Athol superintendent responds to calls for expulsion

By GREG VINE

For the Recorder

Published: 06-19-2020 3:14 PM

ATHOL — In the face of calls for her expulsion, Darcy Fernandes this week mounted an impassioned defense of her tenure as superintendent of the Athol-Royalston Regional School District.

The matter was discussed at Wednesday’s meeting of the School Committee, nearly three months after an online petition containing a litany of complaints against Fernandes, as well as a letter from the parents of several middle school girls’ basketball players accused of using racial slurs, were forwarded to the committee.

Acting on a recommendation from committee Chair Lee Chauvette, the committee voted unanimously to schedule an executive session to discuss the letter and petition with Fernandes and to determine if any disciplinary action for the superintendent would be appropriate.

The letter, which accused Fernandes of mishandling an investigation into an incident in December 2018, when members of the Athol-Royalston Middle School girls’ basketball team allegedly taunted their opponents from Sabis International Charter School with racial epithets, generated the most discussion. The correspondence also accuses Fernandes of slandering the team and the town during a speech before the Wareham Boys & Girls Club Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast on Jan. 20 of this year.

Lonnie Bonenfont, a spokesperson for the 18 parents who signed the letter, said a video of the speech shows Fernandes claiming the slurs had been uttered, when an investigation into the matter was inconclusive. Bonenfont added that the superintendent had painted Athol as a community of “white trash.”

Fernandes defended her address, stating, “My purpose in including some of my work in Athol-Royalston was not to degrade the community, but rather to help my hometown understand why I am excited to serve as Athol-Royalston’s superintendent and some of the ways I have grown from my work here. My purpose was to communicate my commitment to Athol-Royalston and to equity work.

“In speaking about the events surrounding the incident involving the basketball team, I hoped to inspire others to speak up when people were not able to speak for themselves and to honor a commitment to the cause of civil rights even when it may not be popular.

“The facts I stated about the case were publicized in the Athol-Royalston community through the local newspaper and School Committee meetings, and were factual,” she continued. “I divulged no names of students or parents.”

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As the only black member of the staff at the Athol-Royalston Regional School District, Fernandes took umbrage at “being asked to defend my action surrounding the girls’ basketball team, my speech at the Martin Luther King Breakfast in my hometown, and a litany of other allegations brought forward in an anonymous petition.”

Committee members Mitch Grosky and Carla Rabinowitz, while questioning the wisdom of Fernandes’ comments at the breakfast, mounted an enthusiastic defense of the superintendent.

“I understand the hurt that was felt by the community members and also the students,” said Grosky, “but I also think there are a couple of sides to this situation. I respect enormously the work that Darcy has done and I respect the fact that, if there’s anything we’ve seen in the last two or three weeks in this country, it’s that we have a long way to go in confronting the problem of racism. I believe Darcy sees it as her duty to speak out on those issues, and to speak from her heart on those issues.”

“The thing that allegedly happened,” Rabinowitz said, “was one racist comment by one girl. It’s not something to blow up a community over. Most of the people in this community are not racists; it’s a good community. But I have seen and heard appallingly racist language in various places.

“In working with Darcy, one thing that has always struck me is her passion for helping the kids who feel left out, and that is regardless of skin color,” she continued. “She has constantly expressed and acted on her passionate desire to help those kids, to lift them up, to give them the same educational opportunities the more fortunate kids in our communities have.”

Stating she had been elected to represent the parents in the district, committee member Tammy Duquette said she felt the committee has a responsibility to address each of the complaints in the petition, which was signed by more than 700 people.

Regarding the letter, Duquette said while Wednesday’s meeting was not the place to discuss disciplinary action for Fernandes, “We should be giving the parents their voice here and allowing them to come to us with whatever it is that may be an issue to them. ... I think it’s important to hear them out.”

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