Mandi Johnson/staff photo
                                School board president John Helding speaking during the Sept. 25 meeting.

Mandi Johnson/staff photo School board president John Helding speaking during the Sept. 25 meeting.

Lopez community weighs in on harassment allegations against staff member

It was standing room only at the first Lopez Island School Board meeting held after allegations of sexual harassment were made against David Sather, a secondary school teacher and former secondary principal. More than 100 people packed into the school’s multipurpose room on Sept. 25 to share and listen to testimony from students, parents, teachers and community members at large. Sather is currently on leave.

“I’m so impressed with all of you that have come here tonight and so thoughtfully and honestly shared your pain. And we’ve all listened,” said community member Charlie Janeway. “I think the truth will come out and I have confidence in these board members. I know them — they’re good people.”

School Board Chairman John Helding said the board wanted to hear from everyone who had something to say. Over the course of the next 2.5 hours, more than 50 people stood to address the room about their experiences with the accused. Each speaker was allowed five minutes to speak.

A brief history

Eight Lopez residents filed a tort claim and a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission against Sather in mid-September. They claim that Sather propositioned female staff and said sexually inappropriate things to and about several women, both of whom were employees and parents, among other accusations.

Lara Hruska and Shannon McMinimee work for Cedar Law PLLC, a Seattle-based education firm. The duo represents the six women and two men who approached the firm in June, a month after attempting to resolve their complaints with the school board, McMinimee said.

Sather began working for the Lopez Island School District in 2013 after he was let go from a school in Mosier, Oregon, where the superintendent said that his leaving was “what is best for Mosier School,” according to a story published in The Dalles Chronicle.

On Lopez, he was hired as an assistant principal and then promoted to principal of the secondary school. In 2017, Sather was investigated by the school district on claims of sexual harassment after he began a relationship with an employee.

In a letter to Lopez Island School parents dated Sept. 3, 2017, the school board wrote it had commissioned a third-party investigation into potential sexual harassment by Sather, which concluded Sather had partaken in inappropriate “conversation, bantering, and joking that included sexual conduct” but that the relationship was consensual. Because conversations of an explicit nature are not allowed in the workplace per school district policy, the board said that it was taking formal action.

“We directed Mr. Sather to cease any such conversations in the future and to take additional training on preventing sexual harassment and supporting a safe workplace,” the board wrote.

The tort claim also names Helding and Superintendent Brian Auckland, alleging that the pair ignored complaints made to them as a way of covering up Sather’s reported misdeeds.

School board meeting

Most speakers on Sept. 25 were there to make statements about Aukland, Sather, the school board, the investigation and the situation as a whole. Comments ranged from support of the accused and the school, while others commended the accusers for speaking up.

At the meeting, the first person to give public comment was Elizabeth Simpson, a former teacher for the Lopez school of more than 25 years. She said the complainants should have told Sather to stop and “it would have stopped.”

“I found that when I had a colleague that made a racist or sexist or otherwise objectionable comment, or whose behavior upset me, I just called them out,” Simpson said. “I wish that had happened in this case. The people that felt offended or upset had simply called that person out.”

Simpson added that the articles printed in the San Juan County newspapers were “fiction” and that it “savaged” Sather’s reputation and hurt his family.

“Strong women, outspoken women are portrayed in that article as being shy, weak, wimpy and they are not,” Simpson stated.

Lopezian Anne Hall echoed Simpson’s comments, saying she was very unhappy with the “kerfuffle” she’s seen in the press.

One parent who introduced herself as Laura stated that she was “blindsided” when she heard about recent events on the 11 o’clock news. Laura has three children in Lopez secondary school.

“I feel betrayed. I trusted the most important things in my life with you,” she said, adding that she was not aware of the 2017 situation. “The lack of communication felt like betrayal. How can we trust [the school board] when [it has] kept so much from us?”

Parent Brian Estey said that he has had pleasant experiences with both Sather and Aukland in the past. Estey stated he was concerned, however, with what the school board may have known from the beginning since it hired Sather following his dismissal from Moiser, Oregon.

“You’ve got two things that are not mutually exclusive here. Because on the one hand, of all the principals I’ve seen here, … in my personal experience, Mr. Sather is the best principal they’ve had in secondary by a long shot,” Estey said. “That being said, you guys on the board are the first line of defense for our children. … That’s not a person — regardless of how good of a principal he is — that should have been here.”

One man, who did not identify himself prior to making his statement, said he believes the accusers.

