BRATTLEBORO — It would have been easy - so, so easy - to find any rationale or excuse to avoid publishing Mindy Haskins Rogers' piece, which shines light on the behavior of Robert (Zeke) Hecker, a longtime English teacher at Brattleboro Union High School, a playwright, and a musician.
I don't want to ruffle feathers.
I don't want to upset the arts community.
I don't want to disrupt lives in a small town.
I don't want the obvious collateral damage - this piece will hurt friends and family who were not complicit in the pattern of behavior that Haskins Rogers writes about with precision, grace, and measure.
I don't want to deal with any of this. It is awful and heartbreaking.
But when something like this piece comes across your desk in the shadow of the #MeToo movement, you don't do the easy thing. You do the right thing.
Here, the right thing is to give voice to someone who is still haunted in so many ways by her high school experience - and who, in turn, gives voice to others who she knew contemporaneously and who emerged in recent years, as survivors of sexual abuse have found new support and new agency in telling their stories.
It would be easy to quietly decline to publish this piece. But doing so would wrong those whose experiences Haskins Rogers has worked so hard to honor. And doing so would make both The Commons as your newspaper and me as your editor complicit in the ongoing distress of those who were betrayed as minors by a figure of trust and authority.
We will do nothing of the sort.
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I acknowledge the reality that some readers, undoubtedly some who are friends, will be upset about the appearance of these allegations in the pages of the newspaper. It will have a thermonuclear impact on the life and livelihood of a teacher of formidable creative drive and intelligence who has been part of the fabric of the Packer Corners community, the BUHS community, and the arts community for decades.
And, after all, no criminal charges have ever been filed, no court dockets can be dispassionately quoted, no official statements have created the so-called news hooks on which we can more comfortably proceed with a piece like this.
So why would we publish this piece? Please consider:
• Part of the record of the 2009 investigation into alleged sexual assault with a minor and lewd and lascivious conduct involves a four-page letter from Hecker in 1982. He sent it to a student with whom he had a sexual relationship to which she could not legally consent and who clearly had confronted him about the impact of his actions.
The police investigation, constrained by the bounds of statutes of limitations, ultimately did not lead to criminal charges against Hecker. But what police uncovered - including the letter - is astounding.
The letter is a bold and unrepentant confession to statutory rape of the recipient and an acknowledgement of his violation of professional ethics. He also references having had inappropriate relationships with other students.
He knew what he was doing was wrong.
• When invited to comment in recent days, Robert Kramsky, director of Hecker's play The Lift, declined to do so, telling Haskins Rogers only that he views his former BUHS colleague's behavior as “ancient history.”
For victims of sexual abuse, it often takes years of therapy to sort out the psychological fallout. To dismiss this behavior as irrelevant in 2021 is to diminish its original impact and to blame survivors for the actions of people who inflicted harm.
• Over the past decade, this information has been shared with multiple organizations and people and among survivors. We are hardly exposing any secrets here.
• And, finally: What if Hecker, now a septuagenarian, is not a present danger to young people in the way that some in the community fear? With no recent allegations of wrongdoing, why would anyone want to disrupt lives in this way?
Well, for starters, by looking the other way, people and organizations set expectations of conduct by positive example. Conversely, by showing that people of privilege, talent, and culture will get a pass on behavior, even long-ago behavior, these organizations are sending a very different message.
And that message? That even if you are an admitted abuser of children and teens, you can still operate in their midst with impunity. That you can have every benefit of the doubt and then some. That you can retain your reputation, your opportunities, your standing.
This is 2021. It stops here.
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A few other notes.
• We gave Zeke Hecker the opportunity to respond to the themes of this piece.
When Haskins Rogers contacted Hecker and invited him to comment, he asked to see the text. She declined, but she characterized point by point the topics that she addresses.
“The piece details my experience with you and what I witnessed; it references the subsequent 1985 investigation into a report by a student; it mentions The Lift being pulled in response to a complaint, and its later reprisal; and it includes information from the 2009 investigation into allegations against you. It also mentions your being banned from WSESU properties in 2009 and from BMC and Windham Orchestra in 2018,” she wrote.
“Thank you,” he replied.
He did not dispute the authenticity of the letter, of the behavior she described, or anything else Haskins Rogers described. He did not respond to her two subsequent invitations to speak to her or to respond in writing.
On Aug. 10, I reached out to invite Hecker one last time to make a statement or respond to the broad themes in the piece. He did respond to me, again wishing to see the piece, which we declined.
“I fully understand how serious these revelations are,” he wrote.
I have invited him to submit a counterpoint if the specifics of this piece, now fully public, inspire him to do so.
• One theme that emerged in Haskins Rogers' reporting is profound misunderstandings of the effects that such behavior has on survivors. That could be its own other story, but Haskins Rogers directed me to several excellent resources about warning signs of grooming - “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught. While these tactics are used most often against younger kids, teens and vulnerable adults are also at risk,” according to the website of RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual-violence organization. To read this piece, visit bit.ly/625-grooming.
• When invited to update a statement that he gave Haskins Rogers for this piece in 2019, BUHS Principal Steve Perrin wrote her: “I cannot comment on the specifics of matters involving a former employee who has not been employed by us in nearly twenty years.” (It bears noting that Hecker was involved in student programming in the schools in his other capacities long after he retired as a teacher, as recently as 2009.)
“However, the District maintains policies against misconduct directed against students by teachers,” Perrin continued. “ When allegations are raised, we immediately remove the teacher from the workplace and commence an investigation. Such matters are also reported to the Agency of Education by the Superintendent. We also severely discipline any employees who fail to report suspected abuse to DCF. If allegations of sexual misconduct are substantiated by the evidence, we terminate any teacher involved. Student safety is our highest priority. We will not tolerate employees who harm students.”
• For sticklers of citation, the quotations of the letter in Haskins Rogers' piece are taken from the official police record of the 2009 investigation made available through a public records request to the Brattleboro Police Department. That record has typos. The bracketed material picks up correct or missing wording from Hecker's original letter, which was shared in confidence by another source.
• Haskins Rogers' piece was written with the advice of a team of lawyers whose aid and support were invaluable. She thanks attorneys Kim Dougherty (who defended survivors in the Larry Nassar case) and Susan Jones Knape (founder of A Case for Women), who connected us with Scott Griggs, the lawyer who vetted the piece and encouraged the years-long process of building a piece that could speak uncomfortable truth to power.
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And finally, I'm struck by how many people along the way must have had an inkling about this behavior, from high school teachers in the libertine 1970s to neighbors who seem to know far more than any neighbor should about this heartbreaking journey.
“You don't do what you do to win a popularity contest,” a friend reminded me on Sunday after I was worn out from editing Haskins Rogers' piece and from writing these words to accompany it.
“You have to live with truth or lies,” my friend said. “You deal in truth. You can sleep at night.”
Yes, I'm sleeping at night. How many among us who witnessed and enabled this behavior over the years can say the same?