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School board — Concerns over safety linger at high school

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By Carol Simmons and Megan Bachman

Concerns over student safety and well-being, administrative accountability and district leadership were aired at an emotionally heightened Yellow Springs school board meeting last week, where 10 community members, of about 30 in attendance, addressed the board. 

The comments, which lasted 40 minutes at the board’s regular meeting Thursday, Sept. 13, came after the conclusion of investigations that began in March into allegations of sexual misconduct between students at the high school and the subsequent resignation agreement approved two weeks ago with YSHS Principal Tim Krier, who has been on paid leave the past six months.

A police investigation has led to a former student facing a juvenile criminal charge of attempted felonious assault, and separate district investigations involving students and staff found no laws were broken by district personnel, administrators, including Krier, or the school board. However, the student inquiry found that the accused student “did engage in harassment, sexual harassment and bullying of multiple students,” according to a letter sent to families whose children were interviewed.

“There’s been a lot of harm,” YSHS parent Kathy Adams said, stressing that the district may have fulfilled its legal responsibilities, but only “in the most narrow sense.”

“I do know right from wrong, and this isn’t right,” Adams said.

The school board the week before approved a separation agreement with Krier that extends his annual pay of $108,078.93 until April 22, 2019, and his health insurance coverage and other benefits through the end of that month. The separation agreement also promised a letter of reference from Superintendent Mario Basora. 

The agreement came six months after the school notified local police in March about an accusation of sexual misconduct against a student. The resulting inquiry brought to light that a separate allegation against the same student had been made in September 2017 concerning an incident the previous summer. In that case, police had recommended a charge of gross sexual imposition, but the case was pleaded down to disorderly conduct, according to police records and the victim’s mother. 

Principal Krier, who has a family relationship with the accused in both cases, went on medical leave after the March allegation, and was instructed by Superintendent Mario Basora to stay off of school grounds and away from students during his leave. Once cleared by his medical practitioner to return to work effective Aug. 1, Krier was put on paid administrative leave, which remains in place. Krier was never accused of sexual misconduct.

Adams said the allegations and outcomes have left her feeling distrustful of district leadership.

“You all are in the business of keeping kids safe and us parents informed, and I feel very let down,” she said.

She also questioned that the superintendent and board knew nothing about the high school situation until March.

“How can you not know in this tiny town?” she asked.

Kate Mooneyham, the mother of two recent graduates, also expressed incredulity that nothing more was done concerning the accused student before March.

“Everyone knows that there was a culture of protection around a student at the high school,” Mooneyham told the board Thursday.

“The kids knew this kid was untouchable. This is unacceptable.”

Mooneyham said she tried to raise concerns about the student, but felt rebuffed.

“I was told I was making too many waves,” she said.

“Nothing legally wrong was done, but morally, many, many things happened. I would like to see some admission that things were bad, and people understand how bad it was,” she said.

Parent Nikki Lange told the board she feels that the responsibility for perpetuating a culture of harassment and bullying at the school was shared by many.

“We all failed,” she said. “And you guys failed, and first-responders failed.”

Lange called for “a special meeting” where the community can have “an honest discussion.”

“I have so many questions,” she said. “I feel like we are only getting part [of the story.] I don’t know how we will ever move forward with trust.”

The separation agreement with Principal Krier is especially galling, she said.

“It sucks that we’re giving that man a letter of recommendation,” Lange concluded, to applause from other community members in attendance.

A letter of recommendation for Krier, dated Sept. 10, was obtained by the News this week through a public records request. In it, Basora praises Krier for his “visionary leadership” and for the “significant courage, leadership and conviction” it took to turn YSHS/McKinney Middle School into one of the top schools in the state.

A Victim’s mother speaks out

For the mother of one of the victims of sexual misconduct at Yellow Springs High School, the recent assurances from the district that no laws were violated is no consolation for the suffering of her daughter over the course of the 2017–18 school year, she said this week. 

And the district’s settlement with Principal Tim Krier, who will be paid through next April and receive a letter of recommendation from the district, was especially “disappointing,” she said. 

“To say that he didn’t do anything wrong is such a minimizing of what the victims went through,” said the mother, who preferred to remain anonymous to protect the identity of her juvenile daughter.

The victim, a YSHS student, came forward about an incident of inappropriate sexual behavior by a fellow student that took place in July 2017 to YSHS guidance counselor Shannon Morano in September of that year. Morano informed Krier, who is related to the accused, as well as local police, who investigated the incident.

But while a YSPD officer wrote in the police incident report that “seeing and being around [the accused] made [the victim] very uncomfortable,” and that in response to a question from the officer, Morano believed they might have a class together, no attempts were made to keep the students from coming in contact.

Instead, according to the mother, the two were in the same class from September until March, when new allegations led to a cascade of events, including Krier’s extended medical leave and the accused student leaving school.

“There was no effort made to protect the victim,” the mother said of that period.

During that time, the victim was “unbelievably stressed out,”  according to her mother. In addition, both mother and daughter assumed that other district leaders knew, and, along with the principal, chose not to act to protect her. 

“She is going to school thinking that all of the adults in charge know, and don’t care,” the mother said.

