Steamboat district plans to hire independent firm to investigate negative culture at high school
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Steamboat Springs School District plans to hire an independent firm to investigate and help address the negative culture at Steamboat Springs High School as described by parents and others at the most recent school board meeting.
Superintendent Brad Meeks made the announcement Wednesday night at a special workshop called by the school board to specifically respond to issues raised at the Dec. 9 meeting. The allegations involved claims of female students reporting sexual misconduct, followed by a lack of action and even retaliation for speaking out. The issues were described as “systemic.”
Since the meeting, Meeks said he has met with some of the parents and students who spoke out and has plans to meet with more. He said he has also met with the principal and assistant principal.
Board President Kelly Latterman said board members are working closely with Advocates of Routt County to better understand the issues and find solutions. She also said she wanted the district to enlist outside expertise to put some of those solutions into place as quickly as possible.
In hiring an outside firm, Meeks said he is seeking assistance in promoting a positive school climate, identifying short-term and long-term interventions and ensuring a better process of reporting and handling reports of sexual misconduct.
Advocates Executive Director Lisel Petis also spoke at the meeting.
“I appreciate the school taking this so seriously,” Petis said.
She also took the opportunity to address some “misperceptions” that resulted from the statements she made at the Dec. 9 board meeting. Petis said she was not suggesting that there is “an outbreak of sexual assault on school grounds” nor that “all school staff are part of the problem.”
She said there is a real concern about students and parents not coming forward because of the perception their complaints won’t be addressed and they may face retaliation.
“I know this is messy,” Petis said. “But conflict often leads to change.”
She described some of the ways Advocates is already working with the school, and she said both the school staff and her organization can find ways to do things better.
“I am encouraged that the school is looking to do an independent investigation,” Petis said. “It is important and necessary to do an independent investigation to build back the trust the school may have lost. I think it is the right thing to do by the students, to make sure all concerns are addressed and, most important, to hold anyone accountable that may be abusing a position of power or mishandling the issues before them.”
Petis said there is an opportunity for the school district to be a leader and described the issue as a community problem that requires a community solution.
“I am very optimistic that this is only going to make the school district stronger and our students safer,” Petis added.
The board discussed conducting an anonymous survey and how to determine the best questions to elicit the most honest answers. A staff survey was also suggested, as was including the middle school in some of the efforts.
Meeks said he plans to put out a request for proposals by the end of the week and have a firm hired when school is back in session after the holiday break. He said there is a tentative timeline to request a report in March, but the district can start implementing changes and solutions before that.
Petis acknowledged a thorough independent investigation might take longer.
Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen also spoke, detailing the process for reporting sexual assault and the role of school employees as mandatory reporters. Law enforcement relies on the school to bring them information, he said.
He also detailed the Safe2Tell anonymous online reporting system. Christensen said it is rare the reports involve sexual assault, but that every report reaches the police department immediately, is vetted and responded to. The mechanism is available to everyone, he said, and not limited to students or things related to the school.
Recent Steamboat Springs High School graduate Cosette McLaughlin, who attended Wednesday night’s meeting, said when she was assaulted in high school, it had a devastating impact. The lack of response was also devastating, she said. She was only 14 at the time of the alleged assault.
But now, McLaughlin said she is able to find positives, like being able to speak out about it.
“I’m excited to see other girls come forward,” she said.
McLaughlin said the culture of overlooking sexual misconduct existed throughout her time in high school and even went back to middle school.
After hearing the speakers at the meeting, she said she’s encouraged.
“I’m excited to see what is happening,” McLaughlin said. “It needs to change.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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