Teachers speak out in favor of reinstating Steamboat principal’s contract; school board discusses next steps for addressing investigation’s findings | SteamboatToday.com

Teachers speak out in favor of reinstating Steamboat principal’s contract; school board discusses next steps for addressing investigation’s findings

Steamboat Springs High School
John F. Russell/staff

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Thirteen teachers and staff spoke in support of reinstating Steamboat Springs High School Principal Kevin Taulman, who is currently on paid administrative leave.

At the beginning of Thursday’s Steamboat Springs School Board meeting, Superintendent Brad Meeks announced he would not be recommending the renewal of Taulman’s contract based on conversations with Taulman.

The purpose of the special meeting was to discuss the next steps moving forward following the release of a report by Jane Quimby, of Quimby and Associates, the former FBI agent hired by the Steamboat Springs School District to investigate the culture at the high school related to the alleged mishandling of claims of sexual harassment made by student victims and their parents to the administration.

The board voted to assemble two separate task forces to begin implementing recommendations Quimby made to address issues related to two areas: policies and procedures and climate and culture at the high school.

For the most part, the teachers and staff who spoke in favor of Taulman’s reinstatement did not dispute any of the report’s specific findings, and several said they found it to be fair.  

A number of the teachers who spoke on behalf of Taulmen pointed to one of the findings that stated, “While incidents involving sexual misconduct have certainly occurred within the district, this investigation did not establish the existence of a pervasive and systemic problem indicative of widespread sexual assault at the high school.”

But they all unanimously said they disagreed with how they perceived the report to be related to the decision about Taulman’s contract.

Most of the teachers and staff who commented during Thursday’s school board meeting also said the past year was a difficult one for them, and they felt like they had been “dragged through the mud.” Many demanded a public apology and statement of support from Meeks and the school board.

“I do not want to in any away dismiss the traumatic experiences of any students, but I very much believe that the board and the administration needs to get out there in front of this and in the public and really work toward rehabilitating our reputation,” said high school teacher Deirdre Boyd. “We have felt under attack, and it is not the negative culture it was alleged to be.”

Boyd also requested the board reinstate Taulman, saying the report showed no evidence of wrongdoing. She said the responsibility was at the district level.

“Kevin is the one being scapegoated. You are potentially ruining the career of an educator who has done so much for this community,” Boyd said. “We ask you allow him to finish out the year just as any other non-renewed employee would be and allow him to leave this district with dignity and on his own terms.”

Taulman did not answer an emailed request for a response.

One parent, who gave only a first name during the public comment period, said the numbers of reported incidents was high enough for concern. He also said he supported the staff and saw this as an opportunity to move forward in a positive direction.

“Advocates has said repeatedly this wasn’t about a pervasive nature of rape in the school,” said Advocates of Routt County Executive Director Lisel Petis. “This was actually about the silencing culture of people who have been sexually assaulted, that they did not feel comfortable coming forward because of a fear not being believed, a fear of appropriate action not being taken if they did come forward or a fear of retaliation if they did. And I think the survey results strongly support what Advocate saw and what we heard from victims.”

Quimby’s report lays out the background for her involvement, which was more focused on how reports of sexual misconduct were handled than on the number of incidents.

“In December of 2019, a number of parents and community members appeared before the Board of Education and voiced their concerns regarding a negative culture at Steamboat Springs High School, describing a school environment where students did not feel safe, heard or supported amid allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” the report stated. “Specific concerns included mishandling of complaints related to sexual misconduct, fear of retaliation and lack of response by school officials.”

Taulman’s wife, Julie, also spoke during Thursday night’s meeting.

“I am in complete disgust about how this has been handled through this entire debacle of an investigation,” Julie Taulman said. “This is 100% retaliation from Brad Meeks to my family.”

Beth Gravelle and her husband, Larry, also a teacher at the high school, spoke in support of Taulman and his leadership.

“I would like to speak on behalf of the high school staff,” Beth Gravelle said. “We agree he is being targeted and scapegoated, and we need to look at the central administration and their contribution to the problems.”

Acting on recommendations

In terms of moving forward, the board talked about student and staff education, improving the district website so policy information is easier to find, creating task forces to implement Quimby’s recommendations and increasing Title IX training for the entire staff while looking to hire someone with the expertise to assist with Title IX issues until that knowledge can be built within the district.

The consensus among board members was that the district did not necessarily need a full-time position devoted to Title IX issues, and they could start by hiring a contractor.

During a recent budget meeting, Director of Finance Mark Rydberg said he had designated $100,000 in funding at this time to go toward implementing Quimby’s recommendations.

Key findings in the report

Quimby talked about the importance of investigations being conducted by people who are not working in the building in which the report was taken. Quimby again brought up some of the other issues she encountered in her investigation, including reports and incidents of anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry.

As part of the investigation, separate surveys were sent out to high school students, staff and parents across the entire district. She received replies from 171 staff members, 333 parents and 322 students.

Of the parents who responded to the survey, 75.9% said their students had reported experiencing bullying, while 30.5% reported their students experienced being sexually harassed by another student or staff member.

“The report is very alarming in a variety of different ways based on the statistics and feedback of survey results that indicate there are substantial issues that need to be addressed about the climate and culture among students, because there is a sense of not being safe,” said Graham Hackett, social change program manager for Advocates.”

A comprehensive review of all high school disciplinary cases with a sexual component since the beginning of the 2016-17 school year revealed 28 incidents at the high school. Law enforcement reports were generated for 22 of those incidents.

Quimby reiterated those numbers are only what was reported. She said more incidents were brought to her attention through the course of more than 100 interviews. National statistics show it is believed two-thirds of sexual assaults go unreported.

“In three of the reported incidents, the allegations were determined to be unfounded or the evidence was inconclusive,” according to Quimby’s report.

Eight of the incidents happened off campus, and four were limited to social media/online behavior.

In terms of key findings, Quimby said she found a lack of confidence among parents and students as to how complaints were handled. Among high school parents, 53% said they had low confidence in the district and high school’s handling of complaints regarding sexual misconduct. Of students, 52% believed the school’s staff handled the incidents poorly. Only 11% of staff believed incidents were handled poorly.

Quimby said the fear of retaliation was a common problem she heard throughout the investigation.

Of parents who responded to the survey, 36.7% answered they would be concerned about retaliation toward them or their students for saying something. She called it a “legitimate fear” that people were afraid there would be consequences for speaking out and noted that retaliation could be worse than the “underlying conduct you started with.”

Of the students surveyed, 35.3% reported experiencing sexual harassment off school grounds, and 19.3% reported experiencing it on school grounds. In addition, 32% of students surveyed reported feeling unsafe on school grounds, and 71.9% reported feeling unsafe off school grounds.

Asked whether they would be worried concerns or complaints would be ignored, 43.8% of students survey answered “yes,” and 18.5% of students surveyed answered that voicing a complaint would result in them being treated badly by school staff.

The full report can be accessed here.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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