Reckoning, accountability, and change

Reckoning, accountability, and change

Survivors of rape and sexual grooming at Brattleboro Union High School are speaking up against former teacher Zeke Hecker and calling for wholesale changes to the school culture while many more are stepping forth with their stories of abuse

BRATTLEBORO — The Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) School Board continues to respond to sexual misconduct claims against former Brattleboro Union High School English teacher Robert “Zeke” Hecker.

In a Viewpoint in The Commons [“No more secrecy,” Viewpoint, Aug. 11], Mindy Haskins Rogers exposed a pattern of Hecker's behavior with students, both in and out of the classroom, and material from a 2009 Brattleboro Police Department investigation.

That inquiry uncovered and quoted from a letter from Hecker to a survivor where he admitted and acknowledged statutory rape with the recipient and referenced multiple other instances of this behavior. The Commons was provided with a copy of the source document by the survivor.

Hecker did not dispute the allegations and has written a letter of contrition, published in the Aug. 18 issue.

“The actions that were described in that article are completely disgusting and condemned by our district, our leadership team, and I feel we can speak for our teachers as well,” said Interim Superintendent Mark Speno at the Aug. 24 school board meeting.

He added to his comments at a Sept. 14 meeting, saying, “behavior like that is condemned and not tolerated in our school district.”

“I or we can't undo the past; however, I can apologize on behalf of the school district for past failures and lack of action taken against Hecker and anyone else,” he said.

“Aside from being a leader in the school district, I'm first and foremost a father of two female high school daughters. When I read Mindy's piece, it's hard for me to explain the anger, disgust, and disappointment I felt personally.

“Like anything we do in our school district, we always want to assess how well we're doing it and set goals for doing our work better to support students,” Speno said. “And that will continue as we move forward and learn.”

Four actions are now under consideration by the board to be discussed again on Sept. 28, after press time.

They are:

1. Promoting a facilitated structure for student support and accountability through working with the Women's Freedom Center and Brattleboro Community Justice Center so that victims in schools as well as in the community can find confidential and supportive, safe places to tell their stories.

2. Engaging independent legal counsel to investigate all aspects of the Hecker allegations and police investigations, notably in 1995 and 2009.

3. Engaging independent legal counsel to audit records from “the last 10 years or so,” as School Board Chair David Schoales put it, of complaints and claims that were processed through the school, determining what the outcomes were, and discerning if a pattern emerges that informs how the district has been responding to claims of sexual abuse by students.

4. Engaging area agencies to offer staff members and students workshops and other services and to look at the issue of restorative justice.

“All the stuff we just don't know about,” said Schoales. “Not to mention the more compassionate aspects of what it's like for a person to hold something like this for 50 years - or 50 minutes.”

“This would be education for all of us,” he said.

Liz Adams, a Putney representative to the school board who said she is a 50-year survivor of sexual misconduct, spoke to reassure the community at the Sept. 14 meeting that the matter is being taken seriously and action will include more than a written policy review.

“We're not gonna sweep anything under the rug,” she said. “We want to know. So this is just like the first steps. It doesn't mean we won't be pursuing something else as well.”

“Over my dead body will this continue,” Adams said. “It's not OK.”

'It won't be OK until I know there's real action taken'

Haskins Rogers, a Brattleboro native who now lives in Northampton, Mass., attended BUHS as a member of the class of 1987. She says she was prompted to look into the issue more deeply after reading a letter in The Commons in 2018 from a survivor who was a student at Brattleboro Union High School in the late '70s.

The writer didn't name Hecker in her letter, but Haskins Rogers said she inferred his identity by the details in the writer's story. She then spoke with the writer and they shared their experiences.

Hecker has a long history of involvement with area arts and music organizations. Even after his retirement from BUHS in 2004, he was still permitted to accompany students on overnight field trips under the auspices of these nonprofits until 2009.

In 2008, Vermont Theatre Company staged Hecker's play The Lift, which portrayed statutory rape by an adult woman against an underage boy.

The themes of the show and its implicit endorsement of sexual abuse prompted a survivor to come forward and lodge complaints with the VTC, which abruptly shut the production down.

The play was revived the next year, prompting a survivor to file a police complaint against Hecker, to press BUHS on its policy of permitting the former teacher to have contact with students, and to confront VTC.

“On several occasions between 1985 and 2018, local agencies and organizations investigated complaints that Hecker engaged in sexual contact with his underage students,” Haskins Rogers wrote. “None of the investigations were publicized and I was unaware of the extent of the accusations until the fall of 2018.”

Despite being aware of the claims against him beginning in 2009, when Hecker was banned from WSESU schools, Brattleboro Music Center continued to include Hecker in Windham Orchestra until 2018.

