Board defends district’s decisions in VHS teachers controversy

Some question the district’s willingness to let two teachers quietly resign.

The Vashon Island School Board issued its first statement last week about the district’s response to investigations that have now resulted in the resignations of two Vashon High School teachers, saying board members “absolutely do not condone actions of staff that cause any physical or emotional harm to students of the district.”

The board also pledged to work with the Vashon DOVE Project, an agency that works with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, to form a workgroup that will “listen deeply to students, staff, and community; better understand where current gaps in policy and practice exist related to student safety; and make recommendations to the board before the end of this school year.”

But the board defended its decision to accept the two teachers’ resignations and allow them to continue to be paid for the next several months rather than immediately terminated, saying had they fired the teachers and had the teachers appealed, the district might have been forced to not only pay their attorney fees but also return them to their teaching positions.

The board also said it would not consider a board resolution condemning relationships between post-graduates and current employees, as a former VHS graduate who said she was groomed by VHS teacher John Rees called for at the board’s April 27 meeting, attended by more than 80 people both online and virtually.

“After speaking with legal counsel, the district determined it does not have the authority to dictate terms of an employee’s behavior outside of their work hours,” the statement said, adding that state law “provides constitutional rights for adults to enter into relationships.”

The statement drew a swift rebuke from Lara Hruska, an attorney hired by two students who said they had been groomed by Rees. “Putting employees on notice that this kind of thing is suspect is not such a heavy lift, and I’d be curious to know which organizations would take up a lawsuit to fight against this presumption,” Hruska said.

The 550-word statement, written by board chair Allison Krutsinger and signed by all the board members and Superintendent Slade McSheehy, came in the wake of a controversy that has rocked the island’s school community – last month’s resignation of Kara Sears and Rees, both veteran teachers.

The two high school teachers were accused of grooming students for romantic relationships that took place in the summer months following the students’ graduation. Sears and Rees resigned after signing settlement agreements that allowed them to remain on paid administrative leave until Oct. 31, and Aug. 31, respectively.

Sears’ settlement, obtained in a public disclosure request, also requires the district to provide her with a neutral written letter, stating her dates of employment positions held in the district, and provide the same information to potential employers who contact the district.

The Beachcomber has requested, but not yet received, the district’s settlement agreement with Rees.

A district investigation determined that Sears had violated school policy pertaining to boundary invasions in her conduct with the student at the center of the investigation, as well as other students. No report will be issued about the Rees investigation because Rees resigned before the investigator hired by the district had completed his written report, McSheehy said. Rees was accused of grooming a 2001 and 2008 VHS graduate.

Both teachers also now face new probes by the state office that is charged with certifying teachers.

Islanders speak up

The board’s May 3 statement followed on the heels of the school board’s April 27 meeting – an emotional gathering where multiple islanders questioned why Rees and Sears were granted resignation agreements which allowed them to continue to receive full salary and benefits for months to come.

The first public comment read aloud at the April 27 meeting came from one of the two VHS graduates who had accused Rees of grooming behavior. Another islander read the graduate’s comment to protect her privacy, and after doing so, the islander noted that she, too, endorsed four immediate actions recommended by the 2001 graduate:

  • That the board pass a resolution condemning sexual relationships between educators and students for a minimum of one year after graduation.
  • That the district pay the investigator of the Rees case to either complete his report or provide partial reports for the district to make public — providing more transparency about the investigation.
  • That the district negotiate a policy prohibiting educator relationships with graduated students for up to two years after graduation, in its next collective bargaining agreement.
  • That the district conduct an independently administered climate survey to assess the safety, health, and culture at VHS, further focused on preventing boundary invasions by school staff.

Others at the meeting, including the board’s two student representatives, called for more transparency about the cases. “The students expect clear communication from their administration going forward, and do not feel supported or informed by the school district,” the student reps said, in a statement read aloud, in turns, by both.

