The debate over the relative merits of public and private schools is still raging. I used to have no problem with either model so long as the institution delivered quality education and protected the children entrusted to them. There are laws and policies at the state and local levels written to ensure all schools do exactly that.
But what if a private school grows into a multi-million-dollar business whose primary concern becomes protecting its profits rather than your children? What if the state education department has been rendered incompetent and is unwilling to enforce their policies? And what if your local school board is too intimidated or lacks the financial resources to challenge the formidable political and legal power of this wealthy private institution?
Our family’s nightmare began in November of 2012. We live in Saco, and our daughter was a senior attending Thornton Academy (TA), a private school, established over two centuries ago, that contracts with the City of Saco to serve as the public high school for local students. Students who live in the nearby towns of Dayton and Arundel can also attend TA for free, and the academy has a sizeable population of students from other municipalities in the area, as well as from other countries, who pay tuition to attend.
Our daughter left a sports rally early that day because attendance is rarely enforced at such events and she wanted to go to work early at McDonald’s. While still on school grounds, she was accosted by two former friends who’d also slipped out of the rally. They wanted her to skip work to hang out with them. Our daughter had been distancing herself from the pair because one of them had developed a reputation for “anger issues.” When she refused to accompany them, that girl grabbed and repeatedly slammed her head against a brick wall. She fell unconscious to the ground, and when she awoke her assailant was on top of her, still screaming in anger, before finally letting her go.
Our daughter was sent home early from work that day because she was in a daze and kept dropping things. She couldn’t sleep for the next few days and complained of terrible migraines and dizzy spells. I took her to an urgent care clinic, where she was diagnosed with a concussion. The next few months were sheer hell for her. She was in constant pain from chronic migraines and kept suffering bouts of dizziness. Doctors performed numerous procedures, including an X-ray and an MRI, to try to find a way to ease the pain. We’re eternally grateful that we had an excellent insurance plan that covered most of those costs. And thanks to her accommodating teachers at TA and the Biddeford Technology School, our daughter was able to complete high school and her Certified Nursing Assistant course that year, despite her persistent migraines.
The day after her initial doctor’s visit, our daughter returned to TA. She reported the assault and concussion to the school nurse and to her Student Academic Dean, Nick Tabor. For weeks afterward, my wife and I sought information about how TA administrators were handling this assault, but they refused to provide any information. They said state laws prevented them from disclosing any information to us because the other girl was a juvenile.
We were disturbed to learn a few months later that our daughter’s assailant was still harassing her, so we told her to go straight to the headmaster’s office and demand they deal with this bully. What happened next shocked us. Assistant Headmaster Allan Young berated our daughter for even mentioning the attack. He then coerced her to sign a document without giving her time to read and understand it. This document turned out to be a “Cease and Desist from Harassment Order,” the terms of which dictated that our daughter was subject to expulsion for “any actions that [she] may take against” the other girl.
Our daughter had no disciplinary infractions in her school record and had even made the honor roll a few times. But now that record contained a document, signed by her, that applied to “any student who is deliberately disobedient or … [commits] infractions of violence, or possession, furnishing or trafficking of any scheduled drug.”
I immediately went to see Mr. Young for an explanation. Pretty much everything we discussed was summarized in a letter he later sent us. The letter was filled with weasel-speak intended to silence us. “Your daughter … and ‘an un-named student’ chose to ‘skip’ an organized fall sports pep rally required of all Thornton Academy students,” he wrote, implying that whatever happened to our daughter was her fault because she left the event early. He then wrote of the assault that “‘the other student,’ trying to coax [our daughter] to ‘hang out,’ placed hands on her and [our daughter] fell.” By this weasel-logic, one could similarly conclude that “Mike Tyson put his hand on Michael Spinks and he fell.”
I knew the location of the confrontation that led to the assault was under video surveillance, so I demanded to view the video. Mr. Young stated that they had viewed the video footage, but since nothing significant had happened the video was “recycled.” A subsequent letter to TA’s headmaster, Rene Menard, resulted in nothing more than a phone call in which he affirmed Mr. Young’s position and suggested we seek legal recourse if we weren’t happy with how the academy had handled the situation.
It’s easy to guess why TA administrators would want to cover up an assault like this. I graduated from TA in 1972, but it’s become a very different school since then. A decade ago, state education officials allowed TA to recruit international students, and the school invested heavily in that effort, building or buying buildings for several new dorms (a few dozen international students also live with local host families).
