District takes steps to address BUHS ‘climate of abuse’

As it prepares to sign a contract with a consulting psychologist next week, the WSESU school board awaits a legal green light to take ‘investigative action’ regarding sexual abuse by a former teacher as well as contemporary incidents

BRATTLEBORO — The Windham Southeast Supervisory Union School District (WSESUSD) school board is ready to hire a consultant to assess the school climate vis-a-vis evidence of former sexual abuse by a teacher and a current “climate of abuse” on the Brattleboro Union High School campus.

However, legal counsel has advised against taking “investigative action” at this time.

“We have identified an investigator we want to retain,” said WSESUSD Board Chair David Schoales on Oct. 18. “I cannot say when, because we have to discuss the contract with Dr. [Christopher] Overtree next Monday in a special executive session.”

“I hope we will take action to retain his services on [Oct. 26] at our regular meeting, but we will not know in time to put it on the agenda that has to go out this Thursday,” Schoales said.

“I have never said a date for hiring an investigator, and I can't tell you why,” he continued. “I am painfully aware of how frustrating this is to many in the community. It is not something we control right now. The next steps will be determined in consultation with our consultant. We expect to have a contract to approve by our next meeting.”

“All I can say is we have received information from our attorney that is confidential and it precludes any investigative action on the part of the district at this time,” Schoales said. “I am not used to parsing language so carefully, or being so obtuse, but it is absolutely unavoidable.”

First steps in moving forward

On Oct. 12, the board unanimously agreed to enter negotiations with Overtree, who is a clinical psychologist, school climate specialist, and public education consultant, “to support the WSESU School Board and district leadership in the district-wide response to allegations of sexual misconduct by district employees.”

At the meeting, Schoales said two areas “to move forward in” had been identified and that a professional, independent investigator and consultant (Overtree) had been interviewed. In addition, on that day representatives from the Women's Freedom Center had spent time with all WSESUD school counselors.

He didn't know if progress had been made to establish a safe place for survivors of sexual abuse to share information, and he said he hadn't yet heard back from the Brattleboro Community Justice Center.

However, Mindy Haskins Rogers, whose writing in The Commons [“No more secrecy,” Viewpoint, Aug. 11] reignited the abuse issue, was present at the meeting via Zoom and said she and others in the community had met with folks from the Center and that establishing that protection is still “in progress.”

“There's so little we can do in that realm, and it's really the most important part,” said Schoales.

Hiring a psychologist/consultant

Overtree, who formerly lived in Vermont and now resides in western Massachusetts, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has been self-employed for the past six months.

If he is hired, he would report to the board and “help the district develop priorities, strategies, order of operations, communications and related supports necessary to respond in an appropriate and comprehensive manner,” according to the Oct. 12 motion.

In addition, he would direct and coordinate a school-wide climate assessment and provide recommendations about steps “that may be considered in light of the results of the assessment.”

“Dr. Overtree will engage, as needed, additional supports to fulfill these duties and will consult with the board in advance of any recommended changes in scope or process,” reads the statement.

Overtree holds a master's degree and a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Massachusetts and studied psychology at Princeton University. His resume includes a variety of academic and clinical jobs, projects, and research interests, including a list of three dozen schools for which he has provided consulting on school climate, mental health, education, and systems.

From 2015 to 2020, he served as executive director of the Aloha Foundation, where he had a long association, including as an assistant director, earlier in his career. According to a report in the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., the Aloha Foundation operates summer residential programs, including Lanakila for 8- to 14-year-old boys and Aloha for 12- to 17- year old girls on Lake Morey and Aloha Hive for 7- to 12-year-old girls on Lake Fairlee.

The newspaper reported that in 2016, one year after Overtree started at the Foundation, the organization received a complaint that a former counselor at Lanakila had touched two boys inappropriately in 1983.

The Attorney General's investigation uncovered 12 incidents of misconduct reported between the late '70s and early '80s perpetrated by three counselors. Under Overtree's oversight, the Foundation apologized and conducted its own investigation.

Reached by phone this week, Overtree said he's been involved in assessing school climate since the early 2000s, likening it to “the air we breathe.”

“You don't notice it until it becomes toxic,” he said.

Overtree said he has long valued using data from students, parents, and staff members to compile information about how people feel about their school and what's happening in their buildings - their “perceptions of safety.”

“When you put data under that rather than just assumptions, you give people a common anchor point from which to start making improvements,” he said.

He said that it is important to try to identify patterns as well as areas of both problems and strengths for a community to start leveraging strengths to make those improvements.

He said the process includes “a lot of quite active engagement where the community comes to see the value of understanding itself better.”

People can see “that different opinions can exist and how to use use them to find the places where improvements can be made,” he said.

He is most excited to work with BUHS to make the school better.

“I like to say climate improvement is a process of making good ideas go viral,” he said. “When students are involved in the process, you tap into an enormous source of power and creativity and they become the source of inspiration and action for schools that want to make themselves better.”

“Quite simply, every other thing you do in schools is usually a committee or a principal or a new state testing requirement or some kind of top-down intervention,” Overtree continued. “I'm not putting that expertise down, but what's so lovely about a climate assessment is you're trying to pull the expertise out of your community.”

He described a community as “organic and vibrant and even when you find things that might be problematic, it's powerful to discover those things together.”

“There's an organic process underfoot,” Overtree said. “I'd be privileged to be a part of it, and I know how transformative it can be.”

Both Overtree and Schoales indicated they hope to sign a contract soon and will meet Monday, Oct. 25 in a closed-door session and Tuesday, Oct. 26 in regular session.

Asked about transparency in responding to community concerns, Overtree said he believes he and the school board are on the same page.

“I wouldn't have said 'yes' to this work if I wasn't feeling pretty confident that the school board's desires match my own,” he said, adding he wants to help district students past and present.

“There are so many good reasons for the district to be transparent,” he said. “If you look at schools and districts and even churches that haven't been transparent, they have faltered.”

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