McSheehy, the superintendent, issued an apology to VHS students the next day. “When information impacts students, I can and will do a better job with communication,” McSheehy said.

Board statement

The board’s May 3 statement by Krutsinger, sent via email to the entire Vashon school community six days after the board meeting, also acknowledged the upset many islanders and former students have expressed.

“We both hear you and believe you,” Krutsinger said.

But the statement seemed to close the door on the idea of bargaining with teachers to stipulate that they would agree not to engage in relationships with students for a period of two years after the students’ graduation.

Suggesting it had neither the legal authority nor the constitutional right to limit teachers’ behavior, the statement added, “For these reasons, we would direct this matter to be addressed with the Washington State Professional Educator Standards Board, the state’s governing agency over school employee behavior.”

Krutsinger also repeated an assertion previously made by McSheehy in an April 28 email to The Beachcomber, saying the board’s decision to accept the teachers’ resignations had been informed by a state statute that governs adverse changes in contracts for certified employees.

“That statute allows employees to appeal a district’s decision to take adverse action against an employee’s status, including termination,” Krutsinger said, in language almost identical to McSheehy’s response to The Beachcomber. “If the district does not prevail in the appeal hearing, the district would be obligated to pay the employee’s costs and attorney fees and return the employee to their position.”

Krutsinger added that it was in the district’s best interest to “reach agreements that provide 100% certainty that an employee does not return and which also allows the district to move forward without any disruptions.”

Attorney, parent and union response

Hruska, the attorney representing the 2001 and 2008 VHS graduates who said that Rees had groomed them, took issue with Krutsinger’s assertion that a board resolution condemning sexual relationships between district employees and recent grads would invite a constitutional challenge.

“A resolution can simply declare the board’s sentiment towards an issue, and I don’t understand why [the district] is resisting the opportunity to condemn problematic behavior by its staff,” said Hruska. “The district’s existing board policy on boundary invasions already addresses ‘appearances of impropriety,’” she said, adding that “sexual relationships between district employees and recent grads is likewise a red flag that should invite scrutiny.”

The parent of the student involved in the investigation against Sears also voiced concerns about the board’s statement.

The district’s contention that it had to consider the time, expense and possible outcome of terminating the two teachers is “an unfortunate but practical business decision,” the parent said.

But the parent was struck by the fact that the board’s statement did not specifically address the issue of grooming behavior, whether or not it led to sexual relationships with post-grad students. That kind of behavior “is predatory,” the parent said. “Someone needs to get an expert in to talk to the board.”

The Vashon Education Association, representing the certificated staff of the district, responded on May 1 to a query from The Beachcomber as to whether union members would support bargaining that included a prohibition of teachers engaging in sexual relationships with students for one to two years after their graduation.

“While we believe that our members would be in full support of such a policy, we are not yet clear on the ramifications and recommendations from the Washington Educational Association,” union leadership responded.

Board’s partnership with DOVE

Meanwhile, Heidi Jackson, DOVE’s executive director, said in an email that she had been approached by the school board and asked if she would facilitate a workgroup that would establish recommendations for change in practices, protocols and policy to improve the school environment for both students and teachers.

The invitation, she said, was based upon her recent involvement with school administrators strategizing about restorative justice practices and implementation techniques.

“The goal of my involvement with this workgroup would be to help provide a safe place for those impacted by this trauma and to support the hard conversation of moving forward towards healing, accountability and change,” she said. “What needs to change for students to feel safe at school? How can teachers be supported? What does that change look like?

“My hope is that we can build transparent benchmarks of change that can be reportable to the community with the hope that these efforts can begin the process of healing this fractured school environment.”

Krutsinger, in her statement, said the workgroup would be composed of “student leaders, labor leaders, district staff, and impacted community members” – with a goal towards making “substantive and long-lasting changes to both culture and practice.”

Both VHS graduates who accused Rees of misconduct have been contacted to participate in the working group, according to one of the graduates. The parent of the student impacted in the Sears investigation also has been invited to participate.