Title IX report: Amherst school leaders failed students over LGBTQ+ bullying

Completed Title IX reports released publicly on Friday found that Amherst Regional Public School leaders failed to adequately protect LGBTQ+ students from bullying and harassment by classmates and staff members. In this May photo, high school students rally in support of the middle school students.

Completed Title IX reports released publicly on Friday found that Amherst Regional Public School leaders failed to adequately protect LGBTQ+ students from bullying and harassment by classmates and staff members. In this May photo, high school students rally in support of the middle school students. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH 

Staff Writer 

Published: 11-20-2023 9:34 AM

AMHERST — Amherst Regional Public School leaders failed to adequately protect LGBTQ+ students from bullying and harassment by classmates and staff members, and allowed offensive conduct by at least one employee to continue despite multiple complaints, according to completed Title IX reports and other associated investigatory reports released publicly on Friday.

Additionally, the investigation found that “a culture of fear and intimidation” and racial tensions appeared to permeate the school district.

“Sufficient credible evidence exists to support the allegation that ARPS officials failed to appropriately respond to and effectively address allegations of harassment and misconduct by staff toward students based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression,” reads a section of the main 94-page Title IX report written by Edward Mitnick, CEO of Just Training Solutions in Springfield.

The report states that then-Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham, who left her position last month, created a “culture of fear and intimidation” and that Delinda Dykes and Hector Santos, two counselors at Amherst Regional Middle School, violated school district policies by intentionally misgendering students.

“In summary, I find that many staff at ARMS were hesitant or unwilling to report alleged incidents of inappropriate conduct toward students, particularly by Hector Santos and Delinda Dykes,” Mitnick wrote. “I further found this culture of fear and intimidation among staff at ARMS to be both severe and pervasive.”

In the main report, which stems from a parent’s Title IX complaint filed in April, Mitnick concludes that there were failures under former Superintendent Michael Morris, who resigned from his position at the end of August. Morris initiated internal investigations into Dykes, one that began following an email March 25, 2022 and the other in March 2023 over homophobic comments she allegedly made, yet “Morris claimed the first time he had heard concerns about Dykes’ treatment of students related to gender-based matters was nearly a year” after the first investigation was launched.

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Mitnick described those internal investigations as “problematic.”

“I find both of these investigations to be deficient and constitute a failure of the School District to take prompt effective action in response to legitimate concerns of inappropriate behavior,” Mitnick wrote.

A total of five reports were completed. In addition to the main Title IX report, there are separate reports on Dykes, Santos and fellow counselor Tania Cabrera, as well as one focused on Dykes and Santos.

The release of the reports comes following a public records appeal to the secretary of state, filed by the Daily Hampshire Gazette on Oct. 16, after the school district denied two requests from the newspaper, made in September and October, to obtain the reports. The Gazette argued that the state’s Public Records Law calls for disclosure, since district leaders and public employees might be subjects of the investigation and more than $70,000 was paid to Mitnick.

The reports were completed in October and had previously only been available to some staff, administrators and members of the Amherst Regional School Committee, and not to the public at large.

Title IX probe

A Title IX investigation began April 14 after a resident alleged her transgender child had been harmed by the actions of school employees and was potentially suicidal after intentionally being misgendered and misnamed by three employees. That led to Cunningham and three other staff members, believed to be Dykes, Santos and Cabrera, being placed on leave amid the investigation.

Under the Public Records Law, Manza Arthur, supervisor of records, wrote that the investigatory reports were not “core categories of personnel information that are ‘useful in making employment decisions regarding an employee’” and the district “has not demonstrated that the records contain intimate details of a highly personal nature or that disclosure of such information would result in personal embarrassment to an individual of normal sensibilities.”

Cunningham’s behavior is scrutinized in the report, from details about her running a private consulting company, Another Lens Consulting, from the district office, and retaliating against a paraeducator after that employee brought concerns about Dykes’ inappropriate conduct toward LGBTQ+ students.

“Sufficient credible evidence exists to support the conclusion that Doreen Cunningham engaged in retaliatory conduct against a paraeducator,” Mitnick found.

Cunningham also had a role in the creation of a flyer, distributed at an emergency School Committee meeting on May 16, that included “highly disrespectful, hostile, and possibly defamatory” comments toward the teachers union president, a flyer that also made accusations about other staff members practicing witchcraft. Witnesses said they were either handed the flyer or found it under the windshield wipers of their cars, according to the report.

“Sufficient credible evidence exists to support the conclusion that Doreen Cunningham engaged in unprofessional and offensive conduct … when she assisted in creating a highly demeaning and inflammatory flyer disseminated at the School Committee meeting on May 16, 2023,” the Title IX report reads.

The reports offer details into the behavior of Dykes and Santos, confirming some of the contents of an in-depth article printed in The Graphic, the high school newspaper, last spring.

For instance, while Mitnick’s report shows that they participated in prayer sessions in the school building, he was unable to verify that this had happened during the school day or that Dykes had made a homophobic comment during one of these meetings. That comment, “In the name of Jesus we pray that the LGBTQ gay demon that wants to attach and confuse these kids to leave this school now” led to an investigation by human resources staff.

There was also a belief among staff that Cunningham attended the same church or had known Dykes and Santos before they were hired by her. Mitnick found this to be inaccurate.

“No credible evidence exists to support the assumption they attended the same church or that Santos or Dykes knew Cunningham prior to working in the district,” he wrote.

