BRATTLEBORO — Ousted Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS) Principal Steven Perrin alleges that the board used him as a “scapegoat” and “sacrificial lamb” after learning of abuse by past teachers in the district, specifically Robert “Zeke” Hecker.
In his lawsuit against the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) and Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) boards, Perrin, who is represented by Theodore Kramer, claims that his “termination can only be explained as the Board's decision to scapegoat Plaintiff in light of vocal public pressure regarding accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior against a former teacher that had gone unheeded for years.”
“There is no other logical explanation for the summary termination of a highly regarded principal,” he says.
The March 21 filing names the two entities as well as board members at the time of Perrin's firing and subsequent hearing to appeal that action, which took place over six sessions in January.
Those defendants are Liz Adams, Anne Beckman, Lana Dever, Michelle Luetjen Green, Emily Murphy Kaur, Tim Maciel, Robin Morgan, Shaun Murphy, Deborah Stanford, and Kelly Young.
In the civil complaint, Perrin requests a jury trial and financial remuneration for wrongful termination, breach of contract, defamation, denial of due process, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In 2021, BUHS alum, educator, and writer Mindy Haskins Rogers illuminated student abuse by Hecker and others that spanned years in an essay published in The Commons. In response to the issues raised in the piece, the school district established a process whereby past and present members of the school community could report incidents.
In October 2022, The Commons published the story of “Jane Doe,” who was a sophomore at BUHS in 2010 when she alleges Perrin started to make unwanted and inappropriate sexual and romantic advances toward her and found other ways to make her life difficult, including trying to prevent her from graduating.
Doe also believes the former principal did not report her rape by a fellow student to the authorities, as he was mandated to do as an educator.
Friends and classmates corroborated Doe's story, saying that they had witnessed Perrin's continuing treatment of her. After the story broke, others stepped forward - both male and female - on social media to confirm similar treatment by the former principal.
Doe testified that when her rape was reported by another student and Perrin called her into his office, as the hours wore on and she refused to disclose details of the rape, the former principal's interest felt more like “curiosity” than fact-gathering.
In its decision to fire Perrin, the WSESD board noted his “inappropriate and harmful investigation” of an alleged sexual assault against Doe.
In addition, the board notes testimony alleging he instructed at least one former employee in 2020 not to report to the Vermont Department of Children and Families (DCF) when she and another employee were made aware of incidents involving a then 14-year-old female student that they believed required mandatory reporting.
On April 25, 2022, WSESD Chair Kelly Young communicated via memo that Superintendent Mark Speno had placed Perrin on a paid leave of absence.
The board fired Perrin on Nov. 8 in a unanimous vote. He had not been on the job since before spring break of 2022, although he continued to collect his $122,000 annual salary and benefits until being fired.
Perrin then exercised his right to an appeal, and the WSESD board held a hearing and heard testimony over two weeks from about a dozen witnesses, ending Jan. 30.
The hearing, according to statute, was held in executive session. Attorney Sean Toohey of Lynn, Lynn, Blackman & Manitsky, P.C., of the district's legal team, moderated the proceedings. Attorney Kendall Hoechst of Dinse P.C. represented the board.
In February, the WSESD board upheld its original decision to fire Perrin.
Perrin has retained his administrator's and teacher's licenses from the Vermont Agency of Education. Both expire in 2024. The AOE closed an investigation into the former principal's conduct without formal charges, it confirmed in a Jan. 5 email to Perrin.
Speno had also renewed Perrin's contract for two years, through June 2024, which by statute, must have happened prior to February of this year.
A document dated March 25, 2022 and signed by Speno shows he then had agreed to a contract with Perrin for $132,261 annually from July 1, 2022 through June 30, 2023.
Hired in 1995 as a science teacher, in 2007 Perrin moved to the role of assistant principal at BUHS. In 2011, he was named principal.
Supporters weigh in
Perrin received letters of support from two former superintendents: Ron Stahley, who supervised him for a decade, and Lyle Holiday, who oversaw his work for three years, are among the testimonials included in the exhibits submitted by Kramer as part of the lawsuit.
“In all the years supervising Steve, I have never received a complaint about his behavior. Steve Perrin has always promoted student wellness and safety,” Stahley writes.
“I have always found him to be highly professional and trustworthy in his work,” writes Holiday. “He is considered a leader among his colleagues in both WSESU and throughout the state.”
Letters of support for Perrin also include those from BUHS Assistant Principal Chris Day, currently on military leave; Administrative Assistant Nicole Zolnoski; Anne Doran, school counselor at the Windham Regional Career Center; former Brattleboro Area Middle School Principal Ingrid Chrisco; former BUHS Counselor Bill Jahn; Assistant Principal Jennifer Brown; and Kathy Rouleau-Venice, administrative secretary and “confidential secretary” to the BUHS principal since 2005.
Perrin's lawsuit asserts that current Superintendent Mark Speno “has stated he has no reason to disagree with these testimonials” and was “directed by the board not to participate in the investigation and review of allegations” against Perrin.
Speno did not respond to a query from The Commons to confirm these words.
The lawsuit contends that despite a superintendent's role being to hire and supervise principals, the WSESD board “conducted its affairs with one and only one goal in mind, to placate a vocal minority's insistence that student claims of mistreatment be treated seriously.
“In furtherance of its mission to find a scapegoat, a sacrificial lamb,” the Board placed Perrin on administrative leave with allegations against him handled by a lawyer and not the superintendent, the former principal continues.
He alleges that the Board forbade him from talking to anyone interviewed by that lawyer and from “discussing the allegations against him with anyone,” forbade him access to records, and did not allow him or Kramer to view a video of Jane Doe's interview with Brattleboro police.
The lawsuit asserts “the practical and foreseeable consequence” of these directives is that “Plaintiff shall never work as a principal ever again.”
“The reality is that Plaintiff could have presented evidence of his integrity, professionalism, and devotion from God Almighty himself and Defendants would have terminated him anyway,” the lawsuit says.
Culture fix needed?
Justice Law Collaborative (JLC) represented Jane Doe during Perrin's WSESD appeal hearing.
“Perrin's refusal to take responsibility for the harm he has caused is deplorable,” the firm wrote Tuesday in a statement to The Commons. “Perrin's misconduct that resulted in his dismissal from the school was a result of his failure to take complaints of sexual harassment seriously and failure to refrain from harassing students himself.
“The culture that has allowed sexual harassment and abuse of vulnerable students to exist must come to an end; the first step is removing responsible leaders, including Perrin.
“The staff and administrators that continue to support Perrin are an integral part of the cultural problem that exists today. Perhaps one day he will accept responsibility for his role in the harm he has caused students who were promised safety while in his care and under his supervision. Clearly today is not that day, and it's a shame for all survivors.”