Waterville Senior High School Principal Don Reiter will learn Monday night whether he will be fired or return to his job after hours of mostly private testimony at this week’s hearing.

“There will be a decision Monday night,” said Sara Sylvester, chairwoman of the Waterville Board of Education. “We won’t be leaving without a decision.”

The board is considering a recommendation from Superintendent Eric Haley that Reiter be dismissed for inappropriate conduct with a student based on an allegation that Reiter asked the student for sex.

The board of seven women met in executive session Tuesday night for about four hours, and again Tuesday in a seven-hour mostly private hearing that has brought criticism from those who attended as spectators.

The board reviewed evidence and heard testimony from more than a dozen witnesses over two days and now is in the deliberation stage. Sylvester said Thursday that she expects the deliberations Monday to take about an hour – again in executive session – and the board will make a decision in public session.

The hearing is scheduled to start at 5 p.m. at George J. Mitchell School. “I see it as being a very short executive session,” Sylvester said.

Bryan Dench, the board’s attorney and official hearing officer for the dismissal hearing, will put some facts together about the case, in writing, and give them to the board, according to Sylvester.

“These are serious, serious allegations,” she said. “It’s somebody’s life – two people’s lives – so we need to look at it over the weekend and make sure we are making the right decision.

“It’s not a rush to judgment. None of this is taken lightly and it has been very tough on the board. It’s not an easy thing to do at all,” she said.

‘DOING THEIR JOB’

Many of those who attended the hearing Wednesday appeared to be Reiter supporters who said they were angry that most of the hearing was held in executive session, saying they understood it was to be mostly public.

Other than hearing opening statements by attorneys Tuesday and testimony by three character witnesses for Reiter on Wednesday, the public was privy to no other discussions.

Many also said they were angry that school board members left executive session at the end of the night Wednesday and went home rather than return to the gymnasium and let people know they were adjourning for the night.

But Dench explained Thursday that, according to the process for such hearings, when the board is deliberating in executive session, it has no obligation to come back to open session to explain what it is doing.

“The board is doing this according to the law and acting properly and has no reason to come out into public session to report to anybody about what they’re doing,” he said. “That’s just not the way the process works. For the board to do their jobs properly and responsibly and to protect the rights of everyone involved is a difficult task and it takes time. The board is doing that. They’re being very conscientious and taking the time to do things correctly.”

The board is conducting a quasi-judicial, adjudicatory hearing, and some parts of it are in open session; but beyond that, it is not a participatory process, Dench said.

“We understand that can lead to some confusion or frustration, but the board is doing its job deliberately and conscientiously, and that takes time,” he said. “It’s a process that to an outsider can be very perplexing or frustrating, and nobody likes that, but this is the way it has to be done.”

Federal right to privacy rules and state law mandate that no student records or information derived from records be disclosed publicly in any manner that would identify a student, and that is why much of the hearing has been in private session, Dench said.

He said Reiter and his attorney, Gregg Frame, agreed that the parts of the hearing that were held in executive session should have been.

He said that if the board makes an “adverse decision” for Reiter, he has the right to appeal the decision to Superior Court, and the filing would include transcripts from the dismissal hearing with the identity of the student redacted. He said the public also would learn what the school board knew when it made its decision.

He said 15 to 20 witnesses testified at Reiter’s hearing.

PLANNED PROTEST

Waterville students announced Thursday morning on Facebook they are planning a school walkout after attendance is taken Friday morning at the high school.

Haley, the superintendent, called a meeting of the student body and faculty Thursday morning in response to the plans and told students that they have the right to demonstrate as long as it does not interfere with the school mission, which is to educate students. He also explained that there would be consequences if such disruptions occurred.

He said more than 500 students and faculty and staff members attended the meeting in Trask Auditorium at the high school.

“We talked about other things – about how we treat each other, about civility and it’s OK to disagree with people,” Haley said. “They were very receptive, very civil, very polite.”

Haley said he understands that people want more information about the case and are frustrated that much of the hearing was in closed session, but a lot of the information is, by law, confidential.

The hearing process is tough, he said.

“As I told the student body, there are only about 14 people that know all the facts – seven board members, lawyers and myself,” he said. “Nobody other than those 14 people know the real facts and only seven of them are trying to make a decision based on the facts.”

He noted that he is not in charge of running the hearing and has no authority to change the way it is conducted.

“I understand the frustration, but I don’t control the show and the board doesn’t really control the show. It’s a very serious conclusion that they have to make.”

When Haley left Mitchell School after Wednesday’s night session, a woman yelled at him, asking if he could sleep at night.

Reiter, however, got a different reception as he passed through the crowd, which lined the walls of the corridor. A woman shouted, “We’re behind you, Don!” and then the crowd chanted, “Don, Don, Don!”

THE MESSAGE

Without a decision from the board in Reiter’s case, people should be aware of the message a display of support such as the one for the principal sends to victims of abuse, Cara Courchesne, communications director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Thursday.

Even if the board finds there is no merit to the allegations, the response of the crowd can have a hurtful effect on those around them, Courchesne said.

“It’s really important to remain respectful of one another,” she said. “It’s really easy to say something inadvertent and say something not supportive of survivors. I don’t think people do it intentionally; I think just being aware of that and how people conduct themselves is probably the best pass forward.”

Meanwhile, high school mathematics teacher Joyce Blakney, who also is president of the Waterville Teachers Association, said Thursday that many teachers are worried about being alone with a student in light of the allegations against Reiter. Teachers who arrive early for school or stay late to tutor or advise students are particularly concerned, she said.

“There’s a discomfort level now that a lot of us are feeling,” Blakney said.

She said that until Haley called the meeting of students and staff Thursday, the staff did not talk about the case with students except to answer questions.

After the meeting, however, students wanted to know more, according to Blakney.

She said she got mixed reactions from students about Haley’s discussion about student demonstrations. Some felt what he said was good, while others thought he was trying to squelch their right to protest, she said.

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.