BRATTLEBORO — Survivors who have alleged sexual abuse in the Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) have named at least three adults, two of them teachers, saying the adults molested them at their schools and off-campus.
Kim Dougherty, co-founder and partner of the civil litigation firm Justice Law Collaborative in North Easton, Massachusetts, has sent two letters to the WSESD on behalf of two former students, one who was in high school at the time of the alleged abuse and one who was in fifth grade.
“We have put them [WSESD] on notice of our representation of clients with claims against the District regarding their failure to properly hire, train, monitor, and supervise the teachers within their control, related to both Robert “Zeke” Hecker and his wife Linda Hecker, and Thomas Haskins,” said Dougherty this week.
One letter was sent to the WSESD, Supt. Mark Speno, and the District's legal counsel, Pietro Lynn, of Lynn, Lynn, Blackman & Manitsky, P.C. in Burlington. The other was sent to the WSESD, Lynn, and the Brattleboro Union High School #6 District (which was disbanded in 2019 as town school boards were regionalized as part of education reform proscribed by Act 46).
“We have had multiple reports from our clients, one of whom has been putting the community on notice about Hecker since 2008,” Dougherty said. “Some of what she experienced was in the 1970s.”
Another teacher named in the lawsuits, Thomas Haskins -“who our client was sexually assaulted by” - worked in the district from 1977 to 1978.
Dougherty said both male and female clients have made reports of abuse.
“We send out a letter of representation that indicates the claims at issue and asking them [WSESD] to preserve any documentation related to those claims,” said Dougherty, who also represented 47 individuals who alleged physical and sexual assault at Kurn Hattin Homes for Children in Westminster.
Dougherty said now she, along with everyone else, is awaiting the results of the ongoing sexual abuse investigation being conducted by attorney Aimee Goddard of Buehler & Annis, PLC in Brattleboro.
Legislature 'opens the door'
The investigation was prompted by an essay, “No More Secrecy,” written by BUHS alum Mindy Haskins Rogers and published in The Commons in August 2021. In it, she exposed the Heckers, referencing a 1985 investigation into a report by a student and including information from a 2009 investigation into allegations against Hecker, who was an English teacher at the high school from 1971 to 2004.
The essay also includes a 2009 police report that quotes a letter written by Hecker in 1982 in which he refers to himself as a “child molester.”
Hecker was banned from Windham Southeast Supervisory Union properties in 2009 and from BMC and Windham Orchestra in 2018.
Subsequently, a letter signed by 167 community members demanding an investigation was sent to the board.
Dougherty said her firm has in the past taken action against both an institution and perpetrators as well as “just the institution.”
She said that she will contemplate doing so again, after the report is issued and she has conferred with her clients, “unless there's a way to amicably resolve it short of that.”
“We understand the next step is for the independent investigation to be completed, and then we'll have to assess what the next steps will be. We shall see,” she said.
“We would make decisions with our clients about pursuing the individuals,” Dougherty said. “We're open to resolving things amicably, but we certainly will seek justice for our clients whichever way we need to.”
Dougherty noted that in 2019, the Vermont Legislature has amended the law regarding the statute of limitations in civil cases for childhood sexual and physical abuse, opening the door for survivors to pursue legal action against perpetrators even if the alleged behavior occurred decades ago.
“It's opened the door to allow people to get reparations they deserve,” she said.
Dougherty said that she is “fairly confident” that the Heckers “are not the only two out there.”
“Things we've learned from our clients show it probably goes beyond those folks,” she said.
“At least with the Heckers, the level of power manipulation they used over these children to solicit inappropriate sexual contact with them was horrific and went on over years,” Dougherty said.
The Heckers were frequent chaperones, taking students to events such as opera performances off campus and then sometimes to their home.
“My understanding is it went well beyond just touching and sexual molestation,” Dougherty continued. “They sexually abused and exploited these children for years, using music as a guise to gain access.”
