Windham Southeast School District Board Chair Kelly Young, having just read a statement from the board announcing that the board would likely not ever comment about the sexual abuse investigation, responds to a survivor who was participating remotely in the Jan. 23 meeting.
Windham Southeast School District Board Chair Kelly Young, having just read a statement from the board announcing that the board would likely not ever comment about the sexual abuse investigation, responds to a survivor who was participating remotely in the Jan. 23 meeting.

WSESD: ‘No further comment likely’ after lengthy sexual abuse investigation

Community members — and survivors — slam district’s terse statement drawing years-long investigation to a close with no conclusions or public information; previous members say board is gagged by a legal system that ‘isn’t designed to protect victims’

More than two years after the Windham Southeast School District hired an attorney to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in the district, the investigation has apparently come to an abrupt ending, creating disappointment, sadness, frustration, and anger in the community.

At the WSESD board's Jan. 23 meeting, Chair Kelly Young read a brief statement:

"This Board engaged Aimee Goddard, Esq. to conduct a privileged and confidential investigation. Attorney Goddard analyzed allegations of sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and retaliation. Attorney Goddard has made confidential factual findings," the statement started.

The board, it said, "has relied on Attorney Goddard's findings and other information to improve District policies and practices, and to take other action necessary to protect students, employees, and other members of the educational community."

"While we anticipate that this statement may be a disappointment to some, we do not expect to make any further comment on the investigation," the statement concluded. "Thank you to those of you who participated in the investigation."

Attorney Martha Carol, attending the meeting via Zoom, said it was "an injustice to survivors to not release further information."

"The community needs accountability to heal, and I think this leaves people feeling alone," said Carol, an associate attorney with the Justice Law Collaborative, which represents five individuals who have alleged sexual abused or harassment by school district employees.

"So this is a disappointing outcome, and I think it's allowing secrecy and injustice to continue," she said.

The Commons has reported the sexual harassment of a former student, identified in these pages as "Jane Doe," that resulted in former Brattleboro Union High School Principal Steve Perrin's firing. [Editor's note: The newspaper does not identify victims of sexual or domestic violence in print. Doe's identity has been confirmed by Reporter Virginia Ray.]

Perrin is currently suing the board, and his case is in the discovery stage.

Since the investigation started, several people, including Brattleboro High School alum and survivor Mindy Haskins Rogers, who unveiled the decades-long 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 included asking for metadata, such as how many people have reported abuse to Goddard and how many former/current educators have been named in those reports - none of which has been publicly shared by the board.

Time and again, Young asked the public for "patience" and said the board would share what it could in time. She also encouraged survivors to contact Goddard.

Immediate condemnation

Haskins Rogers, also attending the Jan. 23 meeting via Zoom - as she has every meeting since the investigation started - condemned the board's lack of disclosure, calling it "an incredible deception."

"To entice people to come to you and speak to your 'independent investigator' about harms they suffered in your schools with promises - ongoing, constant promises of transparency and action and justice," Haskins Rogers said.

She said the board did not meet the demand of a September 2022 petition signed by 188 community members, urging a third, neutral party to head the probe.

Instead, the board hired Goddard, a private attorney, "to conduct a privileged investigation," not releasing her findings and refusing to be forthcoming about the burden of proof being applied to reports, numbers of reporters, or numbers of educators named.

"This is not transparency," she said. "You haven't even met the commitment set forth in your own statement of Dec. 10, 2022, in which you promised transparency and to work with law enforcement as results came in."

BUHS alum and survivor Sherri Keefe has also attended the board's meetings throughout the investigation and was present via Zoom on Jan. 23.

"This is incredibly outrageous," she told the board. "You have not addressed the harm that was done to survivors, and you are continuing to cause additional harm by not releasing the information."

Keefe said the district spent $135,000 - "perhaps more" - of public funds, "yet refused to release this information."

"I don't know how you could say this was an impartial investigation when this is the outcome," she concluded. "This is just beyond belief. That is no consolation to those who have already been harmed. None at all."

