KIRKWOOD — An independent audit of the Kirkwood School District’s handling of past and current sexual abuse and misconduct allegations found evidence that 30 teachers and administrators had complaints filed against them from 1970 to 2020.
Sixteen of those were new allegations filed last summer by former students after the district announced the review and provided a reporting form. Alleged misconduct included verbal comments, texting, hugging and sexual assault. None of the new allegations is from current students.
School Board President Jean Marie Andrews called the findings delivered Monday night to the board “difficult and disappointing.”
Consulting firm Encompass Resolution was hired last fall to review the district’s sexual misconduct policies and actions. This was after a Kirkwood High School alumna posted allegations on social media last summer of sexual misconduct by a teacher in the 1990s. The former teacher, Christopher Stephens, has since been charged with statutory rape and sodomy.
Others came forward after her announcement, spurring a petition signed by more than 2,300 alumni, students and other community members urging the district to take action.
The audit took a deep dive into old and recent records, including interviews with former and current district personnel, parents and former students who made the allegations. It also included a survey of current and past students, staff and parents.
Encompass President Ann Molloy said that among students, a “level of trust seemed to be missing. There are inherent difficulties with reporting (misconduct) but students were concerned they wouldn’t be taken seriously. They felt their concerns weren’t being addressed.”
She added there is a perception that less popular students are less likely to be believed, and that favoritism among staff — particularly coaches and popular administrators — prevents allegations from being investigated. Both staff and students shared this concern.
Employees said protection of particular people and the reputation of the community drove the failure to act in the past. Many referenced “the Kirkwood Way” — a predisposed belief that nothing bad could happen in this school community. “Who your connections were, the boys club,” were also factors in whether investigations took place, Molloy said.
According to the audit report, some administrators said they felt that certain former superintendents treated high school administrators more favorably than other district personnel regarding the thoroughness of the investigation.
“Particularly troubling, more than one former administrator advised that in certain cases, a former superintendent was believed to have actively ‘protected’ certain KHS administrators alleged to have engaged in serious misconduct by influencing the way the investigation was conducted as well as the outcome,” the report stated.
After Monday’s presentation, Superintendent David Ulrich said the district has “a lot to review as a team. It’s my commitment to go back where appropriate and take a look at the steps that were taken, and where necessary engage a neutral third party” to investigate allegations.
Andrews, the board president, read a statement saying she hoped that the release of the report “begins a healing process and a new chapter in changing our culture and providing students with resources so they are empowered to report any behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable. Schools should be a safe place for every student.”
Encompass Resolution prepared a list of recommendations for the district, including correcting an “insufficient and unreliable filing system.”
Additionally, policies related to sexual misconduct and appropriate boundaries between adults and students must be better communicated to students, parents and staff, and effectively enforced, the consultants said. The district should provide online reporting forms and consider more robust measures for supporting students who report staff misconduct.
The consultants recommend enhanced training for staff on sexual misconduct and adding a Title IX section on the website and in handbooks to explain concepts related to sexual harassment and abuse, and other inappropriate conduct.
The district should provide specialized training to officials responsible for conducting investigations. They suggest creating a direct reporting avenue to the School Board to eliminate bias related to investigations. Outsourcing investigations of administrators also would be appropriate, they said.