WSESD launches investigation into a legacy of abuse
David Schoales, chair of the Windham Southeast School District, says lingering frustration over the State Board of Education’s forced mergers under Act 46 are one factor driving towns’ votes to dissolve these recently created entities — and that letting communities put the matter to a vote is democracy in action.

WSESD launches investigation into a legacy of abuse

Website/phone line set up to report abuse in Windham Southeast schools, with confidentiality assured to all who come forth

BRATTLEBORO — The Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) School Board has finalized hiring attorney Aimee Goddard of Buehler & Annis, PLC to investigate reports of sexual abuse and has determined a reporting process, setting up a website, phone line, and other resources.

In announcing Goddard's “formal” hiring, a press release from the board issued Tuesday, Feb. 1 says Goddard will “investigate reports of sexual abuse, harassment and/or abuse of power by current or former faculty, staff, or administration.”

“In addition, the investigation will examine whether current and/or former faculty, staff, or administration, including board members, had knowledge of any such misconduct and failed to take appropriate steps to protect students,” it continues.

“We know that reporting such painful events may require reporters to revisit uncomfortable feelings and difficult memories,” the release says. “Attorney Goddard has decades of experience working with survivors, victims, and their families and will make every effort to accommodate reporting needs in an environment that is safe and supportive.”

“My colleagues and I have been serving southern Vermont for more than two decades and our commitment to the people of these communities is deep. I am confident that a thorough, respectful and honest investigation will yield the highest level of accountability and healing possible,” Goddard says. “The communities of the Windham Southeast School District deserve nothing less.”

The issue of sexual abuse and harassment and allegations of a culture of grooming and covering up at Brattleboro Union High School came into focus in a Viewpoint in The Commons by alum Mindy Haskins Rogers [“No more secrecy,” Voices, Aug. 11]. In her essay she exposed sexual misconduct claims against former English teacher Robert “Zeke” Hecker that were investigated by police at the time.

Confidentiality assured, to the greatest extent possible

Board members say they understand some survivors may feel hesitancy to report details of abuse unless they are assured of confidentiality and so they have instructed Goddard “not to disclose the names of reporters or victims.”

However, they note potential exceptions per the Vermont mandatory reporting law which may prompt disclosure of a person reporting abuse to the School Board - and only to the School Board, not publicly.

“There are some circumstances where Attorney Goddard may be obligated to disclose the identity of a reporter to the WSESD Board,” Schoales says. “Such circumstances include reports that trigger the WSESD Board's mandated reporting obligations and to prevent any current or future abuse.”

The release continues to say that anyone choosing to come forward will be fully apprised of the confidentiality options and obligations prior to reporting, so the survivor can make an informed decision about how to and whether to proceed.

The release goes on to say the School Board will be advised of the names of current/former faculty and/or staff members and administrators “who become the subject of a credible report, as these incidents may require an immediate response from the District.”

“Credible reports involving current faculty and/or staff members and administrators will also be referred to the District, which will follow existing protocols to form a response.”

The press release also notes that “to preserve the integrity of the investigation,” Goddard will not share any “information, commentary, or updates” with the public or the press and any request to do so will be declined.

Goddard has not responded to multiple requests from The Commons.

Asked to clarify the triggering circumstances that would require reporting to the School Board - while not disclosing any name publicly - The Commons was referred by School Board Chair David Schoales to the Agency of Education.

“It is complex and not easily clarified,” Schoales replied via email. “Anyone who calls or writes to report will have a thorough conversation with the investigator about all aspects of confidentiality. They will be fully informed at the outset.”

“The only danger is if this is misrepresented by the press. The Board is not doing the investigation,” Schoales added.

Dr. Christopher Overtree was hired in the fall as consultant regarding the investigation.

Although Schoales was asked at the Jan. 25 school board meeting to clarify Overtree's role in the investigation, it remains unclear. At the meeting, he said he would ask Overtree and Goddard to “clarify that relationship.” As of Feb. 1, there has been no public clarification.

Earlier in January, Schoales said that Overtree will not be investigating but would assist with press releases, as that was his “expertise.” Overtree, along with “a diverse group of graduate students,” was also hired to conduct a “school climate survey,” for which Schoales recommended adding $45,000 to the budget.

How to report abuse

To facilitate reporting information regarding sexual abuse/harassment of students and/or abuse of power by current or former District faculty members, administrators, and/or staff members, survivors/reporters of abuse are asked to call 802-451-0905, send an email to [email protected], or visit the secure website to choose how to communicate reports of abuse.

On the website, a message also offers anonymous reporting, saying, “If you prefer to report anonymously, please indicate this in your message and do not leave your name. Someone from this office will contact you within 24 hours to set up a meeting with an investigator.”

The law firm pledged “transparent, accessible, and safe avenues for reporting,” as well as promised to make “every reasonable effort” to support accommodations requested by people who consider coming forth.

In search of 'a fuller picture'

In closing, the release says, “The WSESD Board expects this investigation to promote transparency, accountability, and healing and we are committed to taking the steps necessary to bring our past to light as we protect our future.”

For Haskins Rogers, who has continued to press for accountability and a response from the district since the publication of her piece, the launch of the investigation represents a start.

“I am relieved that the board is finally initiating this independent investigation,” she says. “I hope survivors who have told their stories to me will now relay them to Aimee Goddard so that the district will have a fuller picture of the sexual abuse that has occurred in its schools and can begin to address the culture that permitted it.”

Haskins Rogers says she is reassured by the attorney's “experience and clarity.”

“I asked about the range of experiences she wants people to report - from harassment to grooming to abuse - and she emphasized that she wants to hear from anyone who had an experience with a school employee that made them uncomfortable or made them feel unsafe, or even made them question their safety while they were a student,” she said.

“People should not hesitate to report any incident of concern,” Haskins Rogers continued. “My understanding is that the mandated reporting would only be triggered in the event that somebody is reporting abuse of a current student.”

Noting that Goddard will accept anonymous reports, Haskins Rogers is encouraged by the focus of the investigation, which “is going to be on investigating alleged perpetrators, not on trying to determine the identities of reporters.”

In the past few weeks, Haskins Rogers, like others in a relatively small community, has discovered an even more personal connection to the issue than she knew previously.

“In recent weeks, a relative of mine was named as an alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse in a WSESD school,” she says. “Of course, this saddens me, but I stand with survivors no matter what.”

“As details emerge through this investigation, I believe many people are going to find themselves at varying degrees of separation from those who caused harm,” Haskins Rogers predicted. “I am hopeful the community will continue to show its wholehearted support for survivors.”

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