WSESD chair foreshadows an update on abuse probe

More a year has passed since the WSESD board engaged an independent investigation into decades-long sexual abuse allegations

BRATTLEBORO — As has been the case for about a year, the Tuesday, Feb. 28 Windham Southeast School District school board agenda included “sexual abuse investigation update” under the heading of “unfinished business.”

Until that meeting, there has been virtually no update as board members say they are taking their cues from legal counsel.

Several people, including Brattleboro Union High School alum Mindy Haskins Rogers, who broke the story of a history and culture of sexual abuse in the district in her August 2021 essay in The Commons, have asked for information at meetings.

Those requests, notably from Haskins Rogers, included asking for simple statistics, such as how many people have reported abuse to attorney Aimee Goddard of Annis & Goddard, who was hired to independently investigate abuse claims in December 2021.

No one asked for names, although Justice Law Collaborative (JLC), whom some survivors have also contacted, has named names.

JLC has put the district on notice of potential legal action to come, naming some former teachers, including Robert “Zeke” Hecker and Thomas Haskins, along with Hecker's wife, Linda Hecker.

But on Feb. 28, after board student representative Ben Berg asked and Haskins read a statement, the response from the board was somewhat different.

Chair Kelly Young said she would try to have an update at the board's March 14 meeting, which was cancelled due to the Nor'easter. On that day, The Commons asked Young if there would have been an actual update. 

“As with many previous WSESD board meeting agendas, the agenda for the meeting previously scheduled for this evening includes an opportunity for an update on the sexual abuse investigation,” she answered.

Student rep submits questions

At the Feb. 28 meeting, Berg presented “a few questions in talking to some students about the status of the update.”

Those questions include: “Where's the investigation at, do we know where it's going, and what the continuing goal of the investigation is,” he said.

“Is there progress that can be shared, and what are the next steps of the process?” Berg also asked.

“Those are some of the concerns from students, and I definitely wanted to convey those in the open meeting,” he said.

In the past almost year, Young has replied to any such questions by thanking the asker and moving on, but this time she appeared to be taking a step further.

“Those are really good questions and they are worded in a good way in order to help us focus where this is going in the future and, if you would not mind forwarding me that wording as much as you can, I will try to have an update for you at the next meeting […] which is March 14,” Young said.

'Ongoing lack of information'

Haskins Rogers also spoke about the investigation and lack of an update of any kind.

“I'm very concerned about the ongoing lack of information, even data, and I have a brief thing I'd like to read, it just takes a couple of minutes,” she said. “This is the information that I have, just based on people who have come to me.”

Haskins Rogers said, “Over the past year and a half since I published my article, I have heard from more people who were affected by Zeke Hecker's behavior, but also from people who say they were subjected to sexual misconduct by seven other educators in the district.

“For almost all of the educators that were named to me, more than one person has come forward and most of them did not know about each other. The accounts span decades,” she said.

Haskins Rogers said those accounts are in addition to the high-profile cases of Eric Achenbach, Robert Dykes, and David Runnion. All were apprehended and charged with crimes while working at district schools from 2008 to 2011.

“The only one of those who was reported by an employee was Dykes,” she said. “And David Runnion, who was a BUHS student in the late 1970s, lured kids online in 2008 using the handle 'thepurpleandthewhite.' During his court case, Zeke and Linda Hecker submitted a character reference on his behalf.

“This is not ancient history - that's one thing I've heard a lot, of course - and they weren't just 'different times.' I wanted to cite that in July 1979, the Brattleboro Reformer ran a [wire service] article titled, 'Sexual Abuse of Students by Teachers Outlined,' which raised alarms about high school girls being harassed and abused by their educators and coaches.”

Haskins Rogers said beginning in the early 1980s, Prevent Child Abuse Vermont and the Women's Crisis Center, now the Women's Freedom Center, “launched endless educational campaigns about sexual abuse of children and teens in local newspapers and schools.”

“One two-part session in 1983 was attended by more than 100 people, including all the WSESD principals,” she said. “So there was awareness of this as a problem and [that] it wasn't accepted behavior.

“When I ask the district for disclosure, I am not asking them to reveal survivors or to tell abuse stories that survivors do not want retold. I am asking them to explain the nature and the scope of what has happened in their schools and to release the names of educators who have been 'credibly accused.'

“This kind of disclosure could help survivors gain context for what was done to them and may help protect kids now. I have researched and found more than one named perpetrator working in other schools, or with other organizations that serve youth even when they have surrendered their licenses.”

Creating 'new norms'

Haskins Rogers went on to say she believes the district “is trying to establish new norms.”

“But relying on the kids to report their own abuse after it has occurred is not enough, and identifying 'trusted adults' is a questionable tactic, given that perpetrators are so adept at ingratiating themselves to their victims,” she said, noting she believed Zeke Hecker “cared more about me than other teachers did because of the extra attention he gave to me.”

Haskins Rogers emphasized not “a single person came to me with their story and told me they wanted the secrecy to continue.”

“The secrecy protects only the institution and the perpetrators, it doesn't protect students or survivors,” she said.

She added her hopes that with a newly constituted board after Town Meeting Day elections, “all stakeholders will join me in calling for real disclosure and accountability and, hopefully, this will change this pattern.”

Young responded to say that she hopes anyone will feel confident in speaking with Goddard.

“She is really the conduit through which we are educated as to who or what and it helps us to move forward as to what steps need to happen,” Young said.

“If it is in current administration, that certainly is a concern, and we don't know about it if we don't hear from either students or parents or community members or other administration who may know of something - we have to learn about it.

“Truly, it's an unfair burden to put on someone to have to report something that they may have been victimized and may have caused them trauma, but in order for us to know about these things, we have to have some sort of a report by someone, so I would encourage you and anyone else who may have experiences or know of something to please contact Aimee Goddard.

“I know it sounds like a record playing over and over again to say that, but that's really how we will find out about things,” Young said.

Goddard's office did not return phone calls from The Commons.

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