SPRINGFIELD, Ore. (AP) - At least two students at an Oregon high school tried to alert school staff about their principal three years before he was investigated for sexually abusing a former student.
Some governing board members of Academy of Arts and Academics in Springfield knew of the students’ comments about principal Mike Fisher, which were submitted during an anonymous school survey in 2015, but they didn’t notify school staff or police. Instead, the board deleted the comments, The Register-Guard reported Sunday.
The newspaper also found that oversight failures by the school’s board and the Springfield district left Fisher without a formal evaluation for nine years.
School and police documents show that Fisher had sexually abused a former student starting in 2007 when she was 14 and continued into adulthood. Fisher later hired that student to work at the school.
Earlier this year, Springfield police began investigating after a teacher reported overhearing a rumor of a sexual encounter between Fisher and a former student. The Springfield School District placed Fisher on leave Jan. 31.
He killed himself the next day.
The survey about the atmosphere of the school was conducted in 2015 by an outside company. Two students directly stated they had suspicions of Fisher having sex with a former student.
The board directed the company to delete the comments and designated one board member to talk to Fisher, who denied the allegations.
Becky Stenzel, the co-president of the school’s governing board in 2015, told the newspaper “she didn’t have a clear memory on” why she directed the comments be deleted. She said she assumed the alleged relationship was mutual.
Mike Ponichtera, who served as board treasurer from 2010 to 2018, told the newspaper he asked Fisher about the rumors in spring 2015. Fisher denied the allegations.
“At that point we didn’t take it any further. We thought it was an affair between two consenting adults,” Ponichtera said.
He said looking back, the governing board should have consulted an attorney and taken it to the Springfield school board. But, he said, the district should have informed the governing board that Fisher had been disciplined before.
In 2007, a student told her mother of uncomfortable interactions she observed between Fisher and her friend, including inappropriate touching and car rides. The parent told a teacher and a report of suspected abuse was filed with the district.
The district’s former human resources director interviewed Fisher about his interactions with the girl.
Fisher denied any inappropriate behavior, giving explanations for the touching and car rides. He described the student as “clingy.”
Fisher was later in writing told not to transport the student in his car and a letter was placed in his personnel file.
Springfield School District spokeswoman Jen McCulley said recently that information about Fisher’s interactions with the girl and subsequent letter of instruction likely would have been discussed with the charter’s governing board during an annual, joint evaluation with district officials.
But Fisher was not formally evaluated by the district until 2016, the Register-Guard reported.
From 2005 to 2010, the school was a magnet/alternative high school controlled by the district. During that time, it would have been the responsibility of Fisher’s supervisor, a district employee, to ensure that Fisher was being evaluated annually. McCulley said Fisher “didn’t seem to have a supervisor” for those five years.
When the school became a charter in 2010, it operated as its own entity under a charter agreement with the district. As part of the agreement, the director of the school was to be jointly evaluated by the school’s governing board and the district.
Board meeting records show Fisher was evaluated by the board at least in 2014 and 2015.
McCulley said joint evaluations didn’t take place because the relationship between the district and the board was “unproductive” and the board “wouldn’t allow” the district to take part in Fisher’s evaluations when the school became a charter in 2010.
Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com
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