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Threat again unsettles Amherst Regional

AMHERST — Facing an animated group of about 15 protesters outside the school Thursday, Amherst Regional High School Pprincipal Mark Jackson said police have more evidence to work with this time in identifying the author of a threatening note referencing a black teacher at the school who has been the target of hostile acts this school year.

“Police are in there now interviewing a subset of students,” he said Thursday morning. “In the past there have been anonymous notes on the bathroom walls. The way the event played out yesterday, I actually have the ability to narrow the focus of the investigation.,

he said. “Today feels different because there is a degree of specificity,.” he said.

The latest note renewed questions about whether the school is doing enough to address racial hostility. Parents and others said Thursday they were upset not only that those responsible for the notes had not been caught, but that Gardner had felt isolated in her return to school, despite Jackson’s attempt to protect her.

Later in the morning, Police Chief Scott Livingstone, Superintendent Maria Geryk and Faye Brady, director of student services, met with parents in the high school auditorium.

Note’s contents

A note, addressed to “MJ,” presumed to be Mark Jackson, was found in the library Wednesday. It said: saying “We are bringing a gun to school,” and was signed “Carolyn Gardner.,” was found in the library Wednesday. Gardner is the math teacher who has been the target of racial graffiti and two threatening incidents since she began teaching at Amherst Regional High School in September. She was out of school for two weeks following the discovery of a note in March and returned after Jackson took several measures, such as providing hall monitors and an escort for her.

Jackson, who met with the group of protesters around 9:30 a.m., said though the latest note was a threat to the school, not the teacher, her safety and the , along with the well-being of the rest of the school is his top concern.

“We’re trying to reassure everybody and trying to acknowledge that there is a cumulative weight that comes with all of these incidents for everybody, for Carolyn, for the community,” he told the group of parents and other community members who were carrying signs with messages such as “Enough is enough.”

Jackson He said students working at the school Wednesday night preparing the teacher’s’ appreciation breakfast, which was held Thursday morning, were upset over the latest note. “They came unglued,” he said, a reaction that resulted “from a sense of pain for the community and a sense of connectiveness for Carolyn.”

Gardner Parents and others said Thursday in the group said they were upset not only that those responsible for the notes had not been caught, but that Gardner had felt isolated in her return to school, despite Jackson’s attempt to protect. She was absent Thursday and supporters, who had met with her Wednesday night, said they did not know when she would be back. They said the school climate encourages racist acts.

Sonji Johnson-Anderson said Gardner has been shunned by other teachers and has been “greeted by open hostility in the hallway.” While acknowledging that school officials have attempted to make Gardner feel safe, these “microaggressions” have increased threefold since she returned after a prolonged absence last spring, Johnson-Anderson said.

Jackson said he was unaware of that and would turn his attention to it. He said his first priority had been to ensure Gardner felt secure.

“If the interpersonal piece is falling short, I can address that,” he said.

Vira Douangmany-Cage, who has children in the schools, said Gardner’s difficulties are related to the fact that she is among a small minority of teachers of color in the school system. “Because of that, there are those who don’t accept her in that leadership role,” Douangmany-Cage said.

Gardner, who previously taught at Northampton High School, has been the target of hostility since September when she arrived at Amherst Regional. Bolts were removed from the chair in her classroom, air was released from her car tires, her cellphone was stolen and three messages containing racist and obscene messages were written on bathroom walls and on the door to her classroom. A student was disciplined for a bathroom note written in October, but no other suspects have been identified.

Pat Ononibaku, who has a daughter at the high school and owns a restaurant in town, said she is stunned that those responsible have not been found.

“They should know who is doing this by now,” she said.

While Jackson was addressing the parents, a group of senior students, who had been gathering a distance away for the traditional outdoor senior breakfast, marched en mass past the group chanting “2014, 2014.” Student Nina Allen, who is a senior, said she asked the students to show support for the protesters. The students’ message, she said, is that they are angry over the hostile behavior displayed by someone among them. “That is where all the attention has been going, “ she said. “We want the attention to be on our message: We won’t tolerate hate.”

Jackson told those gathered that he would meet with them again to continue the discussion if they wanted to.

Later in the morning Police Chief of Police Scott Livingstone, Superintendent of Schools Maria Geryk and Faye Brady, director of student services, met with parents in the high school auditorium.

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

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