BRATTLEBORO — School officials are being called upon to respond to a report about sexual abuse in a way that prevents future harm and promotes healing.
Mindy Haskins Rogers of Northampton, Mass., recently wrote in the Commons weekly newspaper about how Zeke Hecker, a retired teacher, groomed and abused female students while working at Brattleboro Union High School. Haskins Rogers, an educator and writer who attended the school and described distancing herself from him after feeling uncomfortable, corroborated stories with police reports and other records.
At the Windham Southeast School District meeting Tuesday where time was dedicated to discussing her article, Haskins Rogers said she wants to ensure the safety of children.
“This is a huge moment of reckoning,” said Robin Morgan of Brattleboro. Before school districts merged, she served on a board governing elementary schools in Brattleboro when a survivor of abuse shared their story about Hecker with the board.
The matter is anticipated to come up again at future meetings. Board Chairman David Schoales spoke about the possibility of hiring a law firm to investigate, hosting community forums for healing, and conducting more trainings to prevent abuse and harassment.
Schoales read legal advice stating that an investigation could determine the nature and scope of misconduct by Hecker, explore issues at play at the time of his employment and look at policies with an eye toward strengthening them.
Haskin 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 of 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.”
Haskins Rogers blames a culture that protected Hecker rather than holding him accountable.
“It’s a culture that elevated his status and viewed his worth as greater than those with less power or support,” she wrote.
A week after the Commons published Haskins Rogers’ article on Aug. 11, Hecker responded with an apology to anyone harmed by his behavior.
“I do not ask for or expect forgiveness, but I will try to help heal any wounds that remain,” Hecker wrote in a letter to the editor in the Commons that identifies Guilford as the community where he resides.
Via letters to the editor of the Commons, a former teacher at BUHS and arts organizations voiced regret for not being more active in addressing incidents outlined in the report.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Interim Superintendent Mark Speno called the actions detailed in the report “disgusting.” He said they are condemned by the board, staff and teachers.
“We’re talking about statutory rape,” said board member Tim Maciel.
Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Board Chairwoman Kerry Amidon said officials have a legally mandated responsibility to hold quasi-judicial proceedings to look into the incidents and maintain impartiality. The supervisory union includes schools in Windham Southeast School District — BUHS and elementary schools in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford and Putney — and the district for Vernon Elementary School.
Jaci Reynolds, WSESD board member, thanked Haskins Rogers for the report.
“I believe survivors and I know how difficult it can be to come forward,” Reynolds said. “We, the board, have no intention of covering up or dismissing reports of abuse either stemming from already reported incidents or any that might come forward in the future. I’m aware that several accusations against other staff members have been made in the time since the article has been written, and I’m calling on those affected and those with knowledge of abuse to come forward.”
Reynolds suggested holding a community forum. Organizations in the community are available to facilitate the discussion, she said.
“I understand your hands are tied to a lot of extent,” said Jennifer Jacobs, who graduated from BUHS in 1991 and has a child who attends the school. “But from the community, we’re all left sitting wondering what is going to be done to fundamentally shift the culture?”
Deborah Stanford, a community member who taught for 28 years at the Horace Mann School in New York City, found that workshops helped teachers to understand how certain actions can make a student feel violated.
“I think we need to understand our privilege in the society,” Stanford said. “I do think young men and young women need to have these issues openly discussed by adults otherwise they go underground and that’s not OK.”
Brandie Starr, former Brattleboro Select Board member and parent of children at Academy School in Brattleboro, called now the “time for us to treat this by dragging it into the sunlight.”
“We have broken people who are preying on people and we have broken people who are the prey of other people,” she said. “Grooming is insidious. It is always done by the people you trust.”
Haskins Rogers said she carried the stories of victims for more than 30 years and it took more than two years to bring the report to print. The average age where survivors of sexual abuse come forward is 52, she wrote. She pointed to two 2019 Vermont laws that removed the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse who wish to bring civil suits against their abusers and/or the organizations that failed to protect them, and removed the statute of limitations for criminal suits involving sexual exploitation of a minor.