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WSESD board speaks up about sex abuse investigation

In a written statement, the school board outlines the district’s response but never mentions sex abuse, the crux of the matter, drawing criticism about ‘avoidance of clear naming’

BRATTLEBORO—The Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) board has collectively spoken for the first time at any length publicly since learning of allegations of repeated sexual abuse and grooming by former Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS) teacher Robert “Zeke” Hecker.

The statement integrates a number of ideas that have emerged, including issues of process, procedure, the board’s responsiveness, the independence of an investigation, sensitivity to and confidentiality of survivors in the process, and examination of the current school climate.

However, nowhere does the written statement, released on Dec. 10, actually mention sexual abuse.

That’s not sitting well with Mindy Haskins Rogers, who exposed Hecker in an August commentary in The Commons and who said that she has since heard story after story from survivors about abuse by not only the longtime English teacher but by other BUHS staff members as well.

“We freely admit that these revelations were unexpected and that the path forward was not immediately clear,” writes the board. “We apologize for the uncomfortable delay in sharing our WSESD School Board activities, most of which, by necessity, had to be considered in executive session.”

“My initial response to the WSESD board’s statement was a wave of relief; it was too long in coming,” said Haskins Rogers when asked to comment. “A first read of this statement seemed promising.”

But she remains “profoundly disappointed that the WSESD’s statement fails to name allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct as the reason for their promised independent investigation,” she said.

She wrote to WSESD Chair David Schoales, asking why the statement does not mention the purpose of the independent investigation: investigating reports of alleged sexual abuse by BUHS employees.

Schoales thanked her for writing, and responded only that “all of our actions can be understood to be in response to the allegations originally shared by you, later by others, and of course the open letter from parents and community members.”

Missing words

The WSESD statement said that board members are “horrified by the revelations shared in Ms. Haskins-Rogers’ [sic] August 2021 article in The Commons and other information reported to us since then.”

“Our strong personal reactions made all of us open to taking many of the steps that were suggested by members of the community. In particular, we have been impacted by the open letter signed by 167 people which has called for, among other things, an open investigation and an assessment of the district’s present-day climate and functioning.”

Board members have heard concerns about the “speed with which we have proceeded; frustrations we have also felt personally.”

The statement continues to note that as quickly as board members may want to bring “accountability and healing to what many of you have described as an institutional betrayal,” they “feel bound by our roles as elected officials to proceed with due diligence” — a process “inspired by empathy for all those affected.”

Haskins Rogers believes the omission of sexual abuse in the statement has deep consequences.

“Gaslighting and euphemistic language are hallmarks of rape culture and this avoidance of clear naming reads as both, intentionally or not,” she says. “It also looks like damage control — an attempt to limit the reach of this information to avoid bringing forth more survivors.”

“I believe the superintendent and the members of the board are ethical people who want to act to support survivors, to hold accountable those who caused harm, and to protect the kids in their care,” says Haskins Rogers, charging that the impact of its omission “counters the otherwise good intentions the statement relays.”

“The board’s repeated promises of transparency must not be empty words,” Haskins Rogers said. “Survivors deserve better, as do current students, their caregivers, and the entire community.”

‘Prudent process’ versus quick action

The WSESD board says it remains committed “to a prudent process” that “supports all students past, present, and future, especially those who have been harmed or who remain vulnerable today; respects the dedication of all those teachers and staff who serve with maturity, integrity, and only the best interests of children in mind; stewards the resources of our district, with budgets created from taxes paid by the hard-working families in our communities; and responds to the present-day crises affecting our youth who have experienced untold levels of disruption and distress throughout this pandemic.”

“In seeking a balance of the above goals, we wish to respond to these circumstances in ways that promote transparency, accountability, and healing,” the statement reads. “We are deeply sorry for the hurt that many of you feel and we are committed to taking the steps necessary to bring our past to light as we protect our future.”

The statement enumerates the steps taken to date:

• A climate investigation, which includes hiring specialist Dr. Christopher Overtree, has included an initial “historical review of climate data going back several years to the present day.”

The board says the data from the district “will be examined for patterns or concerns, a process we expect will overlap, collaboratively and concurrently, with the District’s dedicated work supporting students, using data to support decision-making, and its multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS).”

