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Voices / Viewpoint

Self-protection should be the WSESD’s last priority

In addressing the reverberations of grooming and abuse at Brattleboro Union High School over the years, the community needs transparency and accountability, not denial and the appearance of yet more secrecy

Mindy Haskins Rogers, a Brattleboro native, is a writer, a parent, and an educator.

Northampton, Mass.

Since I published my Viewpoint in The Commons [“No more secrecy,” Voices, Aug. 11], detailing the various investigations into Robert “Zeke” Hecker’s behavior with students over the years and the culture of complicity that gave him ongoing access to them, numerous other people have come forward with stories of grooming and abuse by Hecker and others at Brattleboro Union High School.

I have been working with local parents, survivors, and advocates to push for actions from BUHS and the Windham Southeast School District board, which might bring accountability and change.

During this time, Principal Steve Perrin has consistently misrepresented his proximity to the Hecker situation, and the WSESD board has shifted from “we will not sweep this under the rug” to withholding information on the advice of the district’s lawyer.

Hearing painful stories that survivors have carried for years has reinforced my commitment to removing the veil of secrecy that allowed this to happen.

To that end, I would like to clarify a few points.

* * *

In Perrin’s first message to BUHS caregivers following publication of my piece, he assured them he was not principal in 2009 when the cited investigation occurred. Actually, Perrin was assistant principal at that time, and he had been Hecker’s colleague since 1995.

When I read Perrin’s recent statement to the press, claiming he was “blindsided” by the revelations of Hecker’s behaviors, I practically choked on my breakfast.

I first spoke with Perrin in August of 2019, and I told him I was writing about the investigations into this former teacher’s conduct with students. He refused to confirm whether Hecker was currently allowed on school premises, saying he would not comment on “a private citizen.”

The Brattleboro Police Department report from 2009 states that Jim Day, principal at the time, requested and was given a copy of the letter from Hecker to a survivor that is quoted in the report.

In that letter, Hecker refers to himself as “a child molester” and admits to abusing numerous students. One survivor who submitted a public records request to the school was shown a file with the letter in it.

I find it hard to believe that all administrators at that time — including Perrin, the assistant principal — were not made aware of the file and the reasons Hecker was abruptly banned from WSESD schools.

At the Sept. 28 WSESD board meeting, Perrin stated that he believes the district needs to “revisit” the Hecker case.

I am glad if Perrin is “disgusted” by the conduct detailed in my story and the ongoing reports, but “blindsided” just does not ring true. At least, he had two years to prepare for the impact the publication of my piece might have on the school and the community.

* * *

The WSESD board recently pivoted from a decision to initiate an independent investigation into the scope of the alleged abuse, to hiring clinical psychologist Christopher Overtree as a consultant to the process.

In touting Overtree’s qualifications for the job, the board, and the prospective consultant himself, omitted from the discussion what seems to be his most relevant recent experience.

From 2015 to 2020, while Overtree served as executive director of the Aloha Foundation in Fairlee, a town in Orange County, the foundation received and investigated allegations of past sexual misconduct by counselors at one of its camps, Camp Lanakila.

Overtree also had a long history as an employee of Camp Lanakila early in his career.

Omission of this information from public statements might have been merely an oversight, but it raises doubts. This experience seems so pertinent to the case at hand that Overtree’s handling of it would either qualify or disqualify him for the role of advisor.

At the Sept. 28 WSESD board meeting, David Schoales, the chair, listed the states in which Overtree had overseen processes similar to the one BUHS is undergoing now: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and Tennessee — no mention of Vermont.

Neither the superintendent nor the board has responded to my inquiry about the matter.

Survivors and advocates in the community need a full understanding of Overtree’s role in, and the outcomes of, the Aloha/Lanakila investigation before they can trust his guidance of this process at BUHS.

* * *

The WSESD has an enormous task ahead if it wishes to regain the trust of those who have suffered mistreatment and institutional betrayal at BUHS.

Self-protection should be the district’s last priority at this point — it does not exist to serve itself, but the generations of students who have entered and continue to enter its schools. These students deserve equitable access to a quality education, free from harassment and abuse.

I personally will not rest until the full scope of the abuse has been exposed and measures are taken to protect current and future students.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #636 (Wednesday, October 27, 2021). This story appeared on page C1.

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