AMHERST — Lee Khashu, a transgender male who just graduated the eighth grade at Amherst Regional Middle School, is used to being told to “get out” of the boys’ bathroom. But one day earlier this year, he didn’t have time to deal with the harassment or wait for the gender-neutral bathroom to be free, so he decided to use the girls’ bathroom. He was about to walk in when another eighth grader, who knows he’s trans, called out.
“He said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be a boy? Oh, are you switching back now?’” Khashu recalled. Not only did that comment “out” Khashu in front of a group of seventh graders who didn’t know he was trans, but for days kids called him “tranny,” “fag,” and other slurs, he said.
His parents, Kara Knott and Ajay Khashu, reported antitrans bullying multiple times — one student repeatedly referred to Lee Khashu as “it” — but they say the school treated such incidents as isolated interpersonal problems rather than as bias incidents contributing to a hostile climate. “It’s a schoolwide problem,” Knott said in a Zoom interview with the Globe. “You need a schoolwide solution.”
After Lee expressed thoughts of suicide and self-harm, she and her son developed their own safety plan.
Their account of a transphobic and homophobic culture at the middle school is one of several that have come to light through the work of student journalists at the nearby Amherst Regional High School and their journalism teacher and newspaper adviser, Sara Barber-Just. In May, they published a nearly 5,000-word exposé in the online student newspaper, The Graphic, citing sources — some using pseudonyms — who said transphobia and anti-LGBTQ language and behavior were allowed to fester at the middle school over the course of two years, despite students, parents, and staff repeatedly voicing concerns to school and district leadership.
The article detailed allegations that adjustment counselor Hector Santos and eighth-grade guidance counselor Delinda Dykes misgendered trans students and staff on a routine basis, brought religion into conversations at school, and failed to support students facing gender-based bullying. A source identified as a secretary told The Graphic that Dykes led a prayer circle before school in Santos’ office with the invocation, “In the name of Jesus, we bind that LGBTQ gay demon that wants to confuse our children.”
Seventh-grade guidance counselor Tania Cabrera, who is reportedly Santos’ daughter, also faces accusations of failing to protect trans students. She told a trans male student who’d gone to her for help that she sympathized with his parents, who had “lost their daughter,” according to the article.
All three counselors denied the claims in statements to The Graphic, and their attorney, Ryan P. McLane, told the Globe in an e-mail that the allegations are unfounded: “My clients did not engage in ‘conversion therapy’ or any Title IX violation,” he wrote. “They are Christians, but that does not mean that they are somehow not entitled to a fair investigation. While the law prohibits discrimination based on sex, it also prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs.”
The students’ article posted on May 9 and within hours attracted thousands of page views and media attention. Within days came a dizzying series of announcements: that an external Title IX investigation was already underway; three unnamed staffers had been placed on paid administrative leave; Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools Superintendent Michael Morris was taking an immediate leave for health reasons; and the education union was calling on Doreen Cunningham, the assistant superintendent for diversity, equity, and human resources, to resign. She has since been placed on administrative leave.
The events have shocked and shaken this college town — long considered an LGBTQ-friendly, liberal enclave — at a time when trans rights are under attack across the country. And the picture that continues to emerge is a complicated one, layering issues of gender, religion, and race and forcing a community to reckon with itself.
But perhaps no one is more surprised to see the extent of the story’s ripple effects than the student reporters who broke it.
In late May, junior Talvin Dhingra sat with Barber-Just in her classroom, where they met every morning for a journalism independent study. “I didn’t know any of this was going on at the middle school — um, or allegedly going on at the middle school — prior to hearing stories about it,” said the 17-year-old lead reporter.
He’d been working on an article about student vaping when rumors about counselors at the middle school expressing religious and anti-LGBTQ beliefs surfaced at an April 25 School Committee meeting.
“I’d already known a little bit because my mom works at the middle school,” senior Lucia Lopez said in late May. “I think we all wanted to do something about it and make a change.”
Lopez was one of 15 seniors who worked on the story in Barber-Just’s Journalistic Writing class this spring.
