A high school in Delaware is coming under fire over their response or lack thereof to claims of sexual misconduct involving a male staff member within its theatre department.
Multiple students and former staff have come forward with claims of either being the target of inappropriate behavior or witnessing it firsthand.
What's more worrisome is the alleged lack of or errors in response by Cape Henlopen High School officials. The following timeline is based on statements from the parents, students and staff members involved as well as a response by the school district.
April 22, 2015
It's a Wednesday afternoon. Theresa Collins, a junior at Cape Henlopen High School in DE, walks into the theatre to rehearse choreography for their upcoming production of Anything Goes.
That say, Theresa had worn her mother's acid-washed jeans. Upon seeing her wearing them, a staff member with the theatre department remarks that he hadn't seen jeans like that since the 1980's.
Then, without warning or permission, the staff member allegedly reaches down the back of Theresa's jeans "to look at the tag". In doing so, he comes into contact with Theresa's underwear and buttocks.
Frozen, traumatized, Theresa didn't know where to go or who to turn to over the incident. She would later tell local news, "I was embarrassed. As a 17-year old no one had ever touched me before."
April 26th, 2015
A week after the incident, Theresa is told by another student, Senior Alli Payne, that the same male staff member had made sexual comments to her. Alli states that on March 9th of that year, when she was preparing a monologue for her ESU Shakespeare competition. He asked her, “How good do you f**k?”, claiming that this was the motivation for her monologue, spoken by Lady Macbeth.
May 12th, 2015
Both Theresa and Alli go to the school's main office to report the incidents. They both fill out separate incident reports. The next day, Theresa and Alli are called to the main office to discuss their reports. They choose to speak to Vice Principal at the time, Nikki Miller. According to the girls, Ms. Miller took the girls into a courtyard to talk to them and assured them that the matter would be taken care of. To the girls' knowledge, the reports would be filed and the police would be contacted.
May 15th, 2015
Theresa tells her parents about the incident involving her jeans and the staff member. Theresa did not want to press charges at the time because she was only a junior in high school and was fearful of the potential backlash. According to the parents, they contacted Vice Principal Miller and were told that it was being taken care of. After a time of not hearing back from Ms. Miller nor seeing any action take place, they contacted Principal at the time, Brian Donahue. Mr. Donahue, reportedly, assured them that he had turned everything over to Superintendent Robert Fulton and that it would be taken care of.
It's important to note here that the parents did not find it necessary to report this to the police, as that is the school administration’s responsibility to do so, according to the state’s mandatory report law.
Upon still seeing that no action had taken place, the parents went to the District Office to speak directly with Superintendent Fulton. Mr. Fulton, reportedly, assured them that he was in the process of investigating the situation and that the staff member would not be allowed on campus while students were present.
Theresa's parents were surprised to hear that Mr. Fulton was investigating the situation, as the Delaware State Department of Education website clearly states that "any report of a sexual nature involving a student and an employee was to be immediately reported to the police by administration, and that administration was not to investigate on their own."
However, the parents were told in early June 2015 that the staff member had resigned from his position with the school.
October 14, 2015
The following fall, at the beginning of her senior year, Theresa Collins was shocked to encounter the now-former staff member in the school parking lot when walking to her car after school. Given the fact that her family was told that the former staff member would not be allowed on campus while students were present, she was quite shaken by this.
When her parents reported the former staff member's presence, according to Principal Donahue, he was there to help set up for the Jazz Festival.
The following week, Cape High School held a “Back to School” night. The parents approached Superintendent Fulton about the former staff member's presence and they were, reportedly, assured by him that "this would not happen again."
December 17, 2015
On their way to an afternoon parent-teacher conference, Theresa Collins' parents encounter the former male staff member working in the theatre with students present.
January 25, 2017
Theresa's parents write a letter to the Cape Henlopen School board notifying them that the male former staff member was still allowed to work on school grounds with students present, despite reports of inappropriate behavior.
December 12th, 2017
The Collins' youngest daughter, Kelly, tells her parents she had encountered the former staff member working in the theatre with students present. This time working on their upcoming production of "The Lion, The Witch, And the Wardrobe". The parents were told that the former staff member was brought in to work on the set due to the resignation of their tech director.
March 7th, 2018
Kelly Collins encounters the former staff member working on their upcoming production of "The Sound of Music" with students present. This last encounter results in the Collins family requesting meetings with Kelly’s guidance counselor, the theatre director, and now Principal Miller. During this meeting, the parents explain that they are pulling her out of the theatre program because she no longer feels safe with the former staff member's constantly present working on shows.
According to the Collins family, Principal Miller acknowledged that she knew the former staff member had been brought in to help work on lights on a particular Sunday. However, she was unaware that he has been in the building the other times.
