, and Dykes at a party and referring to them as “siblings in faith.” Staff members believed Santos, Cunningham, Dykes worshipped at the same church, but it wasn’t confirmed by the report.

A parent of a trans child filed a Title IX complaint on April 14, sparking the investigation. Morris chose the company Just Training Solutions for the investigation. The investigator interviewed over 80 teachers, staff, parents, and students.  

“I’m glad that an outside investigator was used,” said Jennifer Shiao, a member of the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham school committees. “Someone who was already known to individuals might have made people uncomfortable if they were talking to an investigator who they knew in a different context.”

Dykes, Santos, and Cabrera have been on paid administrative leave since the beginning of the Title IX investigation. Cunningham stopped working for the public schools on Oct. 13. The school committee does not have the jurisdiction to fire individual staff members.

The counselors and assistant superintendent were people of color. Cunningham received praise during her tenure for diversifying staff to better reflect the student body’s racial makeup.

“People perceive Amherst to be a predominately white town … but if you look at the data of the school it’s actually more diverse,” said Sarah Barr, Director of Community Engagement at the college, “and the [school] staff more representative of what Amherst College looks like.”

Amherst-Pelham schools are 7.6 percent Black, 9.7 percent Asian, 18.1 percent Hispanic, and 53.7 percent white as of 2023.

The racial component of the situation created a “culture of fear” in ARMS, according to Shiao. Cunningham utilized race to intimidate white and light-skin Latino ARMS teachers and staff members, preventing ARMS staff from feeling comfortable reporting the counselor’s misconduct to Cunningham, according to a report.

“People were afraid of being called racist,” Shiao said.

Morris “defended and praised” Cunningham’s hiring process and asked to find “constructive ways to share feedback” in regards to Cunningham on Oct. 31, 2022, in an email to all ARPS faculty and staff. Many staff members interpreted Morris’ message as “indicative that Cunningham was immune from criticism” according to one report.  

“This was a very painful episode in the district, not just because queer and trans students were harmed, but also because it had a racial component — the counselors and the assistant superintendent were all people of color, in a district that has worked hard to diversify its teaching and administrative staff,” said Judith Frank, a professor of English at the college. “That I think complicated things.”

Frank had a trans child in ARMS only for a year due to Covid. In retrospect, they felt “grateful” their child did not approach the counselors for help.    

“And the community, to my mind, failed to address this in an intersectional way. So my feelings are tangled,” Frank said.

Shiao recommends for the creation of subcommittees to “really dig deep” into the reports to create recommendations for the school committee to act upon in the future.  

“There’s been a lot of focus on the way adults have been treated,” Shiao said, “and I think we need to focus more on students and making sure that students are safe.”