Last fall, attorneys for two Vashon High School graduates laid out their case that longtime teacher John Rees had groomed and manipulated two favored female students into emotionally abusive romantic relationships that took place almost immediately following the students’ respective graduations in 2001 and 2008.
The attorneys’ five-page complaint, supplemented by lengthy narratives written by the former students, was emailed to Superintendent Slade McSheehy on Oct. 28. The Beachcomber obtained it last week through a public disclosure request.
For now, the documents provide the most detailed account of the complaint and the ensuing, months-long investigation that resulted in Rees’ resignation on March 29.
Rees, 55, taught English at Vashon High School for 30 years. He had been considered an especially gifted and popular teacher by many, including the two former students who said he had groomed them for romantic relationships.
Both students said that these relationships, lasting the entire summer prior to their respective departures for college, had resulted in deep psychological damage to them.
During these relationships, both said, Rees revealed personal aspects of his life – including an incident of abuse during his childhood – that they both found disturbing, and which the 2001 graduate felt was meant to create a sense of “secrecy, trust, and shared knowledge.”
He also repeatedly spoke to both of them about the pain and guilt he felt for being unfaithful to his wife — and framed their relationship as one between two equal adults, who bore equal responsibility for the decision to have an affair, they said.
They also alleged that during the school year leading up to their respective graduations, Rees subtly but effectively groomed them — eroding the normal boundaries of a teacher-student relationship and laying a groundwork of intimacy and trust that he took advantage of once they had graduated.
Rees did not return a telephone call asking him for a comment.
The attorneys’ complaint alleged other strikingly similar behavior by Rees with the students, both during their senior years in high school as well as in the immediate aftermath of their graduations.
This repetitive behavior, wrote attorneys Jessica Johanson-Kubin and Lara Hruska in their letter of complaint, demonstrated that what Rees did was not a “one-time transgression, attributable to a brief lapse in judgment, or a moment of confusion … but rather, a pattern of calculated and premeditated transgressions of boundaries with students.”
These actions disqualify Rees from further employment as a teacher, the attorneys said.
The attorneys and the 2008 student asserted that Rees had “lied, omitted information, and downplayed his responsibility” during a previous district investigation that took place in the fall of 2008, examining his relationship with the 2008 student.
(Notes from an interview with Rees as part of the 2008 investigation can be found here.)
During that investigation, the attorneys said, Rees had denied having other liaisons “with any other current or previous students of the district” — a statement refuted by the 2001 graduate’s previously undisclosed allegation that Rees had initiated a romantic relationship with her as well in the summer following her graduation.
Additionally, the attorneys said, Rees told the district’s investigators in 2008 that he did not “realize those feelings [of love…]” for the 2008 graduate until July.
That statement, the attorneys alleged, was also a lie, refuted by the 2008 graduate’s contemporaneous journal entries, which detailed that Rees had told her he loved her four days after her high school graduation — feelings he said he had had for some time. The 2008 student argued in her letter to the district that the timing of his declaration, along with the fact that Rees himself initiated the conversation, “speaks to premeditation and grooming on Mr. Rees’ part.”
The names of both former students, as well as other former students named, are redacted in the new documents received by The Beachcomber.
1-ExhibitsAandB-Rees-VIB-5_… by Elizabeth Shepherd
Students detail psychological impacts
Both students said their entanglements with their greatly admired, but married and much older teacher included some instances of kissing and touching after they were 18 and graduated. One of the students described an incident where she felt the teacher had tried to go further but had backed off when she expressed hesitancy.
However, both students also provided searing accounts of the lasting impact of their teacher’s behavior on their lives, after he initiated romantic relationships with them.
“Despite the fact that it was not primarily physical, it still had a tremendous negative impact on me,” the 2008 student wrote. “It was highly emotionally involved, psychologically invasive, morally injuring, and not at all reciprocal. It was consensual only to the degree that meaningful consent is possible within the power dynamics I am describing. Which, I think, means it wasn’t meaningfully consensual at all.”
“I have lived with deep psychological scars as a result of the behavior I was subjected to by John Rees,” the 2001 graduate wrote. “That summer in 2001 was my first experience of an adult romantic relationship and it impacted my ability to trust myself, to listen to my own internal compass, and to understand what a healthy, loving relationship looks like.”
She added that “going through this experience as a teenager — at a time when our brains are still rapidly developing — is particularly damaging. For all his efforts to make me feel like an equal co-conspirator, Mr. Rees was the responsible adult and he needs to be held accountable for the pain and harm he caused.”