The investment paid off. By 2015, TA had over 150 overseas students, most of them from China, whose families collectively paid nearly $7 million in tuition and fees that school year. The international program led TA administrators to view the academy primarily as an economic institution, rather than an educational one. They began speaking of the learning process as the sale of a “product.”
In the spring of 2015, Menard went to the White House to receive an award on behalf of TA — “not from the Department of Education,” Maine Public Radio’s Tom Porter noted in a report, “but from the Department of Commerce.”
“So, in effect, you’re exporting your product — the Thornton Academy education — to these markets where the kids are from?” Porter asked Menard.
“Absolutely,” the headmaster replied.
“Did you think when you became a teacher you’d get an award for exports?” Porter asked.
“Absolutely not,” Menard said.
This past March TA was given more plaudits from the business sector: the 2019 International Trade and Investment Service Provider of the Year Award, bequeathed by the Maine International Trade Center. “International students are buying an American product called education,” Menard said, according to Mainebiz, “so it’s an export.”
This brings us back to the public versus private school debate. News of an assault that happened on public school grounds will generally have no implications for the school’s enrollment or budget. But news that a student was, for example, beaten unconscious against a brick wall could have serious implications for a private school like TA that depends on tuition to pay the bills. Like any manufacturer or “export” business, TA would have a strong incentive to downplay or quash any perception that its “product” could be hazardous to children.
Many of you probably still recall the 2015 assault involving two female students at another York County high school, Massabesic, that was videotaped and went viral online, becoming national news. Enrollment at the public high school in Waterboro has remained steady in the years following that attack. TA started its international program in response to declining local enrollment. The millions of dollars those students bring in has enabled the academy to add scores of new jobs, expand its academic offerings and enhance its international stature. The loss of that revenue would now be calamitous for TA. One imagines that the salaries of top administrators might also be negatively affected.
Sensing a cover-up, I reported the assault to the Saco Police Department and, to their credit, they promptly opened an investigation. School resource officer Jeffrey Cook had notified Detective Sergeant Corey Huntress of the “incident,” Huntress wrote in his report. “Following the incident school video was reviewed and interviews were conducted by school administrators where [our daughter] self reported she had fallen accidentally and [name redacted] had not intentionally assaulted her,” the report said [emphasis added].
You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to sniff out the inconsistencies here. Police officers don’t typically alert their superiors about “incidents” in which someone accidently fell down and then got up. And is it normal for police investigators to defer to the owners of the property where an alleged assault occurred, to take their word that nothing of consequence happened and thus not review the video or even talk to the victim? Absent the video and victim statement, Saco PD’s investigation involved interviews with the assailant and her friend, who, naturally, denied everything.
I requested to speak with Officer Cook personally and promptly received a letter from then Police Chief Bradley Paul. “That won’t be necessary,” Chief Paul wrote, “but I am happy to answer the questions you have posed.” The chief ended his letter by saying, “Should you pursue civil remedy, the investigating officers will be made available for deposition and trial, if necessary.” In other words, Officer Cook was now behind the “Blue Wall of Silence,” and he would not be talking without a court order.
Seeking accountability for the assault was a dead end, so I shifted my focus to clearing my daughter’s name by removing the “Cease and Desist” order from her school record. There’s a widely held belief that school records are sealed after graduation, but as a veteran I am fully aware that federal and state governments have full access to all school records when they conduct background checks. Besides government service, a record citing my daughter for possible violence, drug possession or drug dealing could also derail her plans to be a nurse.
Our fears that the record could come back to haunt her were confirmed the following year. Due to ongoing symptoms from her concussion, she couldn’t attend the homecoming dance her senior year. She’d made many friends at TA, and some of them invited her to attend the dance the year after she graduated. TA policy dictates that former students must request permission to attend student functions. My daughter was devastated when she was denied access to TA’s campus by her former dean, Mr. Tabor, who cited the “Cease and Desist” order in his decision.
At the time of the assault, the Saco school system was part of a district called RSU 23, and Superintendent Patrick Phillips was in charge. Mr. Phillips did not respond to my initial e-mail about this matter, so I had to confront him after a school board meeting. He said that according to the contract between the district and TA, the school board had no say in how the academy handles incidents like this. As an “independent private school,” TA “has the sole right to promulgate, administer and enforce all rules and regulations pertaining to student behavior, discipline…” the contract reads. I reminded him that the contract also states that TA’s actions are subject to “all applicable Maine and Federal laws, rules and regulations.” He then basically conceded that the district lacked the financial resources to take on TA and the legal firepower at its disposal, so this was solely my legal problem.
