Teachers show the way to healing in school district

A letter, written by a group of teachers and counselors, was read aloud to students at their awards ceremony.

This week, The Beachcomber celebrates with the Class of 2023 — local students from Vashon High School and also those who have graduated from other schools — for their hard work, perseverance, and achievement.

In spite of all the joy expressed over graduation weekend on Vashon, it should be acknowledged that this has been a very difficult year for our school district.

But looking back, it has never been easy for the group of seniors who graduated last Saturday. They started high school as freshmen in 2019, but in March 2020, the world changed, and so did their high school experience.

And only in the past several months has something truly resembling “normality” returned — thankfully, right on time, just as these kids are finally given the chance to spread their wings and fly to whatever will come next for them.

This year, of course, students at VHS have also had to contend with two lengthy investigations, following allegations that two high school teachers had groomed students for romantic relationships that began almost immediately following the students’ graduations.

Throughout the school year, there was only occasional and guarded communication about the allegations and the process from the district administration, until the investigations ended this spring, with the news that both teachers, Kara Sears and John Rees, had reached settlement agreements with the district — allowing them to resign with several continued months of full pay and benefits.

The agreement with Sears came despite the fact that a district investigation determined that she had violated district policy in multiple serious ways with students during the school year.

Rees’ resignation agreement brought even less closure, as it stipulated that the district would end its investigation of him prior to its completion, with no public report on the testimony or conclusions by the district investigator.

Yet, despite these deals with the teachers, Superintendent Slade McSheehy also wrote letters of complaint to the state office in charge of certifying teachers, as he is required to do by law in cases where he has sufficient reliable information to believe that teachers “are not of good moral character or personally fit, and/or have committed acts of inappropriate and unprofessional conduct.”

This mixed message — that the superintendent had, in effect, raised the question of the teachers’ fitness to retain their certifications, while at the same time allowing them to resign under very favorable financial terms — understandably upset and confused both students and parents in the district, as well as many other community members.

But still, the school board didn’t announce further action until after numerous islanders and students expressed their dismay and confusion about the decisions at a school board meeting in late April. Six days after that happened, the board issued a statement, saying that a work group of parents, teachers, students and board members would work with Vashon’s DOVE Project in response to the crisis, finding solutions for the school district going forward.

And on Tuesday, June 6, something else happened — a letter, written by a group of teachers and counselors, was distributed throughout the school and read aloud to students at the VHS awards ceremony, held in the VHS stadium.

According to an account provided by a staff member, who asked not to be named, teachers lined up on the field, facing the students sitting in the grandstand, as high school counselor Tara Vanselow read the letter aloud. The letter had been distributed to other school staff members as well, including food workers, who joined the teachers on the field.

We are reprinting this letter now — but not because we were asked to do so by teachers. In fact, the teachers only issued a brief statement to The Beachcomber about the letter.

“This was a moment between us and our students,” they said. “And we believe the letter speaks for itself.”

And indeed, it does.

We are sharing the letter here because we believe it is an example of what empathy and accountability look like and sound like when adults acknowledge that their actions or inaction have caused harm to young people.

We hope it serves as an example to all adults in the district and the community, going forward — and beyond that, that it will also provide young people with a road map of how they, too, can navigate ethical and moral decisions in their adult years.

Here is the letter.

In light of this year’s investigations and resignations, VHS staff members want to acknowledge the harm that was done and the ongoing harm and anxiety that resulted when you didn’t know what was happening. School should be a safe and welcoming place to be, but we know that those are simply words until all students actually feel safe and welcomed.

Moving forward, we promise to listen, to take your concerns seriously, to communicate better, and to do everything in our power to keep you safe.

Here’s what you can expect from us:

We will exemplify professionalism, teaching students appropriately and in a respectful way that creates a successful learning environment for everyone.

We will involve students in decisions made about students, and provide regular opportunities to ask questions of, and provide feedback to, school staff.

We are taking action by working with the DOVE Project and One Village to create ways to live up to our commitments and are developing systems where your voices can be heard.

We will provide clear communication about how, and to whom to report concerns/incidents. We will also provide information about confidentiality in the reporting process.

We will provide students with meaningful ways to hold us accountable if we fail to live up to these commitments.

These too, are only words until we live it, until you feel it, and until we hold ourselves accountable to you and give you opportunities to honestly tell us how we are doing, with confidence that we will respond.

To our graduating seniors: unfortunately, you will not be able to see these actions; however, we hope that you will hear from friends and family about the impact of these actions in the coming years and can feel proud to call VHS your high school wherever you go.

We are all healing and learning from this. The adults at VHS can, and will, do better.

It gives us hope to read this letter. We have deep gratitude to the teachers and staff members who stepped forward to say what has needed to be said for some time now — and we hope students will remember the day it happened.