During this time, another individual comes forward with claims of inappropriate behavior by this former staff member. A young woman, who was interning at Cape Henlopen High School during the 2014-15 school year, reports that she witnessed the former staff member make anti-Semitic remarks in the presence of students as well as racist and sexually harassing comments towards her.
She claims she saw the former staff member say, "Jews just aren't happy unless they have something to complain about," to a practicing Jewish student. She says she reported this incident to the Principal at the time, Brian Donahaue, yet nothing happened as a result of that meeting.
Another time during that year, a student asked the intern about her heritage. The intern replied by saying she was half Hungarian Gypsy. Then the former staff member who was present in the room remarked, "Gypsy is just another word for outcasts, they are all prostitutes, liars and thieves”. The intern did not report the comment because of her discouragement that the previous incident had been meaningless.
The final incident involving the intern was when, due to a plumbing mishap in the school's bathroom, water had sprayed all over her shirt. Upon entering the theatre, the former staff member remarked, "It's okay sweetie, we all like you better when you're wet." This was the final straw for the intern and she reported the incident to school officials.
According to an affidavit submitted to OnStage Blog, the intern states the following regarding her meetings with school officials.
"I had to go to about a dozen meetings over several days with different people; the principal, human recourses and a few counselors. Nothing was accomplished in these meetings. They had me retell the incident over and over and over again. They would argue with me over minute details, as if they were trying to catch me in a lie. They were trying to convince me that a grown man telling me he “liked me better when I was wet” and winking was not sexual harassment. They brought Derek in, which made me very uncomfortable, and he denied it. They encouraged me to tear up my incident report because it was obviously a miscommunication."
Due to the encounters with the former staff member on school grounds and the school's lack of response, the Collins family decide to take action. Their first call is with School Resource Officer, Master Cpl. Tim Wolansky. After speaking with Principal Miller and Superintendent Fulton, Cpl. Wolansky contacts the parents and tells them that neither Ms. Miller or Mr. Fulton were aware that the former staff member had been present on campus the other times. Cpl. Wolansky also notifies the Collins' that after searching school records, neither of the girls’ incident reports can be found.
At the June Board of Education meeting Theresa and Kelly’s mother, Virginia, speaks directly to the board and calls for the termination of Robert Fulton over the way the issue with the male staff member had been handled. In a statement obtained by OnStage Blog, the family says,
"After we discovered that the superintendent failed to follow the dictates of the Delaware mandatory report law regarding sexual harassment, and after discovering that Superintendent Fulton had boldly lied to us in claiming to have investigated and ‘handled’ the situation; we turned to report the incidents to the police and found that no reports had been filed with State Police Troop 7 as required by any school official when any incident of this type is reported to them.
We then turned to the Delaware Department of Education and the Attorney General’s Office and were told that the school district had committed a criminal offense for each incident that was not reported. None of the incidents had been reported to the police by any school officials – as required by law. We also discovered that none of the girls’ original incident reports filed with the school officials were to be found. These reports have gone missing and the administrator to whom this was originally reported, Principal Miller, claimed to have no knowledge of these reports – even though the girls had come to her personally – as a female administrator.
The Cape Henlopen School district has systematically tried to cover this up. They obviously thought they could bring the offender back once the former Theatre teacher(Martha Pfeiffer) was gone, as she would have reported any wrong-doing right away. At this point, the action of the District Office is to ignore us. No one is responding to our phone calls.
Had this teacher’s reports been taken more seriously; had the school officials acted according to the law, my daughter- and several others- would not have been placed in harm’s way. Rather than act on the countless concerns and incident reports surrounding this employee, Superintendent Fulton simply ignored the accusations and allowed the offender to work in the school system."
In response to the claims by the Collins Family, Superintendent Fulton replied with the following statement,
"All allegations of this nature are treated seriously by the Cape Henlopen School District because the safety of our students is our most important responsibility.
"Please know that all concerns shared with the district by the family were thoroughly investigated by the administrative team at Cape Henlopen High school in 2015. In addition to our internal investigation, we reported the alleged incident to the Delaware State Police, School Resource Officer (SRO) and asked that he review all information regarding the allegations.
"Since the time of the alleged incident in 2015, the family has had the ability to press charges."
I am told that the family is considering pressing charges. We will update this story as new information is shared.
UPDATE: A report on the story by local news channel, WMDT, http://www.wmdt.com/news/delaware/family-calls-for-superintendent-s-dismissal-regarding-handling-of-sexual-harassment-allegations/764248050
UPDATE: 7/20/18 - It's been confirmed by Deleware 105.9 that the school district never reported this incident to the State Police.
"Delaware State Police said the incident was not reported to their agency and that the school had advised them that the district had resolved it.
"The alleged incident was not reported to the Delaware State Police in May 2015 and handled by the Administration at the school," said Sgt. Richard Bratz, Director of Public Information for Delaware State Police. "The school advised this did not rise to the level of a mandatory school report and that the school district resolved it.""