The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 7, 2000

News

More discussion of the school's alleged sexual harassment case

Early in the Carlisle School Committee meeting on December 21, as many as 40 people, including 26 teachers from the Carlisle Public School, one resident of Westford and residents of Carlisle, heard that the school committee had received a letter from Carlisle middle school teacher, Stephen Bober and a copy was handed to the Mosquito reporter. (See letter on page 9)

The audience then waited patiently through the bulk of the meeting's business for citizens' comments. At the end of the evening, the discussion centered on the alleged sexual harassment case in the Carlisle Public School, although in late November, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) had notified administrators that the complaint filed against a teacher at the Carlisle School had been withdrawn.

Chair David Dockterman announced he was appreciative that everyone had taken the time to come to the meeting and asked that all comments be addressed to him as chairman. To accommodate the numbers, the meeting was held in the Carlisle School library.

Dave Thomas, Concord-Carlisle High School parent, asked whether the CSC had received his letter. He said he wanted to have "the facts on the table. There are two noted cases of sexual harassment with the same faculty member. One case has been settled informally and one case has been withdrawn. Is there a sense of a pattern of behavior? Have all the facts been sorted out?"

Dockterman responded that "anything that happened in the past was dealt with in the past. The school policy is to direct the Title 9 coordinator to carry out an investigation. To the best of our knowledge, the investigation was carried out swiftly and appropriately. We take each case very seriously and continue to have faith and full confidence in the school's ability to deal with situations such as these." The previous Title 9 officer/coordinator was Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson and the above-mentioned letter has been referred to the present Title 9 officer, Linda Stapp.

Carlisle resident Margo Seltzer reiterated, "We thought this was an isolated case, but now we learn there are more."

Dockterman said "Let me describe the process. The school does a tremendous job in the Open Circle [classroom discussion program]. They bring up issues and the issue may be resolved on this level. If not, then there is the option of going to the Title 9 coordinator. Judgments are made along the way. There are lots of cases and problems and not necessarily all of them mean sexual harassment. There are confidentiality issues and they are not tried out in the public or in the newspaper."

Dockterman continued, saying that the school had received a letter from a parent complimenting the school on how well it had handled their complaint of sexual harassment. "I don't know the answer to how situations are resolved or to the numbers of cases. I do know the school does respond quickly and appropriately. There is a process in place."

Another parent, Sandra Savage, also wanted to know the number of cases of sexual harassment. "We hear that the school committee has faith that cases are being handled. We hear about privacy and policy but I want to know that my children are safe at school."

"We cannot carry out investigations in the public arena. There are confidentiality procedures which must be followed," said Dockterman. "We encourage you to have conversations with the Title 9 Coordinator and Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson. The CSC does evaluate the administration. We also give them direction as to what actions should be taken. The specifics are not discussed in public but we need to have faith that they will do a good job and we are satisfied that they have handled the job. There is a process in place"

Savage said that the administration doesn't seem to know about the records on these cases. "Can you clarify whether there there are records?"

The designated Title 9 Officer Linda Stapp, Director of Special Education, replied that she was available to talk with her and answer her questions. She said that generally complaints do not go into a student's records. There may be reports in the personal notes of staff members.

Steve Greene, a Carlisle resident and an educator himself, commented that he disagreed with how this complaint was being played out. "It is unnerving to pick up the paper. I find it unnerving to have teachers having to defend themselves.There is a danger that we have talented teachers who will not be able to feel confidence in their teaching. The teachers need to be protected as well as the students. I want to know that the process is happening. It is not fair to have issues come out. It is very difficult to be an administrator. The last thing they want to do is to have it discussed in the papers."

At some point, one has to take a critical look at the process, Greene went on to say. It is important to look at the whole school culture and walk the parents through the entire process. He urged that this needs to be communicated to everyone.

Dockterman agreed the newspaper is not the place to communicate these issues. "This has been a learning experience. The staff has been trained under the new policy. As a committee, we have directed the school to do outreach and to look for opportunities to engage and enroll the community."

Carlisle parent Leo Geoffroy commented that he feels, "pulled into these allegations from the sidelines. I have doubts. I feel like I need to know because I have decisions to make. Will we know when the investigation is complete?" Dockterman said, "That is difficult to answer. As far as we know, it is a safe school. Each member of the CSC would not abide by a dangerous situation."

Stapp explained, "We are training adults, the school community and the children so we can address the issue proactively. We want to allay doubts. Therefore, we have encouraged outreach to the community and a Title 9 investigation. One event can be isolated and reported more quickly than going over the whole process. Each teacher this year has had a three-hour in-service training session and received relevant materials, books, reports and articles. They also have had the opportunity to have discussions with a legal service. More information is provided at faculty meetings throughout the year."

Dockterman said that whether a parent should automatically be notified when a child comes with a complaint of harassment is an issue which should be addressed. These issues are complex and involve more than teacher and child.

When a Westford resident asked whether the children would be spoken to, Dockterman responded that the answer to this question and an explanation of appropriate procedures were covered in the policy that had been distributed to all school families.

