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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Working with Highland Hall - Letter from a parent #1

July 5, 2001

To the College of Teachers:

At the meeting held Friday, June 22, 2001 I suggested you be kind to yourselves in the wake of your decisions regarding how you handled the Wendy and Jeffrey Wilkins debacle. For those of you not in attendance, I uncharacteristically went against the angry tide and tried to soothe your collective pain with, “No one had a crystal ball. You couldn’t possibly have known what would happen.” I would like to retract that statement now. After two weeks I have found many new facts that obliterate my sympathy. With a modicum of effort you could have had a whole lot of information about the appropriateness of Wendy as a class teacher and a pretty good guess as to what can happen when sexual offenders are left unchecked. With one small phone call from one of our own third grade parents to the Santa Barbara school and one phone call back, we uncovered not only history of Wendy’s incompetence as a teacher, but of Jeffrey’s sexual deviance. Wendy’s visa complications alone due to her admitted misdemeanor for breaking and entering should have been enough to raise an eyebrow, but by the neglect of the most obvious step in any hiring process-- running a cursory background check at even her most previous job where she had been fired, no less -- you put my children at unfathomable risk.
In January, you again had the opportunity to do the right thing and failed. When Jeffrey propositioned Cameron, did you then wonder enough to call the Santa Barbara school to find out about Wendy and her son’s past? If you didn’t, why not? And if you did and you got the information that we so easily accessed, God have mercy. You shared with us that you were given legal counsel to protect Jeffrey because he was a minor, but what about the other hundreds of children that were at risk under your care as students of the school? Isn’t that why you sit on the College? Aren’t you a body set up to look after the well being of the students? What about the dozens of children who have newly come forward and will forever bear the scars of those solicitations in the log cabin, those propositions on the play structure, those lewd images he passed to them in the library, the graphic and terrible lexicon that he wove into their games that is now imprinted on their little souls? I heard some third grade children talk about Wendy leaving Jeffrey alone in the classroom with them where he dropped his pants. I’ve heard he whipped it out as well in after-school care. I know that he offered money and toys in exchange for the children to play his “baby” and “cream” games and was successful in getting at least one child to touch his penis, who then in turn challenged the others in attendance to smell his “stinky hand.” My educated guess would suppose more were a part, that don’t dare come forward even if their parents are gentle and round about in their questioning. My daughter absolutely refuses to discuss with my husband or me something that one of her classmates told her at a sleepover recently. The pointed threats of secrecy have now made their way into my daughter’s lifelong openness with me. And there are others. What about these children bearing the most silent scars?
You made Wendy sign a contract that her son would be under close and constant supervision when visiting campus. What were you thinking? Wendy sent our children unescorted to the lower parking lot to retrieve items from her truck. She sent them up into trees twenty feet above ground by the amphitheater without an adult in sight. Daily she sent students outside the door for punishment with Jeffrey often hanging close by. How in heaven’s name did you think she could keep an eye on her teenage son? And what if the poor dear had to use the rest room while at school? Did you really think she’d escort him in there too? Is your world so insulated that you’ve never heard of children being molested time and again in the “privacy” of public restrooms? And then I heard at the June 22nd meeting that you hadn’t even told the rest of the school staff so that they could keep an eye on Jeffrey even if Wendy couldn’t? You couldn’t even trust your peers with your information. That seems awfully telling.
We heard tale in the meeting that Wendy was visibly upset when Jeffrey showed up at the school without her knowing that he was coming, but I’m beginning to feel it was more out of fear that her job would be jeopardized rather than that our children’s safety might be compromised. I first wondered if maybe this woman was working on a grave plane of denial, but let’s look at the facts. This is the woman who invited the children of her colleagues, as was shared at our own third grade meeting, to come to her house to “rest” between school and the evenings’ activities (namely our third grade play) and was left alone to play with Jeffrey. This is much deeper than denial. This is entrapment. But whether she was setting up to test her son’s mettle or our children’s survival skills really doesn’t matter. Her gross culpability has been clearly drawn and those children will never be the same.
I can’t begin to guess what part of you chose to ignore the enormous red flags to first bring in Mrs. Wilkins and then later to have her sign an impossibly generous contract rather than risk a libel suit, but I’m guessing it was not the heart to which I was drawn when I first came here. As the mother of a nine year-old, a six year-old and a seven month old, you may think that my association with Highland Hall is brief, but it was more than fifteen years ago I came to this school to do research for a play I was writing. I was so swept up by all the beauty that I encountered in this haven I vowed that if I was blessed with children someday; they would come here for their education. At that time I was recovering from my own wounds of a stalking, kidnapping, and abuse at the hands of a sexually deviant man, and I was heartened by the promise that here was a place far away from the violence and fear that had pulsed within my breast each day since the initial assault. Clearly, I was mistaken.
No place can offer complete sanctuary from the holds of a world gone wrong, but never again will I blindly put my children in a place that doesn’t make every effort to keep them protected when I can’t be there to do it myself. I take full responsibility for that classic dilemma of a victim/survivor; a desire to empathize and over trust to make all the hurt and pain go away as expediently as possible. But I would like to warn you, if you think these children that have been left in Jeffrey’s wake are “just fine,” or unaffected by what he has done to them, I caution you to rethink the impact of Cameron’s statement shared tearfully by his mother, Merrie, at the June 22nd meeting. Upon learning that Wendy’s contract had been terminated because “she needed to take care of Jeffrey”, Cameron said, “Oh, Mommy, if that boy that hurt Jeffrey only knew how much pain he’s caused, he would feel so bad!” Cameron feels anguish for Jeffrey and his alleged first perpetrator and the pain goes on and on and on. I’ve also seen this misplaced concern in the letter that you were offering a severance package to Wendy. Stop this madness. Isn’t it time to take care of the real victims here?
Please step up now and acknowledge the harm you have done to our children by your negligence and fear. Stop looking at how the school can grow out (into new buildings) and look at how you might grow inside from this horrible ordeal. And to that end I offer this from Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his essay “Self Reliance.”

