Amherst regional district getting staff aligned on gender, sexual orientation

Amherst Regional High School students march to the middle school in support of LGBTQIA+ students earlier this year.

Amherst Regional High School students march to the middle school in support of LGBTQIA+ students earlier this year. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 11-23-2023 11:00 AM

AMHERST — Two trainings focused on improving staff knowledge of gender identity and sexual orientation, including a full day of professional development with presentations and workshops, are part of the Amherst-Pelham Regional school district’s efforts to improve the school climate and support for LGBTQIA+ youth.

The trainings come in the wake of transphobic actions by former counselors at the middle school substantiated in a recently released Title IX report. They are being led, in part, by the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, a program developed with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth, and a partnership with the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts.

They also fit with plans unveiled by former Superintendent Michael Morris over the summer to make the schools safe and welcoming for all students. Morris announced those plans before resigning amid the middle school Title IX investigation.

Marta Guevara, director of student and family engagement, told the Amherst Regional School Committee at its Nov. 14 meeting that the training represents a renewed focus on the educational environment for students.

“We’re not going to be satisfied until everybody feels respected, accepted, welcomed as if they belong,” Guevara said. “That is really our commitment.”

Noting that few districts have shown such a commitment to having staff learning together in this way, Guevera said the district wants all educators to have the same understanding.

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Guevara and Mary Kiely, coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment for the district, explained that the LGBTQIA+ training explores inclusive language and promotes better practices to support and affirm everyone.

At the beginning of the school year in late August, a 90-minute convocation was led by representatives from Safe Schools. Staff from the four elementary schools in Amherst and Pelham and the Amherst Regional middle and high schools participated. Guevara said the Stonewall Center was also helpful and generous in providing support.

Then, on Nov. 7, the town’s Election Day, the professional development began with an hourlong presentation by Translate Gender’s Trans Youth Action Team. Four youth leaders from Hampshire County who identify as trans, nonbinary or gender expansive responded to questions from two facilitators about their experiences in and out of school, and their recommendations for how best to support LGBTQIA+ youth.

The options then included programs, such as “Supporting Nonbinary and Gender Expansive Students: All Things Nonbinary and Beyond the Gender Binary” led by Genny Beemyn from the Stonewall Center, “Curricular Resources/Inclusive Curriculum” led by Jason Wheeler from Safe Schools and “Engagement with Families and Community” led by Deb Kolodny, an independent community trainer. Other programs focused on navigating microaggressions, implementing student leadership and “Land and Identity: Queer Farming in the Valley.”

Kiely said Amherst students weren’t asked to speak at the first daylong training, but they could be invited to participate the future. In fact, Guevara said the high school has an “amazing” group known as the Sexuality and Gender Alliance, that will be welcomed. “Clearly the first step was listening,” Guevara said.

Interim Superintendent Doug Slaughter said any kind of training like this is ongoing, reacquainting people with Amherst values, a commitment to reinvigorate processes and reintroduce topics.

“There’s always going to be an ongoing conversation. The nature of the issues change over time, you always have to adapt and grow and strengthen and reinforce as you go along,” Slaughter said.

Amherst representative Katie Lazdowski asked how success is being measured.

Guevara said that is still being determined, but district leaders owe it to students and families to make sure the trainings work. “We will have a comprehensive plan,” Guevara said. “We can’t evaluate or hold people accountable if we don’t teach what we think they should all know.”

An outline of next steps includes scheduling two meetings a month with the LGBTQIA+ Parent-Guardian Advisory Group, gathering feedback from LGBTQIA+ students, working with existing student organizations at the middle and high schools on school climate matters related to LGBTQIA+ issues, and deploying a grant obtained by middle school nurse Celia Maysles to educate about sexual harassment, working with an organization called SafeBae and involving the People Opposed to Sexual Harassment student group.

Amherst representative Gabriela Weaver said she appreciates the response and that changing culture is an ongoing lesson. “I applaud the beginning and encourage the continuation,” Weaver said.

“This is a really excellent plan,” said Amherst representative Roger Wallace. Wallace said it is good to tackle both microaggressions and macroaggressions, and allow students to take leadership.

High school senior Miguel Pinero-Jacome, who serves as a student representative, offered thanks on behalf of the student body for the district’s commitment to their well-being.

“I also want to underline the importance of feeling supported by teachers and administrators,” Pinero-Jacome said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.