Board members say the district’s recent climate assessments have used, including in 2021, the nationally-normed Panorama Student Survey (panoramaed.com), “data that will complement existing efforts to improve climate through strategic action and outcomes measurement,” adding regular updates from district leaders and consultants are expected.

• After repeated pressure, board members have decided the investigation “must be done by a separate investigator with a broad scope that protects the confidentiality of the sources.”

“This scope will not include defending the district from any claims that may arise over the course of the investigation,” they write.

At the board’s Dec. 14 meeting, Schoales said the board had interviewed candidates and may have decided on an independent investigator to examine the sexual abuses charges.

• The scope of the investigation and an “engagement agreement” for the investigator have not been finalized and “will evolve,” the statement says. “We will give the investigator broad latitude in determining how the investigation should be conducted and the relevant time frames to include. We will ask the investigator to prioritize identifying past and current employees or staff who may have known about relevant incidents and/or failed to act.”

In addition, the school board “will ask the investigator to provide opportunities for individuals to share information in as many ways as possible, including anonymously, to ensure the findings are comprehensive.”

• When the scope has been determined, the statement notes, board members will not be “involved in guiding its progress” but will receive regular updates from the investigator and will “prioritize providing information to law enforcement and appropriate state agencies over public disclosures.”

“We will share information publicly whenever possible as long as doing so does not compromise the integrity of the overall investigation or any ongoing legal, law enforcement or personnel matters that may be connected to findings,” the board wrote.

• Noting the board/district won’t review findings with names of those who come forward “unless doing so is necessary for an appropriate response,” the statement says the board will be advised of the names of current or former staff accused of wrongdoing, “as these incidents may require immediate steps or response.”

“Issues involving current staff will be referred to the district, which will follow its normal procedures in forming a response, with oversight by the board,” the board said.

The board will release any findings “in consultation with the investigator and law enforcement, but prioritizing respect for the privacy of those who do not wish to be identified.”

“Law enforcement officials and/or state agencies will make their own determination about the release of information as it becomes available,” the statement said.

• The board says it has been working with the district’s insurance company to “identify all notification requirements under our liability policies going back decades.”

“In many cases, this has involved concerted efforts by our office staff and insurance agent to locate actual policies or evidence of policies,” the board wrote, noting that any action “will require access to district funds and insurance support. We cannot take actions that might void insurance security.”

‘Learning from our mistakes’

In the letter, the board affirmed its dedication “to a process that promotes accountability, transparency and healing,” and apologized for the “stress and pain that stems from the process that has unfolded thus far.”

“WSESD is committed to learning from our mistakes,” says the statement. “And leveraging the knowledge gained to nourish safe and empathetic educational communities supported by talented staff, visionary leaders, and a dedicated board that remains accountable to the public and steadfast in our advocacy for children.”

Haskins Rogers said that in the meantime, she expects to continue hearing from survivors and to advocate for them.

“During the past four months, I have received a steady flow of stories alleging sexual grooming, abuse, and assault of students by a number of BUHS employees, spanning decades,” she said. “As an individual I have been deeply affected.”

“There is no way to hear the stories I have heard and not feel compelled to act, but many of the accounts have indicated that colleagues and supervisors of the alleged perpetrators did not feel the same compulsion,” she said. “This is a history that must be rectified.”

In the waiting room

At the Tuesday, Dec. 14 meeting, WSESD Board Chair David Schoales opened the Zoom meeting but, before most public participants could even get access, said an executive session on the agenda for later was going to happen right then. He then put all those not included into a waiting room for 1 hour and 48 minutes.

Returning to open session, Schoales apologized and said the board had interviewed candidates for the independent investigator and may have made a decision.

However, The Commons saw no roll call vote taken in open session to enter executive session, as is the law. When asked about it, Schoales did not respond.

Many who had come to the meeting to talk about the board’s statement and lack of specifying the words “sexual abuse” had had to leave during the executive session to go to other meetings or meet family obligations.

Jennifer Jacobs of Brattleboro spoke to the last-minute procedural change.

“I’m particularly discouraged about how that went down,” she said. “It feels very disenfranchising.”

“It feels super-disrespectful to me,” said Bethany Ranquist of Brattleboro, calling the move “really inconsiderate.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #643 (Wednesday, December 15, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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