But Mitnick wrote that there was additional concern about Morris deferring to Cunningham. “Moreover, since many staff believed Morris gave Cunningham unwavering support, by extension they perceived they could not complain to Morris about any concerns regarding Santos or Dykes.”

Still, he writes, “Dykes engaged in severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive unwelcome conduct by repeatedly misgendering students as well as making offensive and inappropriate comments related to gender and sexual orientation. Moreover, sufficient credible evidence exists to support the allegation that Dykes made a vulgar sexist comment to a male student as well as made offensive remarks to a staff member regarding gay students.”

Similarly, “I conclude Santos engaged in severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive unwelcome conduct by repeatedly misgendering a student on numerous occasions in front of the student, their parent, and ARMS staff.”

Mitnick’s investigation found that Santos also violated district policies by publishing an anti-transgender cartoon on his public Facebook page, making religious references to students during counseling sessions, and spreading rumors and making comments about coworkers practicing witchcraft at the middle school.

The report captures fears by staff members of being accused of racism should problems be reported, especially if brought to Cunningham, who is Black, about Dykes, who is Black, and Santos, who is Hispanic.

“I do believe these statements exemplify the perception that staff are fearful of being labeled racist if they complained about Dykes, Santos or Cunningham,” Mitnick wrote. “Specifically, a teacher presently working at ARMS stated, ‘if we said anything about any process about personnel’ then those people would be called a ‘racist.’”

The report also notes that former Principal Diego Sharon didn’t properly bring concerns to the district leadership.

“Despite credible evidence that staff brought concerns to administrators’ attention about Dykes misgendering students during the 2021–2022 school year, no performance documentation exists that indicates administrators appropriately addressed these concerns,” Mitnick found.

The report offers other details about Dykes’ interactions with colleagues, such as a man who was wearing nail polish:

“For example, a male paraeducator alleged that sometime during the 2021–2022 school year, he was having a conversation with Delinda Dykes when Dykes noticed he had nail polish on his nails. The paraeducator told her that some students painted his nails in the lunchroom. Dykes then allegedly told him, ‘Why would you agree to this? These students are already confused about what boys and girls are and what they should or should not do. We can’t let them continue to think the gay agenda is OK. It is not. You can’t encourage this confusing behavior.’”

The racial tensions were also shown when Martha Toro, a retired educator, had a column criticizing hiring practices published on the Amherst Indy.

“Adding to the dynamic of racial tension among staff at ARMS, after the Toro letter was published, a few teachers at ARMS claimed Delinda Dykes reached out to them and questioned them about an upcoming ‘race war’ and ‘which side are you going to be on,’ and telling white staff members ‘You need to pick a side and stop drinking Kool-Aid like Jim Jones,’” Mitnick’s report says.

The lone counselor to be cleared in the reports was Cabrera.

“Insufficient credible evidence exists to support the allegation that Tania Cabrera engaged in offensive conduct in violation of ARPS’s Title IX Policy,” Mitnick concludes.

Mitnick notes that 83 witnesses, including parents, students, administrators, teachers, staff and former employees of ARPS, were interviewed in the course of preparing five reports, along with a review of over 1,000 documents and emails provided by the school district and witnesses to this investigation.

Release of reports

After interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter informed the Amherst Regional School Committee that the reports were to be made public, the committee voted unanimously Tuesday to instruct him to have the documents published in their entirety, and in a visible way, on the school website.

“I think this is huge,” said Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao. “I think this is a really big deal that all five redacted reports are going to be made available to the public.”

Shiao also thanked Slaughter for not seeking to challenge the secretary of state’s ruling on the Gazette’s appeal that the reports were public records.

Pelham representative William Sherr said he appreciated that a public records request was made. “I just wanted to thank whoever in the public it was who petitioned to make these reports public,” Sherr said.

“We could technically challenge the ruling, but on advice of counsel and the secretary of state, it would be a pretty subtle difference,” Slaughter said. “It was most expedient to prepare versions of these documents that can be made public.”

Amherst representative Irv Rhodes said it’s important that most contents will be made public due to the outcry in the community for the apparent mistreatment of students and failures to addressing the issue.

“The redactions are of students’ names and witnesses, everything else should be made public, to the public,” Rhodes said. “This is one way we can come closer (to identifying) what errors or omissions were made, how can we prepare for this to not happen again in the future, make our amends and apologize for those, and move on to a better future.”

None of the School Committee members disputed that the reports should come out. “We should do it as a matter of being transparent with the public,” Rhodes said.

Amherst representative Gabriela Weaver said there should be a prominent link on the Amherst schools’ website.

Previously, Slaughter had pledged to put together only a summary report that included recommendations and action steps based on the reports. This has been delayed.

“Needless to say, this has interrupted that,” Slaughter said. He estimated that he was about a quarter of the way through that summary. Many of the recommendations expected to be in his summary were outlined by Morris over the summer, including various training for teachers and staff, as well as making it easier for families to fill out forms so a child’s preferred pronouns are in the system and to report bullying when it occurs.

Rhodes said with the reports coming out, he expects the committee members to field an avalanche of questions, and there will be a need to get out ahead of it.

Rhodes added he has read the reports two times, and learned there were areas where the schools were woefully short on the administrative and managerial sides, and with its reporting mechanisms.

“This is Amherst, and believe me everyone who goes through these reports will have five different opinions of what it is, and they will all conflict with each other,” Rhodes said.

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