Addressing institutional betrayal

Systemic issues made - and still make - BUHS a breeding ground for abusive behavior and a lack of accountability. The district must retain qualified community organizations to engage directly with those harmed to determine appropriate, trauma-informed actions toward healing.

BRATTLEBORO — We write to you as concerned members of the community, parents of students, and graduates/former students of the district and Brattleboro Union High School.

Since the publication of Mindy Haskins Rogers' article in The Commons [“No more secrecy,” Viewpoint, Aug. 11] detailing years of grooming and abuse at BUHS, we have been actively involved in discussions about healing and accountability.

Some of us participated in the School Board meeting on Aug. 24, and we seek to be both resources to the district and watchdogs to ensure that leadership takes appropriate action, now that journalism has shed light on this traumatic legacy.

First, we stand in solidarity with the courageous former students who have come forward with experiences of sexual abuse by a BUHS teacher. Following the article's publication, additional former students have shared their own stories of abuse perpetrated by this man and by other BUHS teachers, as well as the lack of support and adequate response they received from the administration.

Institutional betrayal occurs when institutions fail the very people they should protect. As community members and families of the district, we are distressed that the school charged with the care of our children failed to prevent or respond supportively to the harm inflicted by a predator within the institution, and continues to dismiss it now.

This is not “ancient history” And this is not about a single “bad apple” who mistreated some students. There are systemic issues at BUHS that made - and still make - the school a breeding ground for abusive behavior and a lack of accountability.

Norms are more powerful than policies when influencing behavior. What our community needs is a radical evaluation of the current culture at BUHS, to determine the ways in which our local high school is not safe for all students.

Above all, we hope that when policy or procedural changes are made, the voices of people who have lived experience with abuse are centered, whether they are victims/survivors themselves or do significant on-the-ground work with victims/survivors.

We are cautiously heartened to learn that the district is considering engaging community organizations with expertise in this area, and that you are open to conducting an investigation. However, we have grave concerns about the following:

1. It is unacceptable for the district's attorney to conduct the investigation. This attorney is charged with protecting the institution from liability and representing their legal interests, not addressing harms perpetrated by the school and district or ensuring a safe environment for students. Both the school and the district need to be investigated, and the WSESD's own attorney cannot provide an independent, impartial, and transparent investigation.

Therefore, we call on the school district to engage a neutral party to conduct an independent investigation into abuse of students by BUHS teachers and staff, with a scope extending beyond the past 10 years, and commit to the results being shared publicly.

2. The past and current cronyism within BUHS and WSESU as a whole is inherently connected to an unsafe environment. Cronyism is “the appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority,” and it creates a culture where some are protected and others are ignored, dismissed or persecuted.

This kind of culture harms many individuals, including students, parents, and faculty/staff. Addressing it will be a long journey, but if the district and BUHS truly want to regain trust and create a safe educational environment for all, the issue needs significant attention.

Therefore, we call on the district to engage an independent entity to facilitate a school culture survey for students and faculty/staff, specifically addressing safety, and make the results publicly available.

3. The aforementioned lack of trust makes it unlikely that those who are experiencing harm will come forward to report it. Students, faculty, and staff need to have a safe place where they can report concerns ranging from ethical violations to illegal actions like sexual abuse.

Therefore, we call on the district to make an ethics hotline available, so that students and staff have an independent way to report concerns that does not require them to go through the administration.

4. Further, we request that consolidated, anonymized data from these reports be made available to the public on a regular basis to ensure transparency and support an ongoing assessment of needs.

Given the depth of institutional betrayal that has occurred over the past decades (and is still ongoing), we call on the district to work with and pay qualified community organizations who will engage directly with those harmed to determine appropriate, trauma-informed actions toward healing. It is imperative that the WSESD not direct or interfere in this process, but commit to listening to the experiences of BUHS victims/survivors and others impacted by the abuses at the school.

We recognize that these actions are challenging and require an investment of time and financial resources. But protecting students from future harm is worth the challenge. As our community reckons with this traumatic legacy, we call upon BUHS and district leadership to show institutional courage and undertake a course of accountability and transparency now.

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