Haskins Rogers, who has encouraged survivors to meet with Goddard, said that Young, when asked if the board had met its mandated obligation to report names of alleged abusers, had replied that "the lawyer would tell them if they had to do anything."

There is nothing in the law that says a mandated reporter should first consult with a lawyer, Haskins Rogers said, calling the notion "outrageous."

Noting that the board had promised to release the results of the report in consultation with law enforcement, Haskins Rogers added that the only other people in the board's numerous executive sessions have been lawyers.

"This is just another incident of institutional betrayal of the people who have already been harmed in your schools," she said. "I find it outrageous and incredibly disappointing that individuals I respect and like would fall into this pattern of institutional behavior once they joined the board."

She accused the board of "acting to cover up what happened in your schools once again," calling it "a huge betrayal to survivors and to people who were harmed in your schools."

"It's not a service to the community when there are still people who have been named by a number of former students as alleged to have committed acts of sexual misconduct, and they're still in your community and engaging with children in your community because nobody knows these things have been alleged," Haskins Rogers said.

"This is a betrayal of everybody," she added.

Young then encouraged anyone alleging abuse about anyone currently in the school system to contact Superintendent Mark Speno.

Haskins Rogers added that Justice Law Collaborative is "representing people who have been harmed in your schools, and survivors should be aware that that's also an option for them, if they do not feel served by this process."

Speno: District has used process to improve

Speno supported the board and his administration, saying at the meeting that the board has been "steadfast and committed to this investigation and working with the administration to establish very clear protocols, trainings, that we've presented many times."

He offered a litany of ways in which he says the administration has reacted to the investigation and evidence of abuse in district schools.

Examples included improvement in how abuse is reported; increased information via notices, email updates, and website postings; regular discussions; improved restorative practices; policy and professional development; "more clarity" around the role of the Title IX coordinator in complying with the federal civil rights law against sex discrimination in education; and a "clear abuse prevention policy."

After the meeting, The Commons asked him for specifics about the improvements he listed so that folks could readily understand more exactly what they are.

Speno said the measures include training in Act 1, the state law that governs Vermont's sexual abuse response system, for all staff, "aligned with the statutory duty of mandated reporters to report to [the state Department of Children and Families]."

"This has also included school outreach to families about prevention efforts and open house invitations," he continued. "School safety nights have been offered at various schools, including internet safety."

The district also has "conducted school-based work around trauma-informed education," including training of administrators with Dave Melnick, a social worker and consultant based in South Burlington.

"Currently, 35 staff members are participating in a trauma-informed cohort with Dave Melnick that has been supported by the school district," he added.

"Last year, we worked closely with education consultant Chris Overtree to analyze school climate data and to work on goal setting for individual schools and the school district," Speno said.

The district, he noted, has also invested in social-emotional learning curriculum, which offers instruction on such skills as building relationships, regulating emotions, and setting goals.

Speno said that the WSESD focuses on following laws that have been enacted "to protect students and staff" and on working with our Title IX coordinator to implement procedures and to offer district employees "continuous professional development."

Alumni react

After the meeting, Haskins Rogers shared with The Commons a statement from a survivor, who said, "As far as I am concerned, they are all now complicit in the abuse and continued victimization of survivors."

Alum Terri Mateer also commented.

"I graduated in the class of '83," she said. "Mr. [Robert] Henry was my science teacher, and I will never forget him saying that this class, the class of '83, will be a part of the generation that cleans up the messes from its previous generations."

She noted that "the facts of the investigation will help clarify and direct those who want to pitch in and clean up the community."

"Everyone has the right to know all concerns pertaining to their children," Mateer said. "Always."

She urged the board to "let the findings of the investigation be public."

Jane Doe told The Commons she hopes readers "are spurred to make their dissatisfaction with the process known and push for accountability."

"It is incredibly harmful and hypocritical of the board to continue to work in the shadows at every step of the way, while pretending to be doing so out of respect for survivors," Doe said.