After nearly an hour, the discussion concluded with several comments. Carlisle parent Debby Dawson said that she could understand why a lot of facts won't be coming out but she was struggling with her feelings. She could imagine how the teachers sitting here in the meeting were feeling and wanted to lend support to Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson. "I have had good experiences with the staff and the school and have trust in the school."

A past Carlisle school parent and school committee member Tim Hult said, "It is good it is Christmas time because we need to take a good deep breath about this." He went on to say that he hoped to put this "behind us" as an issue being discussed in the public arena. Instead, he was hopeful that a dialogue had begun which is useful for the process. He added,"There are alot of positive things going on at the school." Dockterman thanked those at the meeting for their patience and wished them all a happy holiday.

Letter to CSC from middle school teacher

December 14,1999

Dear School Committee Members:

I am deeply saddened by the situation which has caused so much emotional pain to so many. I appreciate the fact that the laws of our society and the policies of our school protect the rights of all involved and have been enforced consistently. With rumors, innuendo and accusations flying, and with the right of privacy and confidentiality having been waived by others, I believe it is appropriate for me to offer some of my thoughts on recent events. The school community deserves to hear the truth.

I have taught and coached in Carlisle for 23 years. My interactions with over 1,500 young adolescents have been characterized by my passionate desire to reach every child and help him or her to grow, to learn, to succeed. My goal has always been to make every child feel special. I am aware of the intensity of my involvement. I am aware that I am an emotional person. Those closest to me describe me as arrogant in believing that I can reach any student, right any wrong, fix any problem. As I reflect on my career, I am proud of what I have accomplished and the impact I have had on so many young people. I also understand that these attributes are not seen in the same light by all who know me. What the past few months have helped me to understand is that my intensity has been misinterpreted by some early adolescents. I am deeply troubled by the fact that I have made a few of my students uncomfortable.

But to characterize my actions as "sexual harassment" is blatantly absurd. I admit that my personality and my style make some people uncomfortable. But at no time throughout this ordeal (or in my entire career) has anyone identified one instance when I engaged in any unwelcome offensive sexual conduct. Allegations of sexual harassment (which somehow slid into "sexual abuse" in the on-going trial by newspaper) are quite simply not true.

I do not know which legal documents and which stories have been shared with you. I know that my professional colleagues have been spared most of the details. In the interest of protecting the rights of all involved, it appears that many in the community have been left wondering what really happened. At this time, I feel it is appropriate to respond to the comments and accusations that have been made.

In December, 1998, shortly after a Portfolio Conference with the family of a seventh grader, I was informed by Kim Reid, our guidance counselor, that the child's mother reported that I made the student "uncomfortable." According to policy, Kim immediately informed [Principal] Andy Goyer and [Superintendent] Davida Fox-Melanson, the Title 9 Hearing Officer at the time. I was called into the office and an investigation commenced. While no evidence of policy violation or wrong-doing came to light, I was asked to limit my involvement with this student. For the next two weeks, there was no interaction between us. On the day before Christmas vacation, I made a mistake. Stubbornly believing that I could fix this problem, I engaged in a brief conversation with the student. This triggered a series of meetings over the next month. I met with the parents, the administrators met with me, and (apparently) the administrators met with the parents. All aspects of their allegations were discussed and investigated.

At a meeting in January,1999, I sat at a table with the mother, the father, Kim Reid, Andy Goyer and Davida Fox-Melanson. After listening to the parents' concerns about my interactions with their daughter, Davida asked the parents specifically, "Did he touch her?" They indicated that I had not. Davida continued this line of questioning. "Did he say anything or do anything of a sexual nature to her?" After receiving a negative response to each question, she finally asked, "What did he do?" The parents explained that she said I made her feel "icky", I had singled her out for undue praise, and I was paying special attention to her. Davida explained to them that these are not punishable offenses.

At the meeting, the parents stated that it was my responsibility to ensure that their daughter never saw me. Allegations were made that I had been in "her space" in school unnecessarily. Administrators reviewed the cited incidents and found legitimate reasons for my presence at team meetings, basketball games, the library, hallway, etc. Given the size of the school and the nature of my professionable responsibilities, it was inevitable that the two of us would cross paths on occasion. Whenever such a situation occurred, I immediately attempted to move to another location. No words have been exchanged or eye contact established between this student and myself since December 23, 1998.

I failed to reach this child. I am sorry that my intensity was innocently misinterpreted by her. I am aware that it is likely that my style may have caused others to be uncomfortable. Unfortunately, my behavior is now being maliciously misrepresented by some people who are making public statements about me. It is obvious that I have not reached every student. While some students may have left my classroom not liking me, I have never "sexually harassed" any student.

I appreciate all the supportive notes and comments that have come to me from so many former students and their parents. I am especially thankful for the support of my professional colleagues, who best know my work and my values. I believe I have grown in my understanding of how to be and effective educator. Hopefully, I am better prepared to avoid making any student feel incomfortable. I plan to continue to serve the Carlisle community in a professional manner. And I will continue to work as hard as I can to make every child feel special.

If you feel that further discussion would clarify these issues, I would welcome an invitation to meet with you in executive session. Thank you.

Sincerely yours,

Stephen Bober


2000 The Carlisle Mosquito