If that situation persisted, it’s likely that her daughter would have left YSHS, her mother said. Instead, when the March allegations surfaced, her daughter finally felt some solidarity and support.

“At that point she was relieved there was some sort of end in sight,” the mother said.

Later, when her daughter was interviewed by district Title IX compliance officer Donna First, she was only queried about her interactions with the student in question, not Krier or any other school staff member, the mother said. 

“She was never asked about any of her interactions with Tim Krier,” the mother said. 

Her daughter was also not interviewed for any other investigation, according to the mother, including the investigation into staff and administration wrongdoing the district contracted through its law firm to complete.

In the end, the lack of accountability has been disconcerting to the victim’s mother.

“[My daughter] went through all of this and the outcome is just unfair,” she said.

Board, superintendent response

Before the community comments section on the Sept 13 agenda, board member Steve Conn opened the discussion with a statement on behalf of the district. The written statement (a version of which is printed as a letter on page 4) began by expressing the “frustration” felt by school board members in not being able, “for legal and ethical reasons,” to speak earlier about the district’s two investigations into “incidents of sexual harassment and assault.”

The statement also stressed that the board took action as soon as it knew of the allegations in March, and that the investigations concluded that no laws were violated by any district personnel or by the board, and that “neither the superintendent nor the board violated any board policies and procedures.”

The district has thus far declined the News’ public records requests for both investigation reports. The district has cited federally mandated student privacy laws as the reason for not sharing findings from the internal student inquiry, and claimed attorney-client privilege as the reason for not disclosing the investigation into staff behavior. The staff inquiry was completed by an investigator contracted through the district’s law firm.

 The board statement, read by Conn, went on to express “full and unequivocal support” for Superintendent Basora, who “acted promptly, decisively and with unwavering professionalism” when he learned of the situation in March.

Later in the meeting, during the time set aside for the superintendent’s report, Basora thanked the community members in attendance for coming and speaking.

“I heard you. I listened. You had an impact on my thinking,” he said.

He also offered an apology.

“On behalf of the district, I want to apologize to the entire community of Yellow Springs for what happened. You entrust us with your children, your most precious resources … to take care every day of in school. And it’s our job to do that. We failed in this regard. I’m the superintendent and ultimately the buck stops at the top, and it happened on my watch.”

He continued: “I’m just as unhappy and angry as everybody here about what happened. What I want folks to know is that I wish I knew earlier. I really do, because the earlier I would have known, I would have acted on it immediately. Those of you who know my character, who know who I am, I would hope you would give me the benefit of the doubt in that regard and understand that’s how I approach things.”

While Conn said that Basora and the board “have been made heartsick” about this situation, Board President Aida Merhemic noted that the district has done a lot of work “over the years” to address bullying in the schools and to educate students about sexual health and issues of consent. Merhemic had recused herself — for unstated reasons — from executive sessions concerning the accused student, and also recused herself from the vote on Principal Krier’s resignation and separation agreement.

Asked by Merhemic if he had anything he wanted to say, board member Steve McQueen spoke off the cuff. (Sylvia Ellison and TJ Turner were absent.)

“Our current policy has failed everyone, from victims, students, schools, community,” McQueen said. “And not knowing isn’t an excuse. We dropped the ball. But I am pretty sure that all of my colleagues here promise to make a coherent policy that will make sure that no one from staff to administration will be able to use their influence to allow any further damage, known or unknown, in any situation. Really just furthering the concept that something like this will pre-emptively be stopped. … The ball was dropped, and I apologize.”

District plans moving forward

“Part of the healing process in our community is going to be in dialogue and working together,” Basora said during Thursday’s board meeting.

While the district plans to “create a new board policy and guidelines on consent,” the work ahead “goes beyond policy,” Basora added. “It’s going to take a cultural shift.”

One immediate action taking place in the schools is the implementation of Wellness Wednesdays in the seventh grade, where a major focus is on the “social and emotional growth of our kids,” Interim Principal Jack Hatert told the board.

Basora said the high school also will initiate schoolwide discussions by hosting film screenings of the documentaries “Miss Representation” and “The Mask You Live in,” which explore gender roles and expectations. After initial showings and conversations in the school, the films will then be screened in a communitywide setting.

Other actions include the forthcoming addition of anonymous suggestion boxes in the restrooms and the “codifying” of sexual consent education for grades 4 through 12.

The district is also in the process of implementing additional training for staff and administrators on mandatory reporting requirements in suspected cases of abuse and Title IX rights and obligations, which concern sexual harassment.

Basora wrote in an email last week that “to date, all of our teachers have had training in mandated reporting, our administrators have recently received training in Title IX and harassment law and investigations.”

Also, “several administrators are going to an additional legal seminar on civil rights, Title IX, and harassment in the next couple of weeks. After that seminar, we will come back and present a workshop on sexual harassment and Title IX for teachers and students.”

Basora also noted that while the training will help district personnel address unwanted behavior quickly and appropriately, “it does not cover any proactive measures to reduce and prevent sexual harassment and misconduct in the first place.”

That’s where such initiatives as the film screenings come in, he wrote.

“We think there needs to be more explicit conversations and discussion with our students about forming healthy and respectful relationships with people of all genders.”

Other business from the Sept. 13 school board meeting will be reported in next week’s News.

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