When Saco withdrew from RSU 23, I took my request to the newly formed Saco School Board. The entire board sat in silence as I described the ordeal and requested they clear that libelous document from my daughter’s record. Weeks went by without a word from the board, so I returned and demanded action. I finally received an e-mail from then board chairman Kevin Lafortune. It stated that they would not take action, in part because “the Saco School Department is an outside party” and “the incident does not involve our school department,” Lafortune wrote. He suggested I “may want to consult with an attorney.” (For the record, Thornton Academy is part of the Saco School Department. I served on the Saco School Board from 2016 to 2017, and TA certainly was under our purview.)
The new superintendent at the time, Mike Pulsifer, did have a spine and some compassion for my daughter’s plight, so he promised to try to do something. In a follow-up e-mail, he told me he’d met with Headmaster Menard and presented him with my request: remove the document from my daughter’s record, apologize to her and restore her access to the TA campus. The new superintendent was apparently reminded that all power to administer discipline was ceded to TA by the City of Saco. He was also informed that Saco PD had fully investigated the incident and found no foul play. In a subsequent conversation, Pulsifer privately summarized this meeting to me by saying he’d been politely told “to go pound sand.”
The message from everyone had been the same: If you want to clear your daughter’s name, get a lawyer. That’s not as easy as it sounds. I did call three local lawyers. Two of them flat-out refused to consider defending us once they realized they’d be going up against TA. This is understandable considering TA’s clout in the community. It’s one of Saco’s largest employers. Its alumni, employees and board members hold positions of power in Augusta and Saco City Hall. Through its sports teams, the Trojans, the school literally embodies the spirit of the town. One lawyer did consider our case, but demanded $10,000 up front, with no guarantee of results. As a blue-collar father raising six children, this was not an option. Unlike TA, which is technically a nonprofit, I have to pay property and income taxes.
So I took my case to the Maine Department of Education. Unfortunatately, Governor Paul LePage had left the department in chaos. His first commissioner, Stephen Bowen, left to take another job in the summer of 2013, and LePage appointed Jim Rier as acting commissioner that fall. I’ve never understood why the governor chose a guy who’d spent the past 25 years selling cars to oversee education in Maine. My e-mails and letter to Commissioner Rier went unanswered, so, in frustration, I sent a personal letter to Governor LePage requesting his attention to this matter.
Much to my surprise, I received one of LePage’s famous handwritten notes. He wrote that he’d have a staff person look into it, and I soon got a call from Stephanie Galeucia, the education department’s new Student Assistance Coordinator. A DOE press release announcing her hire states that “among her primary responsibilities [is] providing indirect support to students being bullied in Maine schools and helping parents and adminsitrators better understand the Restraint and Seclusion of Students rule.”
Ms. Galeucia promised to look into the matter. I sent her a packet with numerous documents detailing the severity of my daughter’s injuries and evidence that, to me, indicated TA had covered up this assault and subsequently retaliated against my daughter for blowing the whistle on her attacker. I was sure the serious implications of our case would prompt a personal interview with Ms. Galeucia. But a few days later we received a brief letter in which she simply said, “under School Law, Thornton Academy is not in violation of Title 20-A.”
I was not going to be blown off so easily, so I left a voicemail with LePage’s office saying I would sit in his reception room for days if he did not get Commissioner Rier to speak to me directly. Rier finally called, and it was obvious from the sound of his voice that the governor had probably hounded him into dealing with me. Rier adopted the same faux-compassionate tone of voice he’d probably used a thousand times with customers on the car lot, and I got no results.
When Rier left his post for health reasons a year later, LePage tapped one of his policy advisors to take the job on an interim basis, and then replaced that stand-in with former Husson University President Bill Beardsley, but LePage balked before formally submitting Beardsley’s name to the Legislature for confirmation. I met Mr. Beardsley at a Saco Middle School event, and he assured me he’d look into the matter. Unsurprisingly, he never got back to me.
Having no luck with appointed bureaucrats, I figured I’d try my luck with elected officials. The education department is overseen by the Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. Surely one of its 13 members would honor our request to look into this issue. I sent a personally signed letter to each member of that committee. Not one member responded.
I figured Governor LePage was probably sick of hearing from me, but I sent him another personal letter anyway. To our surprise, we received another handwritten note, this time notifying us that he was handing this over to his senior policy advisor, Aaron Chadbourne. We never heard from Mr. Chadbourne, but were contacted by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Investigator Pamela Sennett was assigned to our case.
