School district wants to shine light on BUHS abuse probe

Board members disagree about original deadline for superintendent to address multi-pronged directive

BRATTLEBORO — Five months into an active sexual abuse investigation involving Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS), the Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) Board of Directors wants Superintendent Mark Speno to draft a comprehensive outreach plan.

But some felt the Aug. 9 deadline the board wanted to include would be too soon for Speno, who had been apprised of the request just days prior to the July 19 meeting, to provide a solid and thoughtful answer, and in the end, the board took no action, tabling the motion.

But the discussion of the motion opened the doors to a discussion about the direction the investigation, and communication with the community about its progress and findings, might take.

Vice Chair David Schoales reported to his colleagues that after hiring an investigator and attorney to “establish a firewall between the board and the investigation,” it is evident that many staff and community “are not aware of the investigation.”

He said legal counsel advised that the board hand over to the superintendent the responsibility to communicate more and better with the public and draft an outreach plan.

“We do recognize more people need to know about it and people who do come forward need to be protected,” Schoales said.

This is the first time since the investigation started that much of anything has been said about it by the board publicly.

The directive to Speno

As proposed in the board's motion, Speno would:

• Establish systems that offer multiple pathways for students and staff members to report “with varying levels of confidentiality and anonymity.”

• Rebuild existing leadership structures throughout the district to provide representation from a wider segment of the administration, staff, and student population “beyond strictly historical or hierarchical groupings.”

• Create structures that provide “overlapping accountability” for staff members and administration to “move high stakes decisions and incident responses outside of single individuals or groups at the same administrative level.”

• Engage, at the district and local school levels, the student, parent, guardian, staff and local communities in “substantive dialogue about school improvement and climate, highlighting areas of growth or concern in a transparent and accessible fashion.”

• Update students, parents, guardians, staff, and community members on the progress of the investigation of “allegations of abuse as appropriate, and facilitate/encourage their participation.”

• Provide students, staff, parents, guardians, and the community “timely and transparent updates on the progress of these and other goals in a manner designed to increase community awareness and engagement.”

The motion further required Speno to bring a proposal to the board no later than Aug. 9.

After the board's acceptance of the plan, Speno would keep members updated and make budgetary requests, staffing changes, and updates to procedures as necessary. He would also be permitted to request participation or support from outside experts in both creating and implementing his plan.

An online discussion?

Once the motion was made and seconded, opinions flew.

Board member Sean Murphy took issue with the notion of “directing” Speno to do this. He said he would vote against it, preferring collaboration over direction.

“I object to the word 'directive' and I think it's part and parcel of what this board does, he said. “If that was 'collaboration,' I'd be much more willing.”

“We're supposed to direct, and this was very carefully worded,” replied Schoales.

Others took issue with specific charges within the motion or thought others should be included.

Curriculum Coordinator Paul Smith questioned the board about sending the draft motion to a few members of the public and not posting it online, and he asked if it were discussed in executive session.

He objected to making the motion available with so little warning, especially because the board recently admonished staff members and administrators for not sending documents to them with enough lead time for them to act on them.

“It surprises me, and I would suspect there will be repercussions,” Smith said of hearing some board members had been privy to the document sooner than others. “I think I'm hearing the document was circulated among board members without an executive session.”

Board Chair Kelly Young then said she had emailed it, and Schoales admitted he had also shared it.

“We share confidential documents regularly,” Schoales said.

Murphy said he got the document “with no attribution or comment” and not in the form presented that evening. He said he had asked about it “and got no response.”

'A lot to unpack'

The timeline for Speno to respond and the scope of that response were also questioned.

Mindy Haskins Rogers, who wrote an essay published in The Commons on Aug. 11, 2021 that exposed allegations against former teacher Robert Hecker and prompted the sex abuse investigation, said “a lot of things in this are very promising.”

She noted, however, that mandating reporting is another component.

“There's a certain amount of education that might be required for students to understand an adult is violating a norm,” Haskins Rogers said, and adding that component “would be helpful.”

She also suggested adding regular training for faculty and staff members “so they recognize signs of grooming and abuse and know what to look for that they might report.”

Finally asked to comment, Speno took a moment, then said, “There's a lot to unpack.” He asked if the document “specifically related to sexual abuse and reports and the current investigation.”

“That's my understanding,” answered Young.

“It reads broadly and feels like there's room for interpretation throughout the document as well,” Speno said. “I think clarity around specific tasks that are implied is needed and aspects that are actually measurable, to clarify what those are.”

The superintendent said he “would be interested in talking this through more before formalizing a document here tonight that it sounds like a lot of people have had their eyes on.”

“Three weeks is nothing [...] if it's going to be meaningful,” said parent Jennifer Jacobs, calling the motion “entirely too broad and, as Mark said, there's a lot to unpack here.”

“There's a lack of clarity,' she said.

Sherri Keefe noted that, having made complaints “over 14 years,” she found it “heartening to see the document addresses the failure of the structure at the high school” regarding both reporting incidents and the administration's response.

“I think it's important during this whole process to find out why it didn't happen,” she said.

Debate about this point - whether existing policies failed or not - continued, with Murphy saying he had been part of an all-policy review and the one pertinent to reports of sexual abuse “is clear.”

“The failure is due to people ignoring the policy,” he said.

“The policy failed, and we hurt countless people,” said board member Liz Adams. “We need multiple ways and multiple accountability to make sure this doesn't happen again.”

In search of a more collaborative approach

Board member Emily Murphy Kaur suggested tabling the motion in favor of Speno's meeting with some Board members and developing “a realistic timeline” or not require his proposal as soon as Aug. 9 to allow “a more collaborative approach and establishing communal goals” with him.

“The summer is flying by,” said Board member Tim Maciel. “We really need changes to the system, and this is what this document calls for.”

Board member Deb Stanford also objected to postponing the deadline.

“Mark is the CEO,” she said. “This motion is a heads-up. Aug. 9 is a date to see something in progress, not the whole package. Pieces of this we could see in a draft.”

Smith, the curriculum coordinator, also questioned why the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) board was not included in the discussion or part of drafting the motion, since that body hires and oversees the superintendency. He also noted the absence of the Vernon Town School Board's involvement.

“The investigation is under the [WSESD], so we're addressing it here,” said Young.

“Vernon isn't having this issue,” said Schoales.

“Vernon is part of the SU,” Smith said. “We need Vernon's voice [...] wouldn't you want to include the whole of the SU?”

“Our purpose for doing this was the need to engage with Mark in terms of doing the outreach and communication around the investigation and the motion does that,” said Schoales. “This is exactly what we wanted to happen before this meeting. I support tabling it because I think we need to address some of the things that people have brought up.”

WSESU Board Chair Michelle Green, who sits on the WSESD board, joined the meeting late and said she had “some catching up to do,” but favored tabling.

“The way it's worded is establishing goals, which is not what the SD board should be doing,” she said.

Ultimately, the motion to table the draft motion until the next meeting passed, with six board members (Schoales, Anne Beekman, Murphy, Murphy Kaur, Green, and Adams) in favor of doing so.

Stanford and Maciel voted against tabling it, and Lana Dever abstained from the vote.

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