An Amherst Middle School science teacher has disappeared without explanation

AMHERST — An Amherst Regional Middle School science teacher placed on leave in November, putting her students’ education on hold, appears to have lost her job, even after calls from parents and the teachers union to be allowed to return.

Concerned that seventh-graders are being deprived of their science education due to the absence of teacher Erin Lawler and the lack of notice that a substitute has been on the job since Nov. 9, parents pressed the Amherst Regional School Committee on the issue at a Dec. 12 meeting.

“Erin is an excellent teacher and her kids were excited to go to class every day,” said parent Jenny Franz. “It’s unfortunate that they missed out on an important curriculum, but they also missed out on one of their favorite teachers.”

“She just disappeared one day, with no explanation to our kids or our parents,” said parent Greta Biagi, who added that Lawler had made a positive impact through her teaching and empathy and was replaced by a “glorified classroom.”

Laura Hunter, whose husband teaches in an adjacent middle school classroom, said the situation is troubling.

“It’s chaos out there,” Hunter said. “It’s noisy, the students aren’t concentrating, they’re not getting the education they need, and it’s quite disturbing.”

Two days after the meeting, the families were informed by Talib Sadiq, principal of the middle and high school, that Lawler would not be returning. The message from Sadiq acknowledged that the past few weeks have been unsettling for the students in her classes.

“I apologize for not getting in touch sooner, but Head Office has recently confirmed that Ms Lawler will not be returning to her position at ARMS and we wish her the best in her future endeavours,” Sadiq wrote

A long-term substitute with a serious science background is hired to serve on Team C until a permanent science teacher is placed on board.

“We assure you that providing Team C students with a high-quality educational experience in the sciences is our top priority,” Sadiq wrote.

Reached by phone, Lawler said she had no comment.

The circumstances of her firing are unclear, but Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter told the School Committee that personnel matters are private and beyond his purview and that plans to fill science classes will be in place.

Slaughter said an employee’s termination must not be for cause or cause within the first 90 days of hire and that the district takes seriously all hiring decisions and when employees are let go.

“There are many factors that we consider. I’ll leave it there,” Slaughter said.

But Shutesbury Representative Anna Heard said because students are not receiving science instruction, there should be better policies in place to notify families of teacher absences, rather than leaving parents and students hanging.

“What I’m hearing from the community is a very poor communication plan,” Hurd said.

Slaughter said communication is a challenge because Sadiq is covering two buildings at once. “It’s a shame, I don’t agree,” Slaughter said.

While not publicly identifying the employee, middle school teacher Irene LaRoche said more than 50 teachers have signed a letter demanding a colleague’s reinstatement. “We ask: Why is a teacher who has done nothing wrong still not in the classroom?”

LaRoche said the union, which advocates for safe and inclusive learning environments, said the union member and the teacher were accused of out-of-school activities and placed on leave without investigation and then fired.

“DCF has since investigated and cleared this teacher of all wrongdoing,” LaRoche told the school board. “The charges were found to be unfounded”

Franz said Lawler may have been targeted for a Chapter 51A child abuse or neglect report because of her duty as a mandated reporter to recognize and report suspected child abuse or neglect.

Amherst Rep. Katie Lazdowski asked what message school officials are sending to a student who might want to make a report and then worry about a staff member potentially losing their job.

Hunter, who unsuccessfully sought a position on the school committee last month, said the district needs to start listening to the teachers union, parents and students who have asked for the teacher’s return.

“I am concerned that there is an uneven treatment of how staff are hired and fired, without any transparency,” Hunter said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at [email protected].

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