Typically, students begin by profiling a peer before moving on to writing a news story, then a feature article. But after that April 25 meeting, community members started reaching out directly to Barber-Just, who jotted down notes and passed sources to her students. And as they began looking into rumors about counselors at the middle school, other assignments fell away.
The investigation started with a class discussion among the student journalists: Did the counselors hold any sort of anti-LGBTQ beliefs? If so, how did that affect kids who came to them for support? And if kids found counseling was not a safe place to go, where did they go next? The young reporters discovered that LGBTQ students who stopped going to their guidance counselors in crisis eventually “fanned out” across the building, getting support from other staff they trusted, such as an English teacher and a school nurse.
“One of the things I always try to teach . . . is that you’re not guiding the story, the story is guiding you,” said Barber-Just, who shapes, edits, and fact-checks her students’ work.
Together, they drew up a list of approximately 25 potential sources and divided into teams using their personal e-mails to contact those sources “on the down-low, almost like we were on a secret op,” said Graphic reporter Victor Cruz-Castro.
One team reached out to the superintendent, and another to the assistant superintendent, while others contacted employees at the middle school. A group researching misgendering found a 2018 study linking trans youth who could use their chosen name freely to reduced suicidal ideation and behavior.
Meanwhile, Dhingra interviewed trans middle school students and their families.
A parent who used a pseudonym in The Graphic to protect her child’s privacy had filed a Title IX complaint leading the district to initiate an investigation April 14. At that point, she’d given the district more than six months to address her concerns about the harm her nonbinary child had endured at school, the parent told the Globe. “It seemed like nobody was going to do anything, unless there was an official complaint.”
In his interviews with the families, Dhingra said, “I wanted them to feel safe. I didn’t have to do that much talking. They really wanted to tell their stories.” Barber-Just asked “clarifying questions,” and the pair later allowed the families to review sections of the article.
Dhingra knew Lee Khashu but hadn’t known about his experience at school. Khashu and his parents described frequent misgendering by staff and antitrans bullying incidents by peers, one of whom also mocked his race (his father is Indian). Khashu’s parents said the school handled bullying by playing it down or prescribing “restorative circles” and chats held by a school culture and climate coordinator, where Khashu would face his bully. But the harassment didn’t stop, his parents said.
The parent who filed the Title IX complaint also described adults repeatedly misgendering her child (despite the student wearing a large pronoun pin) and transphobic, peer bullying that began in the seventh grade. In one incident, “I remember walking out of the school building and having 15 people catcalling me and barking at me, calling me a [fag], and making sexually suggestive gestures,” the student told The Graphic.
When that student was at the end of seventh grade, “school got harder and harder to be in, stay in,” the parent told the Globe. Earlier this year, in the eighth grade, they became suicidal and were hospitalized for two weeks at a child psychiatric unit. The parents eventually withdrew their child from school.
The Graphic heard directly from five families, including parents who “forwarded us almost identical e-mail chains between them and school staff saying their trans kids were stressed, depressed, and fearful of going to school,” said Barber-Just.
One family told The Graphic they terminated school counseling with Santos related to their child’s individualized education plan after he “brought up the Bible and Jesus” in the sessions, according to the article.
The Graphic also received screenshots of Facebook reposts allegedly shared by Santos that later circulated among middle school staff. One dated Sept. 5 features a cartoon of Christ’s hand protecting two children from dripping rainbow paint and reads, in part, “if my 4-year-old son tells me he wants to dress up as a princess, I will tell him no,” before concluding “there are only two chromosomes” and “God created man in the beginning” with Adam and Eve.
This is somewhat familiar territory for Barber-Just, who’s also an English teacher and head of the English department at the high school, where she pioneered an LGBTQ literature course 23 years ago. Though she’s never worked professionally as a journalist, she’s taught journalism even longer. She says she loves showing students they can write with clarity for an audience — and that their words matter. “I think it can be really hopeless to be a kid growing up right now with gun violence and climate change . . . it can feel like there’s nothing you can do,” Barber-Just said, noting that she and her students gravitate toward journalism that “uplifts the voices of the voiceless.”
