School intern under scrutiny

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

A college student intern at Williston Central School is being investigated by school officials on allegations of sexual harassment, and he is no longer working at the school.

A sixth-grader reported to a school official on March 26 that the man, a student at the University of Vermont, allegedly rubbed the girl’s shoulders and snapped her bra strap in the front of her shirt, the girl’s mother told the Observer in an interview. The mother also said that the man at a different time allegedly put his hands on her daughter’s hips and tried to pull her toward him. The mother did not allow the Observer to interview the daughter.

The Williston Observer does not identify victims or alleged victims of sexual harassment, so is not naming the mother to protect the girl’s identity. The Williston Observer also is not identifying the intern while a school investigation is underway.

Chittenden South Supervisory Union Superintendent Elaine Pinckney said she could neither confirm nor deny the nature of the allegations without a waiver from the student and the intern.

School officials notified police of the allegations, according to Williston Police Chief Jim Dimmick. However, Dimmick said this week that the information he’s received about the alleged incidents do “not rise to the level of a criminal investigation.” Dimmick also said he believes the school’s investigation should be completed before anyone makes any judgments.

Prior to press time, the intern did not respond to a request for comment sent to his university e-mail account.

Five students alleged the behavior of the intern caused a “hostile environment,” according to Chittenden South Supervisory Union Superintendent Elaine Pinckney. The students came forward in two groups on the same day, Pinckney said in an e-mail.

School officials removed the intern from the classroom the afternoon of the complaints. An investigation was begun immediately, school officials said at last week’s school board meeting, and Pinckney expects to issue written findings by the end of this week. By state law, Pinckney has 30 days from the date of the complaint to complete her findings.

“The remedy has already been implemented regardless of how I rule because he’s not there,” Pinckney said at last week’s School Board meeting. By mutual agreement, the intern will not return to the school no matter what Pinckney’s review of the investigation finds, she said. “This is a serious allegation that I will take serious time to review,” she said at the meeting.

In part Pinckney will need to review state harassment statutes. In 2004, Act 91 amended state statutes to define “harassment” as an incident or incidents that have “the purpose or effect of objectively and substantially undermining and detracting from or interfering with a student’s educational performance or access to school resources or creating an objectively intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.”

“Sexual harassment” by state law is defined as conduct that includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal, written, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature when one or both of the following occur: Submission to that conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of a student’s education; Submission to or rejection of such conduct by a student is used as a component of the basis for decisions affecting that student.”

Pinckney will share her findings and a summary of the investigation with the parents of the students who made the allegations, she said in an e-mail. Those parents have the right to request an independent review if they are unhappy with the results or believe the school’s response was inadequate to address the problem. Pinckney said she will share the final outcome of the investigation with the University of Vermont, though federal privacy laws prevent her from sharing the full report.

School officials last week emphasized that college student interns and student teachers go through the same criminal background checks as all school employees.

Two parents told board members at last week’s School Board meeting they have concerns about the appropriateness of the intern program generally. Their concerns included allegations that a college student intern was solely responsible for an elementary school classroom for several weeks when a teacher was out for medical reasons. One of the parents also alleged that on two occasions her children were subjected to racial epithets when interns were present, and neither responded appropriately.

Williston School District Principal Walter Nardelli said he would need to investigate all three allegations, as it was the first he’d heard of any of them.

Champlain College, Johnson State College, St. Michael’s College and the University of Vermont all send interns and student teachers to Williston schools. Interns are at school a full year; student teachers are there for a semester. Between 12 and 20 students intern or student teach annually, according to Pinckney.

The University of Vermont internship program is scheduled to share information about its program with the school board at its next meeting, Wednesday, May 9, at 7 p.m. Board member Holly Rouelle said she’d like to learn more about the supervision of interns in the course of board discussions.