Other organizations that fielded complaints about Hecker over the years include Friends of Music at Guilford; the Pioneer Valley Symphony in Greenfield, Mass.; Brattleboro Music Center and its Windham Orchestra; The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, Hecker's alma mater; and the Windham Philharmonic, which formed anew when Hecker was prohibited from associating with BMC.

After publication of Haskins Rogers' piece, the Windham Philharmonic removed Hecker's wife, Linda, from her position as board president and prohibited either from its programming.

“Some of the claims against Hecker are confirmed in a letter he himself wrote, signed, and mailed,” she wrote, referencing the document that was part of the police record.

“The evidence seems damning, yet Hecker was protected by supervisors, colleagues, and community members for decades, allowing him ongoing access to minors.”

Haskins Rogers had harrowing and disturbing encounters as a student when Hecker chose sexually provocative books to present as part of his curriculum and did so in seemingly provocative manner - all but fondling other female students he selected to stand before the class to help illustrate the literature.

She also described a personal encounter at his home after a trip to a museum to which he invited her outside of school connections, when his wife, Linda, appeared naked.

Since her commentary was published, Haskins Rogers and other concerned community members have heard from dozens of people still suffering from abuse that took place at BUHS, by Hecker and others.

Those reports come not only from female students but male students, she noted.

“I'm here because I care and I want to know that kids in my alma mater are safe - and I'm not convinced they are at this moment,” she said.

She said that when she saw the names of people teaching at the school quoted in the 2009 police report, she first recognized the names - but then realized they were not her actual teachers or then-administrators from the mid-1980s, but “the children of those people” who were at the school when she was a student.

“It's hard for me to believe this is not a culture that's being passed down through the generations because I don't see a lot of structural change or change within the personnel of the school,” said Haskins Rogers at the Sept. 14 meeting.

“When I wrote the article, I knew it was going to bring a lot of pain to the community,” she said. “I'm not going to feel OK until I know this is OK, and it won't be OK until I know there's real action taken to protect kids.”

Following Haskins Rogers' piece, Hecker, now in his 70s and living in Guilford, responded.

“I deeply apologize to any former student who may have been affected by my behavior, which I regret,” he wrote.

“I went into teaching with high ideals and never intended to hurt anyone. I wanted to be a good teacher, but I was not good enough. I also want to apologize to the parents of my students, who trusted me to be a caretaker and role model.”

Hecker went on to apologize in the same vein to his school colleagues and to the music and arts communities.

“I do not ask for or expect forgiveness, but I will try to help heal any wounds that remain,” wrote Hecker, who has not directly admitted the behavior for which he issued the apology.

180 sign letter calling for multiple measures

More than 180 concerned citizens have signed a letter co-written by concerned community members to the Windham Southeast School District Board “actively involved in discussions about healing and accountability” since publication of Haskins Rogers' piece, which she ended with the words “no more.”

“Institutional betrayal occurs when institutions fail the very people they should protect,” reads the letter, which was published in the Sept. 22 issue of The Commons.

“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. 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.”

In the letter, signers pledge to be “resources and watchdogs” for the future safety of all students here.

The letter calls for independent legal investigations into all allegations, taking real steps to eradicate cronyism in school administration, reinventing the district culture to create a truly safe educational environment for children, and making all fully transparent to the public.

Additionally, letter signers ask for implementation of a third-party, independent hotline where students and staff members who are afraid to expose their stories for fear of retaliation or added shame can do so independently of reporting to school officials, in whom trust has so lapsed.

“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,” the letter says.

“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.”

School officials respond

“We're talking about statutory rape,” said Brattleboro WSESD board member Tim Maciel, noting his daughter was a Hecker student, at the Aug. 24 school board meeting.

Community resident Deborah Stanford, a former teacher in New York City at the Horace Mann School who experienced the advent of and fallout from abuse issues there, was passionate in urging the board to act.

“For me, 20 years ago is not 20 years ago,” she said. “It's present day. When you entrust your children to a community and their safety is violated, the grooming can easily become more subtle and just go underground. And yet we don't want a witch hunt. All we have is our reputations as educators.”

Stanford acknowledged the culture of silence that exists around sexual abuse, saying, “I would think parents and students know about this,” and adding the board now must act transparently and “in very concrete ways” to show current students that they are safe.

She noted, too, the “mentor/protege relationship” that takes place in the cunning cultivation of students upon whom predators with such access prey on minor children - not only in school buildings - and how they are far too often protected by their peers.

In her experience, Stanford said directed workshops helped teachers understand how their actions - something as seemingly innocent as touching a hand to a student's shoulder - is “not OK.”

“I think we need to consider our privilege in the society and how we grow up and what we do [...] young men and women need to have these issues openly discussed by adults, otherwise they go underground, and that's not OK,” she said. “We really do have to step up to the plate and be the role models.”

Stanford suggested that a public statement from the district “that says we are fully aware, we are fully committed, we are doing something; we are not silent,” is needed.

