Recently, on the pages of Facebook’s KHS Alumni Association, I have been called a “coward” and accused of “sweeping under the rug“ sexual abuse by teachers against students. Anyone in St. Louis, University City, or Kirkwood who knows me knows those two quotes do not describe me. Yet given the input from alumni most affected, I have carefully and painfully considered the abuse they suffered, the administrative responses, and what more could have been done in terms of awareness and prevention.Statement of Kirkwood School District:
As KHS principal from school years 1980 to 2001, I hoped there would never be teacher abuse of any student at our school. I grieve that there was. I know there are KHS graduates who are still devastated over the way they were treated by certain KHS staff members 30 to 40 years ago. This is a terrible burden to bear; I am terribly sorry for that, and I apologize to students in that position.
Several graduates have written me directly to say that during my tenure I did not do enough to stop teacher sexual abuse of students before it happened.
Upon further discussion, they note that my administration was successful in facing difficult issues such as black-white relations and respect for gay and lesbian students. They questioned me with these words: “If you were able to confront two of the most difficult social situations which a majority of school districts refused to bring into the open, why could you not successfully confront more publicly the critical problem of sexual abuse of students?”
Let me be clear. I know that sexual abuse by a teacher against a student is the fault of that teacher alone—not the student, not the principal, nor the school. However, looking back 30 years ago from the recent awakening of this country to the call of women now to confront sexual injustice in previous decades, it is obvious that sexual abuse against students was as critical a problem in the 80s and 90s as was the practice of discriminatory suspension of black students versus white students as charged against KHS by the Office of Civil Rights in 1979 (before I became principal), or the accepted bullying of gay and lesbian students at KHS by heterosexual students. The latter accusation was one about which our administration was unaware until brought to me by both KHS students and graduates in 1998. Thanks to their input, we immediately began to address the problem.
KHS graduates have this year of 2020 suggested that had we put equal focus on a student’s right to be free of sexual abuse from faculty members, we could have more successfully aborted shame and sorrow in a certain number of our students’ lives that they did not deserve. These KHS graduates have done me the great service of opening my eyes and allowing me the hindsight of looking back over two decades to understand their criticism. These graduates suggest that just as I used the public address system to focus on interracial and gender problems within our school and our society, I could have also used the PA and the various assembly programs to focus on sexual abuse toward students. It was normal at KHS for this administration to bring many topical problems of our society to the forefront that other schools refused to handle openly. It is possible that we could have led the way in St. Louis County to place a much greater emphasis on sexual abuse. I regret I did not do more.
In saying that, however, I must point out that my administration did not turn our heads when students brought to us instances of sexual abuse by a teacher. A major case in this recent campaign to bring sexual injustice to the forefront in the Kirkwood School District is the best example of how we attempted to handle charges of faculty sexual abuse. It is the case of a teacher in the 1990s who was accused by multiple young women. This teacher was highly regarded, exceptional in his field. There had been no reason for my administration or his fellow colleagues to suspect that he was damaging young female students at our school. We were not only shocked when we found out; in a word, we were horrified. Knowing what we know now, I don’t understand what the signs were that we missed.
During Christmas vacation, I received a call from a KHS graduate then in college who said she wanted to talk to me about sexual abuse she had received from this teacher when she was at KHS. Since it was vacation time, I asked her to come to my home immediately to give testimony. She did, and I believed her. I requested the names of other young women who might have been abused and who might be willing to talk to me. She gave me names, and I requested each of those students to come to my home. Not all students charged abuse, but several did. To each of these young women I apologized for the injustice done to them by this man whom we had all trusted. I attempted to make it clear that what had happened to them was not their fault. I told them I was sorry I could not do more to ease their feelings of remorse and shame, because that’s what I felt they revealed to me. I stated again that it was not their fault.
Armed with this testimony, I called the Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and said that I would be arriving at her office on our first day back at school with testimony against this teacher. We held that meeting, and the Assistant Superintendent obtained legal counsel. She then called for the teacher to come to her office for a hearing. It was obvious during that meeting that this teacher must be dismissed immediately, with follow up meetings as to further consequences given by the district.
The next point is the most crucial issue now criticized by KHS graduates. By law, school districts in Missouri could not prosecute teachers for sexual abuse of students. Parents had to be willing to do that. Understandably, parents did not want to put their daughters through the excruciating experience of retelling the story of their abuse in open trial of the teacher. The teacher’s license to teach in Missouri schools K-12 was taken, but he was not taken to trial which could have opened the way for the greater punishment he deserved. In that era we never witnessed a parent who was willing to press charges. One critic has said to me that I should have pressed parents harder to do this. In the case of sexual abuse, especially for those times, I disagree. This had to be their family decision.
Still, looking back with the hindsight of this year 2020 and the shift in focus to the abuse of women from the silence of just a few decades ago, any lessening of sexual abuse at KHS would have been a leap forward in the culture of our school and the feeling of safety on the part of every student. Possibly the many times I spoke over the PA of treating all students with “respect and dignity” were too vague and not specific enough to enact more safety from the few faculty members who revealed predatory behavior. I would consider now making more statements to advise students to come to the administration about any act on the part of a staff member which made that student feel uncomfortable, powerless, or threatened.
I cannot end this public statement without thanking those students who have come directly to me. You said that I educated you; now you have educated me. I find I am never too old to learn to do better, to be better.
The Kirkwood School District (KSD) takes these allegations very seriously. We ask anyone who has information related to abuse, misconduct, or inappropriate behavior by any current or former KSD staff member to contact us. Information or statements can be given via online form at www.kirkwoodschools.org/report, call 314.213.6100, ext. 7804 or email [email protected] for Dr. Howard Fields, assistant superintendent of human resources or 314.213.6100 ext. 7809 or email [email protected] for Ms. Cindi Nelson, director of human resources. We also encourage you to contact the local police department.We are always looking for tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected]
KSD is also offering counseling services to survivors, please call the above numbers or complete the form at www.kirkwoodschools.org/report.
I want to thank you for your concern related to current practices and policies in place to ensure our current students know their rights and how to report abuse, misconduct, or inappropriate behavior. A list of those resources is located online at www.kirkwoodschools.org/services. All staff members are required to attend annual safe schools training as well.
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