These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint
and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in
conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members. Society
is a joint-stock company, in which members agree, for the better
securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty
and the culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity.
Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but
names and customs.
Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who
would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of
goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last
sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

I would have given my right arm for just one of you to have been brave enough to listen to your heart when it shouted back in January that it was wrong, that a crime had been committed against one of your colleague’s own little boys, and stood up to say it was dishonest and dangerous allowing that secret to remain so closely guarded. I, too, was advised by the police, the District Attorney, and various counsels not to press charges against my attacker because he was a well connected man in this town with a future as bright as my own. And like you having to hold the hurt of those children in your heart, I bear the scars of a bad decision when I heard my attacker had gone on to rape more beyond me; people whose lives would forever after be marred but a heinous act of violence. But you, unlike I, still have the opportunity in your statute of limitations to at least stop this pain from going further. You must do right by those children that were already hurt and you must stop counseling your peers to keep quiet. You must ask them to share with others the horrible acts that have unfolded so that it may never, ever happen again. You must help them find the way to report it to the proper authorities and insist that Jeffrey be given counseling and stick with it and that every school that he attends from here on out have record of his propensity toward sexual inappropriateness. You must also find a way to keep Wendy from ever putting children at risk again. And then you must again, most finally and no less importantly, return your attention to the children left in your care or let someone else into your inner sanctum that can do the job as it should be done. It’s not enough to pray this away. It’s time for you do the right thing.
And I must now do what I consider the right thing for my children too. I have no trust left for my initial instincts in entrusting you with my children. Kai and Ruby graduated blissfully from the dreamy world of Janet, Liis, and Laura. And you have taken away the only other two at the school that I have utterly loved, when you sent Andrew away against our class’ protest and shuffled Christine to put out the other fire. So now, I have no desire to keep them on the once hallowed grounds of my naive dreams at Highland Hall with an impossible hope that this time you’ll get it right. I can assure you Kai will be devastated not to go up the hill with the rest of the little kings in his class, to not join in the rose ceremony and someday play for the Hawks as he and his friends have vowed. Ruby’s dreams of growing into the big yard, being in the school musical, playing in the orchestra, helping her little sister Violet up the hill will be dashed as well, but I simply cannot bring my children back to a place that seems to have forgotten what brought us all together in the first place ... the children.
I am so sorry that this is where we go our separate ways. I have never fancied myself as a quitter, but for my children, I will do anything to give them the world of hope, trust and safety that was torn from me far too young. I bid you well in your journey of healing.


Jane Sibbett