"Respect for survivors, particularly survivors whose abusers have been protected by their institution for years, if not decades, means taking accountability and giving the community time to heal," she said.

"That these elected officials, trusted with maintaining our schools, have chosen to keep quiet and purposefully not be on the side of students being mistreated, sexually assaulted, abused, and harassed in what should be their one safe learning environment, is stunning and shameful," Doe continued.

"The community has been promised for over two years that clarity will come, transparency is on the way, and that we should all hold tight and wait for a report that continues to be hidden," she said.

Meanwhile, "survivors were told to come forward, bare their souls and their pain to investigators, endure questioning and scrutiny of their darkest moments, all to be left vulnerable and without resolution at the hands of the board."

Keefe also had additional thoughts to share.

"This outcome is a profound failure on the part of the District to address pervasive abuse of students in the past, and failure of teachers and administrators to report this abuse and act to protect students today," she said.

In 2009, Keefe said, she reported "abuse of students by Zeke and Linda Hecker, noting their continued participation in student activities, and the District failed to investigate or warn parents."

In her 2020 essay, Haskins Rogers cited police investigations and written evidence in which Zeke Hecker confessed to sexual encounters with multiple students while he served on the BUHS faculty in the 1970s. Her essay implicated his wife, Linda Hecker, for inappropriate behavior at their home while in the presence of Haskins Rogers, then a student.

For decades, Keefe has made it a mission to prevent both of the Heckers from participating in events where children and teens are present.

"These individuals continued to perform in Concerts for Schoolchildren at the Latchis for students, and the District failed to warn the public, or report this," Keefe said. "This clearly shows that the District cannot be trusted to protect students or hold accountable people who harm them."

"The District's solution now, to ask students and alumni to report information to the District, is untenable. The District, led by many of the same people, continues to hide information about abuse in the schools, to the detriment of kids and alumni," she added.

Keefe said that the district's actions regarding the investigation "leave no path forward for healing and accountability for survivors of abuse in the District, for real protection of current students, and for transparency, as well as accountability for the community as a whole."

Carol affirmed her practice's commitment to finding justice for victims of district sexual abuse through the courts.

"Our clients bravely agreed to speak about these painful topics with the District's investigator, Aimee Goddard, in the hope that this would result in justice and healing," Carol said.

"The board's decision not to release any information about the investigation into sexual abuse and harassment within the school harms survivors," the attorney continued.

She charged that the WSESD "failed to protect survivors when they were children and most vulnerable."

"The District has harmed them once again by refusing to acknowledge the abuses that have occurred and allow accountability," she said.

Public acknowledgment of harm, said Carol, "can be an important way for survivors to know they are not alone, to grieve, to hold perpetrators of abuse accountable, and to help ensure that this does not happen to more students in the future."

"Not releasing any conclusions from the report is an injustice," she said. "If the District continues to stonewall survivors and does not provide a fair and reasonable resolution, we are prepared to litigate."

Board members, past and present, react

The Commons reached out to several current and past board members who have played key roles and who have emphasized the importance of the abuse investigation and transparency with its results, no matter the findings.

Most did not respond.

Current board member Robin Morgan did.

"I am so sorry that I am not able to add any comment to the statement released by the District, except to say that my heart is with all survivors, and especially with people who feel betrayed by this outcome," Morgan said.

Former board member Lana Dever, a sexual abuse survivor herself, pointed out the conundrum for board members.

"The board cannot speak on any matters to do with lawyer confidentiality; the board can't even say, 'Our lawyers told us not to talk about that,'" Dever said.

"They're in a really hard position. There are laws and rules forcing them to be very, very careful about what they say - to protect everyone," she said. "It's unfortunate, but this is our bureaucracy speaking."

The problem, she said, is that "the system isn't designed to protect victims."

She described the current WSESD board members as "a group of dedicated, really compassionate people, many of whom have students in the district and who care about the issues. They did not stop caring when they joined the board - they became aware of the rules and laws."

