Former VHS educator surrenders teacher’s certificate

The former Vashon High School teacher was accused of grooming two students for romantic relationships.

John Rees, a former Vashon High School teacher accused of grooming two students for romantic relationships, has voluntarily surrendered his certificate to teach in Washington state.

Rees’ action ended an investigation of his conduct by the state’s Office of Professional Practices (OPP), a department of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), according to OPP’s director, Catherine Slagle.

Slagle, in an interview last week, said that Rees’s surrender of his certification on Aug. 15 included an agreement not to seek its reinstatement in Washington State. Rees can still apply to receive certification as a teacher in another state, Slagle said.

However, she described barriers to Rees in obtaining certification as an educator in another state, saying that OSPI would report the surrender of his certification in Washington to a national database, the NASDTEC Clearinghouse.

“All 50 states, Canada and Guam have access to this [database] and will see the surrender in Washington State,” she said. “If he applies for a certificate they will contact us and ask for information on the case and/or request a copy of our investigation,” she said.

She also said that most private schools in Washington and other states require teachers to be certified, and “if [potential employers] do their due diligence, they will see that there has been discipline and voluntary surrender [of Rees’ certificate].”

Rees’ name and certification status as “voluntarily surrendered” are now listed on a webpage maintained by OSPI, which lists educators who have been subject to disciplinary action.

Rees did not respond to a request for comment.

Timeline: Rees investigations

OPP began its investigation of Rees in April, following the conclusion of a separate investigation of him by Vashon Island School District (VISD).

The OPP investigation was triggered by an April 10 letter, sent by Vashon Superintendent Slade McSheehy to OSPI, in which he stated that state law required him to report if any teacher employed by the district may have violated the state’s Code of Professional Conduct.

“At this time, I have sufficient reliable information to believe that John Rees is not of good moral character or personally fit, and/or has committed acts of unprofessional conduct,” he wrote.

VISD’s investigation of Rees was prompted by a letter of complaint from attorneys for two Vashon High School graduates, charging that their clients had experienced lasting harm as a result of emotionally abusive romantic relationships that Rees initiated with them immediately following their respective graduations from high school in 2001 and 2008.

Prior to their graduations, the attorneys said, Rees had groomed and manipulated the students for the relationships.

The attorneys’ five-page complaint, supplemented by lengthy narratives written by the former students, was emailed to Superintendent Slade McSheehy on Oct. 28, 2022, and obtained by The Beachcomber in May through a public disclosure request.

Immediately after receiving the complaint, the district placed Rees on paid administrative leave and launched its investigation, centering on whether he had violated the district’s policy on boundary invasions with students.

Rees’ resignation from Vashon High School on March 29 ended that investigation, prior to its completion, and at that time, Superintendent Slade McSheehy said that no records of the investigation would be available to the public.

Last week, Slagle confirmed that the VISD documents subpoenaed by her office for OPP’s investigation of Rees had not included a report from VISD’s investigator, because Rees had resigned prior to the time a written report had been drafted.

A March 29 settlement agreement with the district, outlining the terms of Rees’ resignation from the district, was obtained by The Beachcomber in May. The agreement stipulated that the district would close its investigation into the teacher’s conduct and that Rees would remain on paid administrative leave, with full salary and benefits, through his resignation date of Aug. 31.

Additionally, Rees received a one-time additional payment of $10,000 on Aug. 31, according to the terms of the agreement.

Rees, 55, taught English at Vashon High School for 30 years.

The Beachcomber has requested documents pertaining to OPP’s investigation — a file which also includes, according to Slagle, documents related to another VISD investigation of Rees that took place in 2008, regarding his conduct with the same 2008 graduate represented by attorneys who filed the 2022 complaint to VISD against him.

​​The graduate said she had been “fairly uncooperative” with investigators at the time of the 2008 investigation.

“I was loyal to Mr. Rees and wanted to protect him,” she wrote in a narrative that accompanied her attorneys’ 2022 letter of complaint about Rees.

“I also did not know the definition of grooming — befriending, building trust with, and establishing an overly intimate emotional connection with a young person so that they can be more easily manipulated and abused.”

Ultimately, VISD’s investigator in the 2008 case found no evidence of grooming or boundary invasion by the teacher, resulting in Rees’ return to the classroom.

