Walter Wallace resigned from his role as principal of Brunswick Junior High School March 25 after obtaining his superintendent certification. The resignation came days before 11 teachers planned to bring forward their complaints that he had bullied and harassed them. (Times Record File Photo)

BRUNSWICK —  Eleven teachers claim outgoing Brunswick Junior High School principal Walter Wallace harassed, bullied and emotionally and verbally abused female staff for years and that complaints were swept under the rug by the administration.

Wallace announced his resignation suddenly on March 25 after 15 years with the district, saying he’d received his superintendent certification and that he was looking to pursue a different administrative position. The resignation also came just two weeks after a Portland law firm finished an investigation into his conduct on the district’s behalf, and two days after teachers made it known they intended to take their complaints to the school board.

The Times Record interviewed four of these women, all but one of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. Others declined interviews for this story because they said they were concerned about being identified through the information they shared. 

“Every day on the way home it was ‘how much longer can I take this?’” one teacher said, recalling humiliation and the fear of retaliation, likening it to “living under a totalitarian regime.”

Sarah Hillery, a former employee of BJHS, said she left the district in August because of how she was treated by Wallace. She said she was approached this fall by a group of 10 other teachers who had heard about or witnessed Hillery’s treatment and said they had similar experiences of their own. The women began to draft an official complaint to the district against Wallace, including claims that he had threatened, intimidated, demeaned and demoralized them as women, according to Hillery. Hillery said the women had not witnessed similar behavior toward any of the 16 male staff members at the school.

Investigation

In January, a Drummond Woodsum attorney interviewed the teachers to see if there was enough evidence to substantiate the claims that Wallace had harassed them; claims that Wallace “wholeheartedly disagreed with” and considered “gross exaggerations,” he said in a statement provided to The Times Record Thursday evening.

None of the teachers were allowed to see a copy of the finished investigation report, according to the teachers interviewed. The Times Record submitted a request for a copy under the Maine Freedom of Access Act, but was denied on the grounds that “records in any form relating to complaints about an employee must be kept confidential.”

In a letter dated March 11 and provided to The Times Record, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski told the group of teachers that, based on the school board’s narrow definition of harassment, the attorney “concluded that the evidence did not support a finding of harassment based on a protected characteristic.”

Under school board policy, harassment is defined as “verbal abuse, threats, physical assault and/or battery based on race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion,” etc.

“Nonetheless, I take seriously the allegations that an administrator lost his temper. While I am not able to discuss personnel matters, appropriate steps are being taken to address the concerns that have been raised,” Perzanoski wrote.

“The board takes the safety of its employees and students seriously and to that end our policies reflect state and federal laws and regulations,” school board chairman Jim Grant told The Times Record in an email.

Some of the teachers, though, said they felt the response was weak.

Wallace said that once the results of the investigation came back, he offered to work with teachers to build better relationships “and to steer the focus where it should be: the students.” The teachers refused to work with him, he said.

Damage done

“The ruling just floored us,” one teacher said. “It was like a punch in the stomach. When I gave years of these experiences, it made me relive nightmares.”

The teacher said she was humiliated in front of her colleagues and in front of her students and had her professionalism questioned many times. She was blamed any time something happened or a student acted out, she said, adding that she was never asked to explain what happened, but instead was asked what she did to create the situation.

“It was not liked for us to be strong, stand-our-ground women,” she said, adding that he seemed in particular to dislike older women, although there were exceptions. She called Wallace the “biggest bully in that building.”

Another teacher said she had been called argumentative and a whiner, while another said Wallace would sometimes “scream” at staff so loudly that everything said could be heard through closed doors.

In one instance, a teacher claims he yelled “bulls—” at a teacher in a cafeteria filled with students.

Several teachers who stepped forward didn’t report individual events, but rather what they described as a harmful, hostile atmosphere and an environment of fear that was “pervasive throughout the building.” Some said they felt the need to bring other teachers into their meetings with Wallace. 