In 2019, she guided an enterprising senior in writing an exposé in The Graphic about the district’s use of prison labor to reupholster school auditorium seats — an article that was shared widely on social media. The day after it posted, the superintendent said the district wouldn’t use the vendor again.
But no story has hit home for Barber-Just, 49, like this one. She and her wife have twins: a cisgender son and a transgender daughter, both juniors at the high school this spring. “I often found it unbearable to sit with the reality of what my students were uncovering,” she said.
As her students’ investigation continued, the superintendent’s office relayed a message that the article “might ‘get in the way of an ongoing Title IX investigation’ and we should hold off on publishing it,” Barber-Just said, but she felt delaying wasn’t an option.
In the days before publication, Dhingra and Barber-Just shared their draft with the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., for a free pre-publication review. The class had an hourlong phone call with an SPLC lawyer, who flagged issues, and the students later contacted every person who had allegations against them and offered the right of reply, she said.
Barber-Just and Dhingra went through more edits, and on May 9, they met in class to read the entire story out loud. She pressed “publish” in her classroom after school and immediately felt sick.
The Graphic story had some 34,000 page views at last count.
For the nonbinary student who shared their story with The Graphic, the weeks after the article posted have been at once “healing” and “re-traumatizing,” their mother said.
For her, as a parent, reading the other accounts “brought up so much anger, and, honestly rage, at how much was known by so many people who did nothing,” she said. “Only with the article coming out were people put on leave.”
Three days after the article dropped, more than 100 people gathered for an LGBTQ pride rally at the middle school. On May 16, community members turned out again to give emotional testimonies at a nearly six-hour School Committee meeting. “I’m a queer educator, myself,” said one bilingual kindergarten teacher, holding back tears. “And having educators — like me, now — who are out, who affirmed my identities, saved my life.”
Some spoke in defense of Cunningham, the assistant superintendent. “For a prime example of how women of color get treated in leadership positions, I say look no further than Amherst public schools,” said her son Gregory Gardener, who worked as a student support specialist in the Amherst schools. And Cunningham highlighted her own efforts to diversify the Amherst Regional Public Schools community through hiring practices. “I am not resigning,” she said. “And I am looking to the possibility of working with the community to make the necessary changes.”
In response to the allegations, the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth announced plans for the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students to partner with the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts to provide training to district educators, students, and families next school year.
Lee Khashu’s father, Ajay Khashu, initially attributed the problem to a certain amount of “cluelessness” around LGBTQ issues, he said, but the article in The Graphic presented “another potentially uglier part of this story, which is that there’s a group of people whose responsibility it is to look out for, respond to, and care for the social and emotional well-being of students at the school who have a set of views that make it impossible for them to do that.”
Lee Khashu’s mother, Kara Knott, has felt guilty for not escalating her complaints sooner. “There was a part of me that just thought middle school is rough,” she said, “and if we can just get through these couple of years . . .
“Yes, middle school is tough, but they really dropped the ball and they failed,” she said. “They failed our child and our family and many others in a profound way.”
Though Lee Khashu used a pseudonym in The Graphic, he since has revealed his identity. He’d never really discussed with his friends what it’s like being trans, but after the article posted, they reached out to him. “It was kind of nice to be able to talk about it with them,” he said.
Meanwhile, Barber-Just’s seniors have graduated, but for some of them, working on this story has changed how they view their town — and their place in it. As Lopez put it, “I think it just opened a lot of people’s eyes to see that we’re not perfect, and our system can fail, too.”
In late May, as students showed Barber-Just pictures of their prom dresses in class and ate pizza, Jane Scanlan-Emigh, who researched suicide statistics related to misgendering, took a moment to gather her thoughts.
“What this investigation has made me wonder is, if this can happen in a town that presents itself as — and really is, in a lot of ways — so queer friendly . . . what happens when this news comes out, and then kids aren’t seeing an outpouring of public support, and aren’t seeing people telling them that what was done to them was wrong?” she asked. “How do those kids end up feeling?”