Race vs. Gender Identity In Amherst Public Schools Flap Over Interim Principal

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2024/01/13/race-vs-gender-indentity-in-amherst-public-schools-flap-over-interim-principal/

A black female educator offered the position of interim principal at Amherst Regional Middle School doesn’t want it anymore after being publicly criticized by the mother of a student who identifies as transgender for the way she used restorative justice to handle complaints of bullying.

The mother, Kara Knott, of Shutesbury, called Letha Gayle-Brissett, the school’s climate and cultural coordinator, “the wrong choice” for interim principal.

Knott said her child, a current ninth-grader, experienced “bias-related bullying and harassment” during the child’s two years at the middle school, and that Gayle-Brissett responded by putting her child in the same room with the child’s tormentors and focusing attention on them.

“Not only was it not a helpful experience, her interventions, her lack of understanding and familiarity with gender identity issues and gender-affirming practice further exacerbated the harm done to our child,” Knott said during the public comment portion of the Amherst Regional School Committee meeting on Tuesday, January 9. “… And the restorative justice practices that placed him in rooms with the bullying students. Students who repeatedly used anti-trans slurs, dead-named him, outed him in front of other students, made it impossible for him to use the bathroom at school repeatedly throughout his time there.”

Knott said the administrator told the transgender student that the student “should be more patient, that people are still learning, that these issues are new to a lot of people” rather than focusing on what she called “the harm, the real harm.”

The student, Lee, told the school committee other teachers affirmed Lee, but that Gayle-Brissett didn’t.

“And it did feel like she didn’t care. And I’m not saying that that’s how she felt at all, because I don’t know how she felt, but that’s how it made me feel,” Lee said.

Gayle-Presett called the accusations “categorically false and professional damaging” and said she was “a source of support and refuge for LGBTQI students.”

Gayle-Presett said that as “a restorative justice coordinator” at the middle school she works “to support students and staff and provide less punitive approaches to responding to behavioral challenges and resolve conflict in sustainable ways.”

She also suggested racism is behind the accusations against her.

“It cannot be coincident that these allegations are emerging at a time when I was offered a position as interim principal. There have been whispers that some members in the middle school community are intent on removing people of color, especially black people, from leadership positions. It is not unreasonable to believe that these false claims are part of this agenda,” Gayle-Presett said during the meeting.

Several people spoke highly of Gayle-Presett during the public comment portion of the meeting, including a fellow teacher and an administrative assistant.

Amherst Regional School Committee members did not address the accusations and counter-accusations directly, but later in the meeting a committee member asked about how restorative justice is practiced in the public schools in Amherst.

The interim superintendent, Douglas Slaughter, said restorative justice “can be a powerful tool” but “is tricky to implement well.”

“Restorative justice is difficult to do well, and it doesn’t fit all circumstances. It’s difficult to do well with adults, and even harder with kids, I think, in a lot of ways,” Slaughter said.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported on Thursday, January 11 that Gayle-Presett turned down the interim principal position.

Amherst Regional Middle School serves grades 7 and 8 for the city of Amherst and the towns of Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury.

Amherst, a city of about 39,000 in western Massachusetts, is the home of the University of Massachusetts’s flagship campus, Amherst College, and Hampshire College. It is left-leaning – in the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 90 to 7 percent.


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