“I don’t think it’s very often that people make false allegations,” he said.

San Juan County Councilmember Jamie Stephens also commented during the session. He said the community needs to show support to staff and teachers at this time — particularly the people who came forward. He added that the county has taken a zero-tolerance stance on the topic after being on the “wrong side” of two sexual misconduct cases.

“If you hear the same complaint several times, there might be some truth to it,” Stephens said. “We cannot tolerate what we’ve heard. We cannot tolerate a hostile workforce for anyone — men or women or children.”

School’s investigation

Several parent speakers asserted their faith in “the process.” The Lopez Island School District said in press releases since the allegations came to light that it is performing an independent investigation into the allegations. According to a Q&A flyer available at the meeting, the school hired Celeste Monroe, an attorney with Seattle-based firm Karr Tuttle and Campbell.

“Ms. Monroe has significant experience conducting investigations for public and private employers on a variety of employment-related issues, including claims of harassment, discrimination and retaliation,” the board wrote in the document.

One of the accusers, Brad Smith, said in his testimony that the investigator is not as independent as the district claims and that she was hired by the school’s attorney and is being paid for by the district. His wife, Ali Smith, agreed, stating that the investigation isn’t as independent as it is being presented.

Ali Smith claimed at the meeting that the impartial interviews being conducted are of people selected by the school district — not everyone. Brad Smith later alleged that the interviewees are “being told” by Auckland that the complainants are lying.

“I think we’re being fed a line of crap,” Brad Smith said. “It’s real clear where we are on this.”

Other community members questioned “the process” as well, with some referencing the investigation into Sather in 2017, after which he was sent to training and returned to his position.

Commenter Rick McCoy explained a situation wherein his son was bullied by a teacher in the past — not Sather. He said the school did its investigation and the teacher received “a slap on a wrist and sensitivity training.”

“We trusted the process and it failed,” McCoy said. “To trust the process doesn’t always work.”

Former Lopez Island School District employee Anthony Rovente said, “If the allegations today are true, then the process failed [in 2017.]”

Rovente added that he believes it’s not just the employees who were victims but also students. He said that during Sather’s first chaperoning trip to Greece, two female students — one 15 and the other 16 — allegedly returned with tattoos.

“The process only works if the policy and procedures behind that process are the right ones,” Stephens said, urging the school board to make sure it has good policies and procedures in place to make “the process” work.

The accusers

Besides the Smiths, two other complainants made statements — Della McCullough and Jennifer Norvelle. McCullough is a bus driver and paraeducator for the district; Norvelle works as Auckland’s secretary.

“It was a hard process thinking about [coming forward]. Dave [Sather] was also my friend, I cared about him as a person, but I’m also a professional human being,” Norvelle said. “I did say it was inappropriate. I did come to the board, I did go to the superintendent. I did not feel like I was heard rightfully.”

Norvelle said when she had gone to Auckland, he requested they discuss her concerns in person — 22 days later.

“That’s a long time when you’re sitting on something that hurts,” Norvelle said. “When you’re sitting on something that you care about so deeply because you don’t want to come forward, you don’t want other people to have to do this.”

Norvelle said the only way she felt like she, and everyone else who had experienced Sather’s alleged inappropriateness, would be heard was if they reached out for help beyond the school.

“I came forward for these kids,” McCullough said, adding that she has been experiencing other types of harassment from the community since the complaints were filed. “I will stand here and I will still drive my school bus. … because that’s what I do — protect the children.”

The students

For many of those in attendance, their primary concern was the students of the Lopez Island Schools. Among the adults who made statements at the meeting, eight female students also commented.

“The students are listening,” said one girl, who doesn’t believe Sather should return.

A second student said she felt uncomfortable in the school’s environment and opted to go to Friday Harbor Elementary this year instead.

One eighth-grader said she hopes that the adults listen to the “voices of the children.” Another added that she can’t believe this is happening, and that it is affecting the students “more than you actually know.”

“It’s just very uncomfortable having a teacher who has been called out for what’s going on,” one eighth grade student said.

“I don’t think I could be more disappointed and sad,” said another.

“I feel like we need to believe what is being said. We need to believe these women. We need to believe these accusations are true,” one student stated, adding that people need to consider how it is affecting the accusers’ lives. “When you’re protecting Dave, you’re harming the women that he’s hurt. … We need to stop the people who are harassing others and start protecting the people who are being harassed.”