2008 graduate’s account
In a 17-page narrative accompanying her attorneys’ letter of complaint, the 2008 graduate, who is now a journalist, detailed her own extensive investigation of what had happened to her in high school.
In 2016, she said, she decided to try to find evidence of rumors she’d heard that Rees had been involved with at least one other student before her.
This effort, she said, eventually led her to meet the 2001 graduate whose experience with the teacher closely mirrored her own.
The 2008 graduate’s narrative is footnoted with dated quotations from sources, including her own contemporaneous journal entries, emails to and from Rees, and transcriptions of recorded interviews with former classmates and teachers who recalled Rees’ conduct in the classroom and his particular attention to her while she was a student.
Her narrative also details documents from the district’s 2008 investigation into Rees’ relationship with her, which the student obtained through a public records request in 2017.
That investigation was launched after a friend of the graduate, whom she had confided in, reported the relationship to the district — which, the graduate wrote, caused her “life to tip over” just less than two weeks into her first semester at an out-of-state college.
The graduate said she had been “fairly uncooperative” with investigators at the time.
“I was loyal to Mr. Rees and wanted to protect him,” she wrote. “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, the investigator, in that 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 had “lost the trust and confidence of the District administration” and that “his poor professional judgment reflects poorly on the District.”
It also 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.”
The effect of the 2008 investigation involving her, and subsequent knowledge about it in the community, the graduate said, had the effect of making her “sense of home just [evaporate] overnight.”
“Until I was 26 or so, it made me anxious to go to Vashon to visit my parents, or be in public there,” she wrote. “…I had loved my hometown, and I had felt proud of the person I was when I lived there. But I no longer felt welcome or safe.”
The 2008 graduate’s narrative also includes an account of a meeting she had had with Amy Sassara, the human resources director of the district, in the summer of 2017, after she had obtained and read the documents from the 2008 investigation — but before she had been able to track down the other student who’d had the same experience with Rees.
“My recollection is that I told her that my official account in 2008 had been incomplete, that I now saw what Mr. Rees did to me as pre-meditated and abusive, and that I feared it could happen to students again as long as he was teaching,” the student wrote. “Her response was compassionate, but, to my memory, she did not ask any additional questions, or lay out any additional action that I or the school could take.”
Sassara, reached for comment, said that although she understood “it may seem insufficient to our community,” the district could not comment on any current or prior conversations regarding personnel matters.
“We encourage all community members to bring student safety concerns to our attention,” she said. “When matters or concerns are brought to the attention of the district, we will and have taken them seriously as well as taken all necessary steps to address them.”
The school district, she added, would “continue to work diligently to foster a safe, respectful, and inclusive environment that promotes learning and growth.”
A long section of the 2008 graduate’s narrative lays out the timeline of alleged grooming, which she said happened over the course of her senior year when she had been a highly-engaged, top student in Rees’ AP English class.
Much of Rees’ grooming of her took place in the context of his grooming of the entire class, she said. “I don’t think our AP English class was the only class that Mr. Rees had an intimate, jokey, peer-like rapport with,” the 2008 student wrote. “But his baseline informality progressed, I believe, to a different level with us… He sought to establish and normalize a more intimate connection with us as a group, which he took advantage of later with me individually.”
Throughout the year, Rees had arranged for the class, she said, to meet on several occasions outside of school hours, for ostensibly educational purposes that included an evening movie night in his classroom, and later, a sleepover at his house, for the entire class — which had been approved by the school principal, Susan Hanson.
Rees’ wife, child and mother-in-law had been present at the sleepover, she said.
Of the sleepover, the 2008 graduate recalled, “I think it was the sort of thing where the unusual intimacy Mr. Rees had been creating with our class for months had become so normal that we didn’t find it that weird, and again, since it was collective, it seemed completely innocent … But it had a profound effect of thinning his role as a teacher and thickening it as something else — an older, cooler almost-friend whose house we had been to, whose family we had met, and who it was normal for us to spend non-educational time with.”
As the school year progressed, she said that Rees, too, had eroded boundaries with her individually.
These instances included meeting personally with her alone in his classroom at times when she should have been in another class, attending her dance performance with his wife and child and giving her flowers after the show, and giving her a cassette tape with a recording of a song she had told him she liked.
In the spring of her senior year, a series of seemingly small but intense encounters with her teacher had begun to convey his romantic interest in her, she wrote, calling it a deeply confusing experience.
“At the time I didn’t really imagine it was possible that a 40-something man would have romantic feelings for an 18-year-old kid, and so, while I perceived the romantic undercurrent correctly, I thought it must be coming from me,” she wrote. “… I know now that I didn’t have romantic or sexual feelings for him — but at that age it’s easy to confuse admiration with attraction, and someone else’s desires for your own.”
