By Editorial Team
Abuse happens. How we respond determines whether the abuse is effectively stopped. Or whether a pattern develops, as the abuse is tacitly allowed to continue.
On Thursday, April 27th, Vivian Lyons read a letter at a Vashon Island School District board meeting, written by one of two women who have co-filed a formal complaint against a VHS teacher with a history of inappropriate behavior, boundary-crossing, and other improprieties. The letter listed four recommendations:
1. The VISD school board should immediately pass a resolution condemning romantic or sexual relationships between educators and students for at least a year after graduation – ideally, two.
2. In the next collective bargaining agreement, VISD should negotiate a policy prohibiting VISD educator relationships with graduated students for up to two years after graduation.
3. VISD should commission a survey to assess the safety, health, and culture at Vashon High School.
4. VISD should either hire an investigator directly to complete the report, or request a partial report from the investigations into John Rees and Kara Sears, and make these results public.
It is worth noting that the first two recommendations align with common professional expectations for patient-physician relationships. A power differential is unavoidable, which is why rules are so strict. Islanders living here a decade ago, when Dr. Sjardo Steneker’s medical practice was shut down (causing 3,000+ patients to scramble for a new primary care doctor), need no reminder.
The core tenet of American Medical Association ethics regarding patient-physician relationships is this: “The relationship between a patient and a physician is based on trust.” And, as an interpretation of this trust, it is a “physicians’ ethical responsibility to place patients’ welfare above the physician’s own self-interest.”
Of course, ethical expectations, rules, and policies are only as effective as those tasked with enforcing them. When Mitchell (a state health law judge) suspended Dr. Sjardo Steneker’s license for five years, he cited several factors, including: “The intentional and repeated nature of the behavior; a pattern of misconduct over a lengthy period of time; prior discipline involving dishonesty … and no remorse regarding his behavior.”
Islanders might reasonably ask, “Who enforces similar rules at our schools?
The questions keep coming. What consequences are in place for those who cross the line? How has VISD responded to such situations over the years? Were they successful? Apparently not. So, what have we learned, and what will be done differently going forward? Why, for example, did repeated reports from teachers fail to elicit an effective response from the administration? To be fair – if the individuals tasked with hiring and firing our teachers wanted to do more, what was stopping them? The teacher’s union? State employment laws? Privacy laws? VISD’s legal counsel?
At the Thursday, April 27th VISD School Board meeting, almost all board members pointed the finger of blame at “lawyers.” One said, “This is a situation that none of us want to be in. For me personally … it’s super-complicated being a board member, about what I can do legally and what I can’t do. I have my brain and I have my heart.” Another board member said, “This is not what we want. We are dealing with lawyers. These are the experts. We go to the doctor, and if you have cancer, then you listen to the doctor. We cannot just come up with an answer, the five of us.”
What wasn’t mentioned was what our elected school board members could do? How much do they know, and what are they withholding from our community? From parents, who elected them and who bear primary responsibility for the safety and well-being of their children? Is this appropriate? Is it legal? How many previous complaints have been swept under the rug? About which teachers? Have we hit bottom yet? If a concerned parent hadn’t put up cameras and captured images of their son’s senior year teacher repeatedly coming into their home, where would we be now? Would anything concrete and truly effective – have been done?
VISD isn’t being transparent with students, either, and they can tell. At the April 27th School Board Meeting, VHS student representatives shared that students are “extremely upset and confused” by a situation where they “have not received any information from the school in their emails,” and are left to “depend upon rumors and newspaper coverage.” This position of official silence from the high school is strange, given that these same students spent the previous year witnessing unaddressed, inappropriate behavior every day in their classrooms. The VHS student representatives also expressed frustration that “class sizes are being increased and electives are being cut, while large salaries are being paid to teachers who are under investigation for sexual misconduct and on administrative leave.”
That’s what the students think. Are we listening to them – yet?