We were thrilled that someone was finally going to sit down with us and view the trove of documents we had to support our claim. Ms. Sennett assured us that as an investigator, the State of Maine empowered her to call upon any witnesses she needed. We gratefully gave her the names of the school nurse, Officer Cook, numerous teachers at TA and the Biddeford Vocational School, and others who could substantiate our claim that our daughter reported the assault. We expected her to return to discuss her findings. Instead, we got a brief letter from DHHS informing us that “this investigation did not substantiate abuse or neglect.”
DHHS keeps the results of their investigations confidential, so we had to file a Freedom of Access Act request to view their report on our case. Upon reading it, it became evident just how powerless even a state agency was against a wealthy institution like TA. Ms. Sennett was apparently unable to gain access to any TA employee who could verify our daughter’s assault claim. From what I’ve read, it appears she was simply whisked to the office of Headmaster Menard. But he was not alone. With him was attorney Pat Peard, of the prestigious Portland law firm Bernstein Shur.
When I met with Bollard editor Chris Busby to tell him my story, his eyes lit up at the mention of Peard’s name. I hadn’t been aware of Peard’s stature as one of Maine’s most renowned civil rights lawyers — her work on LGBT legal protections and same-sex marriage earned her many awards and accolades. She certainly is one of the best Maine lawyers money can buy.
During the interview with Sennett, Ms. Peard stated that the “Cease and Desist” order was not in our daughter’s file and, even if it had been there, it would never be released to anyone. This interview took place in the fall of 2015. As recently as the summer of 2014, Officer Cook reported that the “cease harassment form” was in her file (TA offered to give him a copy), and in February of 2015 Superintendent Pulsifer had informed me that Menard would not agree to remove the document from her file — an odd refusal if, in fact, it had already been removed.
According to the DHHS report, Menard told Sennett that we were just trying to get money from TA, but the report also indicated that no proof of this allegation was provided. Had Ms. Sennett bothered to meet with us to follow up, I could have given her the e-mail I received from Superintendent Pulsifer in which he reiterates that all I wanted from Menard was for the “Cease and Desist” order to be removed from her record, an apology, and for my daughter to have access to the campus again.
So why, six years into this fruitless quest to restore my daughter’s reputation, am I sharing our story in The Bollard? I tried to get reporters and editors at other local publications to address this issue in the past, but there were no takers, perhaps because our story didn’t fit those publications’ political agenda. Then I read The Bollard’s August 2018 investigative article about high school teacher and coach Dillon Bates, who resigned from a private school after acknowledging that he engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with a student. Busby reported that “administrators tried to keep the affair secret.” Sound familiar? The Maine Department of Education refused to renew Bates’ teaching credentials after the article came out. The Bollard is apparently the only effective investigative publication left in this state.
Another reason for writing this now is the political change in Augusta. I was thrilled to hear that Governor Janet Mills has made it a priority to bring stability and competence back to the Depaertment of Education. She nominated Pender Makin to be our new education commissioner, and the Legislature recently approved that appointment. Maine will finally have a leader in the department who worked her way up through the educational ranks, not another car salesperson. Like me, Makin is a TA alum who attended the academy before its mission was shifted by the launch of the lucrative international program. I’m hoping she will grant me some time to discuss this matter.
The Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs has also been infused with new blood. I hope they will craft policies to prevent nightmares like the one my family has experienced. I suggest the following legislative or policy changes:
- Mandate that the Department of Education respond in person to complaints of bullying, retaliation against victims, or other serious breaches of state laws or policies. This mandate can be limited to incidents in which the complainant has already attempted to remedy the situation through school administrators, their school board or the superintendent, but has found the response of those authorities lacking.
- Require the DOE to provide legal assistance to local school boards if they find themselves facing off against a private institution whose legal and financial resources are far greater than those available to the board.
- Require the DOE to review and approve all contracts between municipalities and private schools. Contract negotiations between city adminsitrators and TA have been conducted under such secrecy that a past mayor once had to fight City Hall just to see the final document, nevermind having input into its negotiation.
- Most importantly, parents and guardians should not be obligated to send their children to a private school in the few Maine municipalities where arrangements like this exist. The money earmarked for the private school to educate those public-school students should be transferable to another public school or district deemed more suitable by the parents or guardians.
I hope what we’ve been through is unique. The growth of a once humble private school into a multi-million-dollar business that can wield great political and legal power is something our antiquated state policies didn’t anticipate. That needs to change.