"I know individually every single board member cares deeply," Dever said, adding that she has "never seen such a work ethic for people who are doing so much work and putting in so much time and effort, for no thanks."

"They care, and they are devoted, and when they don't say something, it's because they can't; they're not allowed to," she said.

Jaci Reynolds, another former board member, said the apparent final statement from the board "has been met with much frustration from the community."

She said that at the board meeting on Aug. 24, 2021, she stated her hope for "the creation of an environment where everyone felt safe enough to report and that all survivors were supported by their school community," and she believed they had that support.

She went on to say that the board was "absolutely unwilling to participate in any sort of cover-up, and that we would be as transparent as possible."

"Watching this 2{1/2} years later brought me to tears," Reynolds said this week. "Do our students feel safer? Does our community believe that we have been transparent? Do survivors feel any amount of closure?"

She said that she fears that "the answers may all be 'no,' and I am so very sorry for making promises that I clearly wasn't able to keep."

Reynolds said she, too, believed at the time that sharing metadata about the investigation "was universally understood to be an easy way to show the community the level of work being done."

"I thought we would share the number of reports made, redacted outcomes of these reports, and any findings related to current staff members," she said. "To my knowledge, [the public has] been given none of these things."

Reynolds urged board members to "reconsider their decision to share almost nothing about this investigation."

"Some of the current board members I know very well, and I trust their intentions. Those that I don't know are still known to me through other community connections as well," Reynolds said. "I also want to trust them."

She implored the current board to "please share any data that you can to help give folks some closure and to give survivors the respect they deserve. I think it's the least we could do for them."

"I won't claim to know everything that has transpired in the time since I left the board, but I can absolutely tell the current board members that they do not want to find themselves in the position that I am in right now," Reynolds said.

Board members, she said, find themselves "fully aware of the quasi-judicial proceedings in which [they] are participants, while also feeling a deep sorrow and wondering if we did what we set out to do when we first read Mindy's piece and prioritized survivors over protecting our own interests."

"Did we do that?" Reynolds asked.

Former board member David Schoales, who served as chair when the investigation started, said he was "surprised" by the board's decision to "keep the sex abuse investigation private," calling it "the worst possible outcome."

"This was always going to be a hard decision for the school because board members are constantly aware of potential liabilities, but the board wholeheartedly endorsed a commitment to an independent investigation and releasing the findings," Schoales said.

Even with two lawsuits already on the books, he said that "the stated intention of the school board from the beginning was to be transparent."

"The child psychologist/consultant we hired had experience in abuse investigations, and he was clear that the best legal strategy for the school would be transparency," Schoales said.

"We knew we would be sued, and because a former administrator had publicly stated that the [administration] knew about the abuses, we knew the school would lose those suits," he added.

"The best thing we could do was to uncover the scope of the problem and publicly share any information that could be verified," Schoales said. "Up until the time I retired from the board, that was the plan."

He described the release of the statement as "the worst possible outcome."

"Coming clean is the moral choice, and would create a lot of good will," Schoales said. "Instead, the board seems to be modeling the church - covering up past sins and letting the perpetrators continue to interact with children."

As a result, he said, "Students will see the adults who are supposed to be protecting them covering up crimes. Courts will see no evidence that the school has accepted responsibility for letting the abuses persist. Instead, the board will be committed to fighting back against the just claims of the survivors. The attorneys will avoid going to court and will work out a settlement, so none of the criminal abusers will ever be named."

And that, Schoales said, is a scenario where "everyone loses but the abusers and the attorneys."

"It is also discouraging that the 188 people who signed the petition saying the school had committed 'institution betrayal' did not see fit to follow up and make sure that betrayal was reversed," he said. "That fell to Mindy Haskins Rogers and Sherri Keefe. Their disappointment must be deeply bitter."

"I want survivors to be heard," Haskins Rogers said. "This was never supposed to be about me. I'm still in awe of the power and courage of the people who came forward to share their stories."

Haskins Rogers vowed to "keep fighting to change this culture," she said. "This is the WSESD's failure, not ours."

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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