A Brattleboro police department report dated Jan. 25 of this year confirms an interview with a survivor who alleges that during the 1977-78 school year, his fifth-grade teacher, Haskins, had physical contact with him in the classroom.
The report states, “the teacher would have him sit on his lap in class and he would rub [his] genitals over his clothes,” and that Haskins would “frequently take some of the boys from class to the movies.”
After her essay was published, Haskins Rogers has been contacted by numerous survivors and consistently directed them to the Goddard investigation as well as to other resources, including SafePlace and Dougherty.
She quickly responded to The Commons when asked if Haskins is related to her.
“In January, a survivor reached out to me about abuse by my uncle, Thomas Haskins, who in the past was an elementary school teacher in Brattleboro,” Haskins Rogers said.
“I expressed support for the survivor and shared a list of resources I had compiled since 'No More Secrecy' was published, which included Kim Dougherty's firm. Then I gathered whatever supplemental information I could and provided it to the survivor, to law enforcement, and to the firm when I learned about the lawsuit,” she added.
Haskins Rogers said she “had never known Thomas more than by name and sight because of estrangements within my father's family.”
She said she does remember passing Haskins in the hallway of Oak Grove School, an elementary school in Brattleboro, “when he taught there for a year in the early '80s. I was in the sixth grade,” she said. “He taught fifth grade.”
“I am deeply saddened by the harm that was done to this survivor and, undoubtedly, to others,” Haskins Rogers said. “I am not confused about my loyalties in this: I stand with survivors. I am glad The Commons is bringing this to light and I am hopeful that it will help others Thomas may have harmed to feel less isolated.”
Student rep speaks at WSESD board meeting
At the Sept. 13 WSESD board meeting, Speno was speaking about training for staff and preparation to work with students about how to prevent and report problems when the board's student representative, Benjamin Berg, spoke up.
“I've heard from a few of my peers about students not being able to comfortably address concerns they have about staff members,” he said. “I think the biggest issue students have about that is retaliation in the future or to put their names on that [...] that's something I want to definitely keep in mind.”
“I'm glad you felt comfortable saying that in a public meeting today,” Speno replied. “That's a really important precept.”
“I'd really love to talk with our administrators [...] in smaller settings that can't be easily overlooked,” Berg said. “I think getting communications to students is something I'm passionate about.”
Vice chair references pending lawsuits
Until this meeting, board members had kept mum regarding the investigation, saying they were not able to speak about it and did not have any information regarding it.
At this meeting, however, Vice Chair David Schoales, who chaired the meeting in Chair Kelly Young's absence, addressed the potential lawsuits, focusing on the District's insurance coverage.
“We don't have liability insurance before - I think it's 1989, but I'm not certain - but there's a point where we don't have records and the insurance companies don't have records,” said Schoales. “And we've been informed that we're going to face two lawsuits at least, so we have to be very careful that we don't say or do anything that would jeopardize our liability insurance coverage.”
Schoales said that the board “already know we're being sued and we don't have insurance to cover any settlements that might come in those cases.”
He said that the board should “avoid having to use program money [...] or lay people off or cut programs off to pay for the sins of the past and make the students pay for those sins of those days.”
When Haskins Rogers asked Schoales who advised the district to check the scope of its insurance coverage, the vice-chair refused to answer.
Asked after the meeting about the letters from Dougherty to the board, Lynn responded.
“The claimants contend that the District failed to properly respond to notice of the misconduct,” he said. “The basis of any liability case against the District would be that there was notice to the District and that it failed to reasonably act when it knew or should have known that Hecker or Haskins were engaging in sexual misconduct,” Lynn said.
“Whether a teacher had sexual contact with a student is not the measure of the District's liability,” he said. “As a matter of law, that misconduct would be outside the scope of employment and not attributable to the District. To establish liability, claimants must show knowledge or that the District should have known and then failed to reasonably respond.”
Haskins, now retired, did not respond to phone messages asking for his comment.
Goddard also did not respond to email or phone messages by press time.