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Amherst students, faculty turn out for vigil in support of teacher

“We must remember, school is no place for hate,” Jean Fay, president of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association told the crowd that gathered outside the school for the 20-minute vigil. “Let’s use this opportunity to dedicate ourselves to striving toward greater civility among one another.”

Fay, along with other teachers, staff and school committee members, led the group in singing a series of social justice anthems, including “We Shall Overcome” and “If I Had a Hammer.”

School Committee member Amilcar Shabazz said he had just come from visiting Gardner. “She misses you. She misses her school and she is anxious to get back to work,” he said.

The vigil follows the fourth time hostile messages aimed at Gardner were found in the school. Gardner began teaching at Amherst Regional in September. The latest message was written in a boys bathroom last Wednesday. Its discovery aborted Gardner’s plans to return to school Monday after a week’s absence.

Amherst police are investigating the incidents and Principal Mark Jackson has sent a letter to the school community outlining the ways officials intend to protect Gardner once she comes back. A spokesperson for Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan would neither confirm nor deny the DA’s involvement in the police investigation, citing office policy. One student has been punished in connection with one of the October incidents, Jackson has said.

“What most people do not see or know about is how deeply these violations have hurt and traumatized her,” Gardner’s friend Sonji Johnson-Anderson said in an email to the Gazette. “She is genuinely fearful of re-entering that building to resume her duties.”

Shabazz said Gardner’s supporters are still “very much concerned” that a safe environment be provided in the Amherst schools, adding that he hopes the final steps toward that end will allow Gardner to return and the schools to move forward. “Let’s pull together,” he said, speaking the Swahili word for that directive, “harambee.” He asked the crowd to repeat the word as he led an energetic call and response.

Many in the crowd sported orange ribbons that Ashley Nkosi, a speech therapist at Wildwood Elementary School, urged all to wear “in solidarity” with Gardner.

In a statement read by Wildwood School secretary Georgia Malcolm, Nkosi said wearing the pin would give supporters a chance to tell Gardner that “we will not stand by idly, but that we will work in each moment to fight for the oppressed and to take an active role in fighting racism in Amherst.” She said the color orange offers emotional strength in difficult times.

Many of the students present said they felt bad about the attacks on Gardner and want to send the message that such behavior will not be tolerated.

“I am destroyed by what happened to Ms. Gardner,” said sophomore Noreen Swan. “I am hearing people say this is being blown out of proportion. It is a big deal and we need to let people know they need to take this stuff seriously.”

Sophomore Joe Koniezny, who heads the Gender Sexuality Alliance, said he and other members of that organization wanted to turn out for Gardner. “It is important for me to take a stand as a minority student,” he said. “We all need to show our support and respect.”

Fay said the Amherst-Pelham Education Alliance began planning the vigil last Thursday.

In her remarks to the crowd, Fay said the presence of the students and staff there made a statement that they believe diversity is a value they want to promote. “In every community there is work to be done.”

She said later that she was happy with the turnout.

“I think it went extremely well,” she said. “Look at all these students. I am a very optimistic person.”

Jackson said that he, too, was pleased with the event. “I thought this was a very strong move by the APEA. I’m very appreciative of it.”

Sarah Talbot, a member of the executive board of APEA, said the group wanted to show both the community and the students where they stand. “We felt it was important that we step out as a union and as educators to make sure students could see that we are united against racism and that we are committed as a body to ensuring the safety of every member of our school community.”

In the letter to the community over the weekend, Jackson outlined the steps he said he would take to protect Gardner, such as having a second adult with her in her classroom and having an adult escort her to her car at the end of each school day.

A message circulated among Gardner’s supporters over the weekend, called for people to urge school leaders to hold a public forum, like the one officials assembled after a gun threat was made by a student on Facebook in January.

“They need to come before the community again and look us in the eyes and say to us what they are doing about bringing fundamental change to the way things are done in the school,” Johnson-Anderson wrote.

Jackson said Monday that no public meetings or student assemblies are planned. “We will continue to work with our community partners to engage all the issues,” he said. He added that time will be devoted within the next week during the school day for students to discuss the situation.

Gardner began teaching math at Amherst Regional following a 10-year stint at Northampton High School. Anderson-Johnson said that while Gardner welcomes the support she has received following the incidents, she is “very uncomfortable” that she is the focus of attention.

“She really wants light shed on the greater problem of inequity in the school system,” Anderson-Johnson said. “She’s, however, doing her best to work through it. We pray better days are ahead.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.

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