Specialist will address the climate at BUHS

WSESD board votes to retain Dr. Christopher Overtree, with one member calling the decision 'the first step' in attempt to move forward honestly and transparently

BRATTLEBORO — The Windham Southeast District School Board has approved a consulting contract with Dr. Christopher Overtree, who teaches at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Also an independent consultant, he has been a specialist in school climate assessment since 2002.

At the close of their Oct. 26 meeting, board members voted to authorize Chair David Schoales to approve a contract once details are worked out.

Rep. Shaun Murphy of Guilford was the sole dissenting vote.

“I've done this work in all sorts of circumstances, some of them high stakes,” said Overtree, at the meeting via Zoom. He noted his “favorite opportunity” is when schools make climate assessments a priority as part of the normal process.

Mindy Haskins Rogers, who exposed sexual abuse by former Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS) teacher Zeke Hecker in a Viewpoint in The Commons in August, said she has been hearing from survivors who attended BUHS both in the past and recently.

She questioned why no public mention had been made of Overtree's tenure as executive director at the Aloha Foundation when three counselors at Lanakila, its summer camp in Fairlee for 8- to 14-year old boys, were accused of sexual abuse dating to the 1980s.

Overtree served as executive director there from 2015 to 2020 and had been a seasonal camp counselor from 1992 to 2004.

He said it was “not appropriate” for him to share information from a former employer, although it is available in public.

However, Haskins Rogers said it is not on the Aloha Foundation website.

“I'm sure you understand some of the stakeholders have very eroded trust,” said Haskins Rogers of survivors who are now coming forward regarding BUHS abuse. “And so omitting this conversation seems really harmful to trust-building. I'm kind of shocked that you didn't mention it to the press or in any previous meetings.”

“Not once have I ever used things I've learned in a district in an interview,” Overtree said. “That's just not what a psychologist does. I would extend to all my clients the same courtesy.”

When the complaint about sexual abuse at Lanakila was received in 2016 about an incident from 1983, Overtree said he recommended to the Aloha board of trustees that an independent investigator be hired.

The organization went through that process. When it was complete, said Overtree, findings were made public.

Valley News archives reveal two letters written by the Foundation, in 2017 and 2019, after the independent investigation in which the results were made known and the Foundation apologized to parents and campers.

Board member Michelle Luetjen Green said she felt “assured” when she and other members met with Overtree and said she'd think his experience at Aloha would actually made him “an ideal candidate.”

Green called Overtree “the first step” to move forward in a way that's “honest and transparent” and yet would serve to protect any survivor who wishes to remain anonymous.

Haskins Rogers also asked how Overtree would see his role at BUHS and how an investigation could be private if the board has full oversight of what is released and when.

“I can't really speak to what the board would like me to consult on,” said Overtree. “They haven't asked me to lead the investigation or define the scope.”

Rather, he said, he believes he could be helpful regarding the order of operations and noted that conducting an investigation in the right time and in the right way “is really important.”

“How it would be independent is up to the board - if they choose to hire someone, which is not me,” he said. “Unless I am asked otherwise, I don't see myself involved in the investigation itself.”

He said he did see helping with how to share information and the timing of sharing that information.

Asked if the climate assessment would deal with the time of the allegations against Hecker or the current time, Overtree said the current time.

It would address “what kids know today,” he said, adding that students, family members, teachers, and staff members would be included. Students would be empowered to create their own process with his guidance and “ask the right kind of questions about their school.”

“A positive school climate is when good ideas go viral,” he said. “Adults can't really make things go viral.”

Superintendent Mark Speno shared with Overtree that the district has been conducting climate assessments with students and parents via a program called Panorama since 2008 and wondered how much of a burden new assessments would create on an already taxed staff.

“I think it can be most effective when the burden is placed on the students, not in the sense of backbreaking work, but in the sense of 'Can we leverage the investment of your students in the quality of your school climate to be excited about doing this and to collaborate with your teachers?'” Overtree said.

“Just doing it will have a positive impact [so that] you're already doing good work,” he said. “There's good to be had despite the possible burden, which I hope won't be too large.”

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