On the last day of class, she said, Rees had told her quietly “he had some things he’d like to say to [her].”
At her high school graduation party, she said, Rees had given her his email address and phone numbers, saying again he wanted to meet with her privately — setting in motion his confession of love for her, made four days later.
2001 graduate’s account
A narrative by the 2001 graduate also detailed how her relationship with Rees — her much-admired teacher in her senior year of high school — had intensified as Rees crossed boundaries in establishing a personal relationship with her prior to graduation.
Rees, she said, had approached her after she had performed a demonstration of martial arts in a high school talent show, telling her that he, too, had studied martial arts for a number of years.
This common interest, she said, became an excuse to have numerous one-on-one conversations with Rees about topics unrelated to schoolwork.
Prior to her graduation, she said, Rees had given her his private email address, “so that we could stay in touch over the summer and trade lessons/training in our respective martial arts areas.”
“I recall feeling special, nervous/excited, and singled out by these actions,” she wrote. “As an adult, in hindsight, I recognize these as feelings of discomfort … and that I probably knew even at the time that the attention wasn’t really appropriate for a teacher/student relationship.”
Immediately following graduation, she said, she and Rees began seeing each other at her house for several hours a day, multiple days a week, as they began to exchange martial arts lessons, with the permission of her parents.
But only a few weeks later, she said, Rees had emailed her while she was house-sitting alone for a family friend, confessing that he was attracted to her.
“I remember feeling alone and incredibly sick to my stomach,” she said, but also recalled that she had, by this time, grown very fond of Rees “as a close friend as well as a respected adult,” and was “deeply flattered that he looked at me as more than just another student.”
In her narrative, she described one ensuing conversation, after Rees had declared his romantic interest in her, in which he told her how his attraction for her had begun while she was his student.
“…Mr. Rees talked about seeing me sitting in his classroom (he described the specific sweater I was wearing at the time) and how beautiful he had thought I looked and how it made my eyes look so blue,” she said. “This detail, even after more than 20 years, has always stuck with me. I find it increasingly unsettling and inappropriate.”
Like the 2008 graduate, she too, described the moral injury she had suffered as the summer wore on, and Rees had repeatedly made her feel that his relationship with her could end his marriage.
“[Rees’] frequent mention of his marriage and my complicitness in adultery changed the way that I perceived myself,” she also said. “I never wanted to be responsible for hurting anyone else and I experienced a lot of self-hate for the fact that I had behaved in a way incompatible with my true morals.”
For years, she said, she had felt shame and embarrassment over what had happened to her, and those feelings had kept her quiet.
Her eventual meeting with the 2008 student, she said, had changed that.
“Learning the identity of Mr. Rees’ former student was a gut punch because, against all odds, I did know her,” she wrote. “Prior to our meeting in 2019, the last time I had seen [her], she was a small child and I was her babysitter. On top of the trauma of learning that I wasn’t the only one, I’ve also grappled with the knowledge that I failed to protect a child I had once cared for.”
She said her joint complaint filed with the 2008 grad was her effort to ensure that what had happened to them “doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
A settlement agreement with the district, signed by Rees and McSheehy on March 29, outlining the terms of his resignation from the district, was also obtained by The Beachcomber.
Its terms included 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.
According to a response to a separate inquiry to the district, the monetary cost of Rees’ continued administrative leave will total $65,492, from the time his resignation letter was received on March 29 until its effective date.
Additionally, Rees will receive a one-time additional payment of $10,000 on Aug. 31.
The agreement also stipulates that the district will provide Rees with a neutral letter, stating the dates of his employment and his positions held in the district, and provide the same information to any potential employers who contact the district.
District investigation now closed
At the school board’s April 28 meeting, the 2001 graduate, in a letter read by fellow VHS graduate Vivian Lyons, urged the district to pay the investigator to complete a written report based on the interviews he’d already conducted; others at the board meeting also encouraged the district to do so. McSheehy has declined, saying an investigation launched by the state agency charged with certifying teachers will provide a public record.
“Mr. Rees resigned from the district,” McSheehy said in an email. “At that point, the district made a mandated report to the Office of Professional Practices (OPP). Any subsequent investigation reports from the OPP will be … available for the public.”
On April 10, McSheehy wrote to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees OPP, saying he was doing so because of a state law that requires 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, triggering OPP’s investigation.
McSheehy’s letter to OSPI was also included in the district’s response to The Beachcomber’s broad request for materials related to the Rees investigation.