BRATTLEBORO — School officials planning to take action on reported abuse at Brattleboro Union High School are being guided by community members calling for a specific set of actions to help with healing.
Writer and activist Diana Whitney of Brattleboro said at the time of Tuesday’s Windham Southeast School District meeting, more than 130 people signed an open letter calling for the school to reckon with its history of abuse. They identified themselves as “concerned members of the community, parents of students, and graduates/former students of the district and BUHS.”
“Since the publication of Mindy Haskins Rogers’ article in The Commons detailing years of grooming and abuse at BUHS, we have been actively involved in discussions about healing and accountability,” the letter states. “Some of us participated in the School Board meeting on August 24, and we seek to be both resources to the district and watchdogs to ensure that leadership takes appropriate action, now that journalism has shed light on this traumatic legacy.”
Those who signed the letter said they stand in solidarity with “the courageous former students who have come forward with experiences of sexual abuse by a BUHS teacher,” Zeke Hecker. Additional former students shared stories of abuse perpetrated by Hecker and other BUHS teachers, and spoke about “the lack of support and adequate response they received from the administration,” according to the letter.
“Institutional betrayal occurs when institutions fail the very people they should protect,” the letter states. “As community members and families of the district, we are distressed that the school charged with the care of our children failed to prevent or respond supportively to the harm inflicted by a predator within the institution, and continues to dismiss it now. This is not ‘ancient history’ and this is not about a single ‘bad apple’ who mistreated some students. There are systemic issues at BUHS that made — and still make — the school a breeding ground for abusive behavior and a lack of accountability.”
Authors of the letter called it “unacceptable” for the district’s attorney to conduct an investigation, because that attorney “cannot provide an independent, impartial and transparent investigation.” The authors said a neutral party should conduct an independent investigation into abuse of students by BUHS teachers and staff over a period longer than 10 years.
The authors urged the district to engage an independent entity to facilitate a school culture survey for students and faculty/staff, specifically addressing safety, and make the results available to the public; create an ethics hotline for students to report concerns without needing to go through the administration; make consolidated, anonymized data from reports available to the public to ensure transparency and support an ongoing assessment of needs; and pay qualified community organizations which can engage directly with individuals harmed to determine appropriate, trauma-informed actions toward healing.
Board Chairman David Schoales said he would meet with the superintendent and other board members. The plan is to discuss how to move forward at the next meeting.
Schoales said the Women’s Freedom Center could provide support, and school officials have met with representatives from the group. The district also was advised to consult with Brattleboro Community Justice Center to facilitate conversations.
Connecting schools with the Women’s Freedom center can “build up our ability to respond to different things our students and staff are going through,” Superintendent Mark Speno said. He previously called details in the report “disgusting.”
“I stand by that,” Speno said Tuesday. “Behavior like that is not tolerated but condemned in our school district.”
Speno said he cannot undo the past but can apologize on behalf of the district.
Haskins Rogers wrote that between 1985 and 2018, local agencies and organizations investigated complaints that Hecker engaged in sexual contact with his underage students, but none of the investigations were publicized. She said she became aware of the extent of the accusations in the fall 2018.
“Some of the claims against Hecker are confirmed in a letter he himself wrote, signed and mailed,” she wrote. “The evidence seems damning, yet Hecker was protected by supervisors, colleagues and community members for decades, allowing him ongoing access to minors.”
Hecker did not participate in the meeting but he wrote in a letter published by the Commons, “I do not ask for or expect forgiveness, but I will try to help heal any wounds that remain.”
An investigation looking at incidents and how they were handled could help shape the district’s response, Schoales said.
“This would also include current or recent students,” he said. “We have to talk to attorneys about what the extent of the details would be. They are professionals who would know how to do these things.”
Bethany Ranquist of Brattleboro said she appreciates the board is taking action and suggested it engage with the affected people.
“I understand that the community needs to feel confident in the outcome,” board member Kelly Young said. “However it happens, whether it’s a hotline or whatever it is, I greatly hope that people will feel comfortable coming forward and providing information about what they have experienced or if it was something that they saw.”
Haskins Rogers, who went to BUHS and now lives in Northampton, Mass., said the group who signed the letter hopes the district would pay for facilitated conversations but not have school officials participate.
Board member Liz Adams described herself as a survivor.
“We’re not going to sweep anything under the rug,” she said. This is just like the first steps. ... It doesn’t mean we won’t be pursuing anything else. But I want everyone to know, over my dead body will this continue. It’s not OK.”