“We were being bullied by the biggest bully in an administration that claimed to be anti-bullying,” a teacher said.

One of the teachers said Wallace “aggressively” confronted her in front of her students. When she asked Wallace to treat her more professionally, he allegedly responded by sitting in on almost all of her classes, so often that students asked her repeatedly why he was in there so frequently. “I was nauseous every day,” she said. “I got to see firsthand the mental wear and tear of someone being bullied.”

All of the teachers interviewed reportedsometimes feeling unsafe when Wallace had been yelling at them, red in the face, with his fists clenched.

The woman said she started looking for employment in another district and only stopped when she learned Wallace had resigned.

‘Compelled to act’

Wallace stated his actions were the result of “very serious misbehavior” from teachers and that many of the incidents reported involved teachers “threatening students with violence, allegations of non-sexual physical contact, segregating special education students from their general education peers —both socially and academically, yelling at and berating students in front of their peers, denying a special needs student access to class, and refusing to perform duties to ensure student safety,” he said. 

“I am compelled to act with direct, immediate and pointed feedback,” he continued, adding that, “The feedback is not intended to be intimidating. Rather, it is to outline the seriousness of the teachers’ actions.”

“Frankly, I am happy to take the punches from these teachers, or anyone else, if it means students get a fair, equitable and safe education. The parents of children in our school expect their child or children to be protected from unprofessional behavior, and I have done my best to accomplish that goal,” he stated.

“It gives me no pleasure to report that each of the complainants had some form of disciplinary action or critical feedback directly from me over the years,” he wrote.

All four teachers interviewed for this story said they had not received any formal disciplinary actions from Wallace in their time at the school, and three other teachers who were not interviewed also came forward to say they were “never once reprimanded or disciplined” for improper behavior.

Hillery said she was proud of her positive reputation in the district, and that her evaluations were always positive.

Another teacher said she was never reprimanded by Walter about any interactions with students. All her negative interactions were over administrative matters, she said.

A third teacher said she was disheartened and angry to be accused of bullying her students, as she prides herself on fairness. In almost 20 years of teaching she “never had any formal complaints or warnings from him or any principal I worked under,” she said.

For the 11 women who took their complaints to Perzanoski, it went beyond pointed feedback and had reached a boiling point, one teacher said. 

“We should have done it years ago,” one of the teachers said, adding that she has personal records of the abuse and attempts to bring it to administration dating back to 2010 when Wallace was hired as principal. Others, too, said they knew of other staff who had brought up their concerns during exit interviews.

Perzanoski could not comment on any prior complaints or on the investigation, calling it a confidential personnel matter.

“(Wallace) made many people’s lives miserable for many years,” the teacher said, adding that while she knew some people were moved around the district after making complaints, nothing had been done to handle the root of the problem. Other teachers had left the district — including young teachers who showed great promise, one woman said.

Outcomes

Teachers were bothered by the investigation’s conclusion that Wallace’s alleged behavior could not be considered harassment. Teachers were prepared to go to the school board, had drafted a letter and compiled their individual logs in the days leading up to Wallace’s resignation.

“The writing on the wall was that this isn’t going to go away,” Hillery said. 

“I felt complicit,” she added. “My only intention is to make sure he doesn’t end up as a superintendent and continue to do this to women.”

Several other teachers interviewed echoed that sentiment.

An attorney from Drummond Woodsum and the president of the Brunswick Education Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Wallace was named 2015’s Principal of the Year by the Maine Principals’ Association. That same year, Wallace was involved in a federal lawsuit by a former student and the Maine Human Rights Commission that accused the school department of failing to adequately protect the student from persistent bullying and discrimination, including sexual assault. A separate charge against Wallace, which claimed that he acted “with actual malice and reckless indifference” to the rights of the child and his mother, was eventually dropped, and the district settled the case for $125,000.

April 5 was his last day as principal.

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