When Vermont News & Media posted online on Tuesday that Susan Johnson, Bellows Falls Middle School principal, was placed on paid leave without any explanation from the district, that community was up in arms on social media.
School administrators sent out a very brief press release about the decision to place Johnson on leave and said there was an investigation. Citing “confidentiality,” Superintendent Andrew Haas refused to say anything more, leading parents, students, the community and us to only guess what Johnson had done.
It has happened in Brattleboro, too, where Brattleboro Union High School Principal Steve Perrin was suddenly absent from work on an average day this past April. The district has been as quiet as a tomb as to why he’s gone, but local media report that it might have to do something with his allegedly lecherous behavior toward a female student. The Windham Southeast School District Board has not provided any update on Perrin at its last two meetings.
The vice chairman of that board, David Schoales, resigned from the board this week, citing “ugly, false narratives” about a simultaneous sexual abuse investigation at the school of Robert “Zeke” Hecker, a now-retired English teacher, and his victim. Hecker later joined the Sage City Symphony in Bennington before parting ways after the symphony staff became aware of the allegations.
“While some in the community want to undercut the investigation by accusing us of secrecy, the board has stayed firm in its commitment to do the right thing, and I know our community continues to support our goal of protecting the survivors. Leaving the board at this time will allow me to push back on the lies coming from those threatened by the sexual abuse investigation. As a private citizen I will be able to advocate openly for full disclosure of the findings.”
Schoales might be able to do more off the board than on, but he and others in school officialdom are missing a clear point: So-called lies wouldn’t be flying if the school district would simply be up front with its community.
Southern Vermont residents are sick and tired of secrecy. We in the media are right there with you.
Sometimes, the secrecy seems benign, nothing more than generalized information on a school board agenda, an item whose origins are based in the public good rather than anything organizational. Take, for example, the Mount Anthony Union board’s agenda from last Sept. 27, 2021, where its authors hid a $3.5 million bond vote under the nondescript words “Consideration of Adoption of Resolution of Necessity for Capital.” Come again? Consideration of what?
The MAU board agenda is clear as mud. As such, it deprives the public of the right to participate in a meaningful and informed way. Had the Bennington Banner not picked up on the obfuscation, the community would have been none the wiser. The same goes for any public problem, whether it’s principals running amok, bond votes or town employees getting their hands caught in a till. It is your right to know.
Secrecy, circling the wagons, whatever you want to call it, local school officials are content to stay mum when their leaders suddenly go missing or when big money is on the line. In truth, not one moment of official silence is acceptable, no matter the excuses they throw.
We say that the health and welfare of our children, and the prudent operation of our schools, trumps their secrecy. We’re going do our part by pushing for more details from all of these school leaders who are on the public dime. We’ll use your right to know as our prybar, aiming to shine a little more cleansing light on what’s happening behind the closed doors that your hard-earned tax dollars are paying for.