But at the time, Rees also received a stern admonition from then-superintendent Terry Lindquist.

In a letter of direction to Rees, obtained by the 2008 graduate through a public records request and subsequently by The Beachcomber, Lindquist said that Rees needed to “recognize it is inappropriate to act on romantic feelings with your students or newly graduated students,” and directed him to refrain from “sexual or intimate contact or romantic relationships with any student, or with a former student within two years of their graduation.”

Attorney, superintendent respond

Lara Hruska, who with her law partner, Jessica Johanson-Kubin, represented the 2001 and 2008 graduates, responded to the news of Rees’ surrender of his teaching certificate on behalf of her law firm, Cedar Law, rather than her clients.

“We believe the best way to protect students is to educate staff, students, and families about what appropriate teacher/student boundaries look like and to provide a clear and anonymous reporting mechanism for anyone to raise a concern or make a complaint,” Hruska wrote. “Following that, prompt and thorough investigation and reporting is critical for the system to work including, when appropriate, termination of employment for an educator who has violated those parameters. We sincerely hope that VISD will use this messy chapter to improve its systems and to make sure that all students, families, and staff know what healthy and appropriate staff/student relationships entail and how to respond if someone is behaving inappropriately.”

Superintendent McSheehy also commented, in a lengthy statement that outlined the district’s immediate response to the accusations against Rees, its investigation, and how the district had entered into a settlement agreement with Rees prior to securing his resignation — saying that the district’s highest priority “has always been and will continue to be the safety and well-being of our students.”

“Following receipt of the resignation, we reported the allegations of unprofessional conduct and allegations of a lack of good moral character and/or personal fitness to [OPP],” McSheehy said — adding that the state agency’s subsequent investigation had led to Rees’ decision to voluntarily surrender his teaching certificate.

The Vashon Island School District, he said, takes all allegations of unprofessional conduct and allegations of a lack of good moral character and/or personal fitness very seriously. “As soon as we became aware of the allegations against [Rees], we took immediate action to address the situation and ensure the safety and well-being of our students,” he wrote.

McSheehy also said that a VISD workgroup, formed in the spring in collaboration with the DOVE Project, was now continuing to meet to examine district practices and make recommendations moving forward.

“We remain committed to providing a safe and nurturing educational environment where our students can learn and thrive and we will continue to uphold these standards,” McSheehy said.

Heidi Jackson, the facilitator of DOVE Project’s work with the district, detailed in an email that the 17-member workgroup was comprised of school administrators, school staff members including teachers, parents, and two students.

The group has met nine times, she said, working in a framework of a transformative justice model “to guide our process which helps to keep our focus student-centered and with safety as a priority value.”

Priorities for the group, she said, include educating staff, teachers, youth and community about healthy relationships and boundaries; re-designing and developing more transparency in reporting systems; taking concrete actions to repair and re-build trust between teachers and youth and administration; and examining the district’s norms and patterns in an effort to create cultural change.

“We will be meeting once a month throughout the school year to continue development of action steps and accountability systems as we work towards system-wide changes necessary for safety, care, and transparency,” she said.

Sears investigation by OPP ongoing

A separate OPP investigation of Kara Sears, a Vashon teacher who last year was accused of grooming a student for a romantic relationship that took place the summer following the student’s 2022 graduation, is ongoing at this time, said Slagle.

VISD’s investigation of Sears, which began in August 2022, resulted in a written report by the independent investigator hired by the district. That 27-page report, dated Jan. 27 and obtained by The Beachcomber in May, found that Sears had violated school district policy in her conduct with the student as well as other students during the 2021-2022 school year.

OPP’s investigation of Sears was also triggered by a letter of complaint sent to OSPI in late April by VISD Superintendent McSheehy.

Sears, 41, was a 16-year employee of the district who over the years taught health and sex education classes and served as the high school’s volleyball coach and advisor to various student activities, including the VHS student newspaper, the Riptide, and the Associated Student Body.

Following the investigation of her conduct, Sears resigned from the district last spring.

According to the terms of her settlement agreement with the district, which was obtained by The Beachcomber, Sears will continue to receive her full salary and benefits from the district until Oct. 31.