Teacher resigns, following investigation

Investigation of misconduct ends with teacher’s resignation

The Vashon Island School District announced on Friday, March 24, that it has completed a seven-month investigation of a Vashon High School teacher, following allegations of misconduct with a recently graduated student.

The district did not announce any actions as a result of its investigation.

At the same time, however, Kara Sears, a teacher at the high school, has submitted her resignation, effective Oct. 31. The resignation was received and approved by the board, without comment, at the board’s March 23 meeting.

While VISD Superintendent Slade McSheehy has not named the teacher under investigation, he linked the conclusion of the investigation to Sears’ resignation, saying in an email on Friday that the investigation into a VHS teacher that began in August 2022 had ended “following the receipt of the teacher’s written resignation.”

According to McSheehy, the teacher will continue to be on paid leave from the district until her resignation date, not performing any duties or interacting with district students as a staff member.

McSheehy also thanked the public for its “understanding and patience” during the investigation, saying that the district’s highest priority was “the community’s trust and ensuring the safety of all students.”

In response to a follow-up question as to whether the district would take any further action regarding the high school teacher’s certification with Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) in the wake of the investigation, McSheehy said that “the district will make all reports as required by statute,” but declined to further elaborate on the statement.

Washington Administrative Code 181-86-110 outlines the duty of district superintendents to file written complaints with OSPI in cases where there is sufficient reliable information to believe that certificated employees are not of “good moral character or personally fit” or have “committed acts of unprofessional conduct.”

Sears speaks, following resignation

Sears, reached by phone on March 25, made her first public comments about the case, making clear that the investigation had focused on her conduct.

Asked if she felt the investigation had been a fair process, Sears said no.

“It was never about facts and never about finding the truth,” she said, but declined to elaborate on that statement.

She also declined to discuss her relationship with the student and characterized The Beachcomber’s coverage of the investigation as “gossip” that had prompted untruths about her to spread on social media, harming her, her family and the community.

She had done nothing criminal, she said.

Asked what would come next for her, Sears replied, “That’s for me and my family to know, and that’s it.”

Referring to her October resignation date, she added, “[The school district] will be paying me for a long time and that is none of Vashon’s business.”

Sears, 40, 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.

According to the State of Washington’s Fiscal Information website, Sears’ compensation in 2021-2022 was approximately $131,000 — making her the second-highest-paid teacher in the district that year.

In total, her time on paid administrative leave, during the time of the investigation and beyond, will have stretched to 14 months.

Timeline of investigation

The complaint that prompted the investigation was made last year, in mid-August, leading the district to report a suspected sexual relationship between a teacher and a former student to the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) on Sept. 1, 2022.

(Sears was not publicly named by the district throughout the investigation, nor was she publicly named by KCSO.)

The relationship was thought to have occurred the summer following the student’s graduation from VHS.

While Washington law defines the age of consent as 16, it also specifies that teachers can be charged with felony or misdemeanor charges of sexual misconduct if they engage in sexual activity with enrolled students up to the age of 21 years old.

In late September, KCSO investigators made a decision not to refer the case for criminal charges, as they had determined that anything that happened “in this relationship” had occurred after the student had graduated from VHS, according to KCSO Sgt. M. Corbett Ford.

The school’s investigation, continuing at that point on a separate track, focused on the teacher’s possible violation of a VISD policy that outlines the district’s role in protecting students from a broad range of inappropriate, boundary-crossing behaviors by staff.

Throughout the course of the investigation, McSheehy communicated with district families through occasional email updates, all of which stated that the district was taking the matter very seriously but could not provide additional details about the case.

Likewise, McSheehy also repeatedly declined to answer more specific questions about the investigation in Beachcomber interviews, including whether the district had received prior complaints about the teacher’s conduct.

However, documents obtained by The Beachcomber did shed some light on the teacher’s conduct, prior to the case.

According to the police report filed on Sept. 1, McSheehy told the reporting deputy that the teacher had “a history of administrative intervention due to inappropriate relationships with students, but nothing to the extent of [the current] allegations.”

The Beachcomber reported this statement and subsequently obtained a “non-disciplinary letter of direction,” dated April 27, 2022, signed by then-VHS assistant principal John Erickson. (Last week, Erickson was hired as the school’s new principal.)

In the letter — received as part of a broad request for documents pertaining to administrative interventions with district staff during a specific time frame — the name of the teacher and some details of the complaint were redacted. The Beachcomber never reported on the letter because no sources would confirm that it pertained to the teacher under investigation.

However, in her phone interview with The Beachcomber, Sears brought up the letter herself, as well as McSheehy’s comment in the police report saying the teacher had “a history of administrative interventions” — making clear the reference was to her.

This statement, she said, was not true.

Sears also said that the district had told her that Erickson’s letter had been identified as part of The Beachcomber’s public records request, and then asserted that it should not have been included in the response to the request — calling the allegations discussed in the letter a “fishing expedition by the district that there was no evidence for.”

The incident described in the letter, she said, had never happened.

The letter detailed allegations the teacher had bullied, intimidated and harassed some students, and had not maintained professional boundaries with others by discussing employment concerns with them and allowing them to leave campus on errands unrelated to any educational purpose.

In the letter, Erickson emphasized that no disciplinary action would be taken, but directed the teacher to “maintain appropriate boundaries with students,” and warned that a failure to adhere to the directive “could result in discipline, up to and including termination from the district.”

McSheehy, when asked for a response to Sears’ accusations of falsehoods and improper actions by the district, declined to do so, citing the district’s policy of not commenting on personnel matters.

Second investigation continues

A second VHS teacher is still under investigation, and on paid administrative leave, following a complaint made last fall by two VHS graduates of similar misconduct by that teacher in 2001 and 2008.

In November, the attorneys Jessica Johanson-Kubin and Lara Hruska, of Cedar Law, who are representing the 2001 and 2008 graduates, said in a statement to The Beachcomber that both graduates were “groomed by the same VHS teacher and manipulated into romantic relationships with that teacher shortly after their respective graduations.”

On Friday, The Beachcomber sent an email to the five school board members and McSheehy, as well as the leadership of the Vashon Teachers Association, the union representing certificated staff in the district, asking if they would support the establishment of a new district policy prohibiting staff members from engaging in romantic relationships with students for a period of at least one to two years after their graduation.

In an emailed response, McSheehy seemed to rule out the implementation of such a policy on legal grounds, saying the district was able to set expectations and parameters with respect to employee conduct when interacting with “current” students and minors.