Brandie Starr spoke as a former Brattleboro Selectboard member, as a parent of children at the Academy School, and as a survivor of “rape, sexual assault, grooming, and more” in her life, albeit not in this school system.

At the Aug. 24 meeting, Starr said that “it is time for us to treat this by dragging it into the sunlight.”

“We have broken people who are preying on people and we have broken people who are the prey of other people,” she said.

She described grooming - the act of abusers establishing relations with and instilling trust in their victims - as “insidious” and observed that “it is always done by people you trust.”

In a letter read publicly by Robin Morgan at the Sept. 14 meeting, Starr wrote that she hopes the school board will embrace a “survivor-first model,” which has been successful elsewhere and in which the voices of survivors are given full credulity and measure.

Haskins Rogers underscored that the pain and shame associated with sexual abuse cannot be overstated. Statistics show the average age when a child abuse survivor comes forward is 52.

She is also concerned that school officials take substantive action, not policy review.

“Restating policies that have clearly not been effective [...] doesn't seem like an action point to me,” she said, noting she carried her memories and stories for more than 30 years and that it took two years to get her commentary into print.

Guilford rep rebuts letter with personal responses

Diana Whitney, a sexual abuse survivor, read the letter from the community members into the record at the Sept. 14 school board meeting.

Following it, Guilford school board representative Shaun Murphy singled her out and sent two emails to her in which he acknowledged that he wasn't sure she authored the letter (she didn't; it was a joint effort) but went on to refute the charge that there are “systemic issues” at BUHS, his children's alma mater.

He noted several “dedicated” teachers and also disputed the statement that “norms are more powerful than policies when influencing behavior.”

That statement, he wrote, “is simply not true of the many dedicated teachers now at BUHS.”

Murphy wrote that he agrees what happened in the past “is a crime” and “an awful, frightening event to contemplate,” but said it is “not fair to ignore or discount” dedicated teachers past and present.

He ended his letter saying it is “interesting” to note that his daughter took two advanced placement English classes with Hecker and “slammed” the AP test.

“I am not sure how to deal with that history and at the same time deal with what has come to light,” Murphy wrote.

He then sent a second email when Whitney did not respond to the first.

Following receipt of Murphy's email, the concerned community members wrote to the WSESD and WSESU school boards, thanking them for “beginning to address the harm and correct conditions described by Haskins Rogers,” then writing, “unfortunately, one of your directors, Shaun Murphy, has been less supportive.”

They went on to address Murphy's email, saying his singling out Whitney and making his objections in a personal way rather than raising them during the public meeting is “unacceptable.”

The letter continues to say that Murphy's action “exercised extreme insensitivity” and that “at worst, and in effect, he perpetuated Diana's experience of abuse by the district.”

Writers also say Murphy called another signer on her cell phone. They noted, too, that Murphy is a lister for the town of Guilford and that his wife, Karen Murphy, serves on Guilford's Conservation Commission with Linda Hecker, Zeke Hecker's wife.

“We believe this further highlights the challenges to achieving a fair, unbiased investigation into Hecker's abuse,” signatories wrote. “It is a reiteration of exactly the kind of complicity described in Haskins Rogers' piece.”

'Moved by the trust and support people have given'

Haskins Rogers says she wasn't sure how her piece would be received, knowing there would be some negative response but not expecting the flood of support and commentary.

“I was able to tell this story in part because Hecker did not abuse me, and now I am safer from its consequences because I no longer live in Brattleboro,” she said.

“Some of the feeling of injustice around the abuse comes from the fact that some people were hurt while others were untouched, and even oblivious. Also, the police report at the heart of my piece only exists due to the work of another survivor who tried for years to report this and keep kids safe, and who suffered bullying and mistreatment as a result.”

After publication, friends shared the online version on social media, and hundreds commented. She also received private messages in which people told their own stories about Hecker or about abuse by other teachers at BUHS and other places.

“I felt like I had lifted a rock and revealed a mass of pain,” she said. “The stories have come from people of all genders and have spanned generations.”

“'This has bothered me for a long time' is a refrain I have heard over and over,” Haskins Rogers continued. “Some people just want to tell someone, but others want their stories reported or recorded in some way. They want their stories to have an impact, too.”

Haskins Rogers said she is “moved by the trust and support people have given.”

“Several friends expressed concern for me because of how upsetting the stories are but, in fact, the whole experience has been one of connection,” she said.

“Because of our shared history at BUHS, many of the people who have reached out to me are people I know, or maybe we know each other's siblings, or parents,” Haskins Rogers continued. “In an odd way, it has felt like a homecoming. I wish the reasons for it were better.”

“From the broader community, I have received only supportive, appreciative feedback,” she said.

Haskins Rogers noted that she has heard of complaints from a few of Hecker's friends, “but none have made them directly to me.”

“I'm relieved to know his defenders are in the minority now,” she said.

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