Education

2 lawsuits may emerge amid Brattleboro Union High School probe of teacher misconduct

Brattleboro Union High School in May 2021. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — The district that governs Brattleboro Union High School may face two lawsuits sparked by an ongoing probe of potential sexual misconduct by past and present staff.

“We have to be very careful about what we say and don’t say,” David Schoales, vice-chair of the Windham Southeast School District Board, said after revealing the possible court action without sharing further details.

The board hired an independent attorney at the start of the year to investigate alleged misconduct after reading an August 2021 essay in The Commons, a Windham County weekly, titled “No more secrecy.”

In the piece, alumnus Mindy Haskins Rogers wrote about two former students who said they were 16 when Robert “Zeke” Hecker, a now-retired English teacher from 1971 until 2004, drew them into sexual encounters illegal under Vermont statute.

Although the age of consent in Vermont is 16, state law prohibits any older person “in a position of power, authority, or supervision” from having sexual contact with anybody under 18.

The Brattleboro Police Department has confirmed investigating Hecker twice about alleged misconduct in the 1970s and 1980s. Authorities said they didn’t file criminal charges because the first complainant recanted her claim of “an affair” and the second revealed hers two decades after the then-statute of limitations ran out.

The state has since eliminated any reporting deadline related to filing civil claims.

Offering an update to the current investigation, Schoales told the public at Tuesday’s meeting he couldn’t report much — only to go on to reveal the court actions when asked by an audience member why. 

“We’ve been informed that we’re going to face two lawsuits at least,” Schoales said. “So we have to be very careful that we don’t say or do anything that would jeopardize our liability insurance coverage.”

Schoales didn’t say whether the lawsuits involved Hecker or other educators past or present. But he noted the district didn’t have insurance for claims that took place decades ago and doesn’t want to risk losing its current coverage by mishandling old allegations.

“We don’t have insurance to cover any settlements that might come in those cases,” he said. “We don’t want to have to lay people off or cut programs to pay for the sins of the past.”

With that, school leaders stopped answering questions on the subject.

Following publication of The Commons essay a year ago, more than 150 area residents wrote a letter to school leaders seeking “healing and accountability” through an “independent, impartial and transparent” investigation of any and all sexual misconduct claims against staff.

In response, the board hired Brattleboro lawyer Aimee Goddard this January to conduct the probe.

Goddard has yet to offer a public report, although the district released a statement last month inviting people with information about “sexual abuse of students and/or harassment or abuse of power by current or former faculty” to contact the independent investigator through her website.

Separately, school leaders said they’re training staff and preparing to work with students on how to prevent and report problems.

Hecker has released a public letter apologizing to those “who may have been affected by my behavior, which I regret” but has declined further comment.

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Kevin O'Connor

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