To protect special interests over informing the public.
by Rob Roper
About a month ago, I wrote a story about Slate Valley School Board member Curtis Hier’s battle with both the school officials he was elected to oversee and his fellow board members, who don’t seem to appreciate Hier’s desire to get to the bottom of some serious problems in the system that are negatively impacting students. The main issue at the heart of Hier’s concerns (although there are several) is the physical and psychological abuse of students by faculty – primarily kids with special needs – and the alleged cover-up of these abuses.
From a news perspective, this would appear to be low hanging fruit for the front pages of local and statewide reporting outlets. It has sympathetic victims our reporters usually like to cover (equity for special needs students), dramatic conflict between a whistleblower and an intrenched bureaucracy, and it explores a scandalous issue that is also a subject of statewide concern – the use of “restraint and seclusion” in our public schools. This problem is so glaring and widespread that the state legislature introduced a bill in 2023 (H.409) banning the violent practices entirely and that Education Committee members promise will be a focal point of law making in 2024. Since Hier brought attention to the issue, multiple local citizens with ties to the school have come forward with stories corroborating and/or expanding on Hier’s allegations.
Hier has filed a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request for redacted records regarding restraint and seclusion incidents. This was met with a threat to release Hier’s personal file from his days as a teacher. Hier started Slate Valley Transparency Legal Fund. There have been calls from the board for Hier to step down, calls from the community for the superintendent, Brooke Olsen-Farrell, to step down….
So where is the Vermont press corps?
Looking back through the archives of our major, statewide news outlets, there is no coverage of this story. Even coverage by the Rutland Herald, the paper of record for the Slate Valley District, has been anemic. (Just two rather vague articles, and largely disinterested in getting to the bottom of Hier’s accusations.) It’s not because Hier hasn’t reached out to them; he has. Is it because they just don’t cover specific local school board issues? This excuse would seem to apply to Seven Days and VPR (although VPR did have one recent story on the Green Mountain School Board’s allegedly racist “Chieftains” mascot controversy). WCAX covers Burlington and adjacent school board stories, but that’s about it, so they can plausibly say it’s just not in their wheelhouse.
However, VT Digger and WPTZ do love themselves a good local school board controversy from anywhere in the state! So long as, one must now assume, it fits a certain narrative. School boards battling over racist mascots are a favorite topic for these outlets, for sure. School board conflicts over transgender policies: check! But public school employees systemically abusing vulnerable students and administrators covering it up… apparently not so much.
VT Digger routinely covers stories about local school board controversies involving members, school staff, and/or concerned parents. Just within the timeframe that the Hier events have been active, Digger dug into such headlines as, Community members urge Middlebury school district to improve its response to racism (September 27, 2023), “Alburgh School Board moves to distance itself from Grand Isle Supervisory Union (August 30, 2023), Facing no-confidence vote, South Burlington school board chair steps down (August 17, 2023), Parents say a Strafford art teacher lost her job under cloudy circumstances. They want her back. (August 16, 2023), South Burlington school board will hold vote on chair’s ouster (August 11, 2023), How did an anti-trans activist book an event at a Vergennes public school? (June 16, 2023), Brattleboro Union High School retires ‘Colonel’ moniker, replaces with ‘Bear’ mascot (June 14, 2023), At Peoples Academy, allegations of ‘systemic’ racist bullying (June 12, 2023), Orange Southwest reaches settlement in locker room lawsuit (June 2, 2023).
On September 8th Digger ran, Independent investigation finds multiple abuse allegations at Kurn Hattin ‘supported by evidence’, so they apparently don’t have an aversion to discussing the abuse of special needs students. But Kurn Hattin is a therapeutic independent school, not a public school, and herein I suspect lies the rub!
Vermont’s Left-wing media routinely puts its thumb on the scale to advance the woke agenda of the public school monopoly and its political interests. Right now, those interests include absorbing birth to five-year-old childcare into the public school system (at massive taxpayer expense) and shutting down Vermont’s independent schools and the tuitioning system that supports them so as to corral those kids and that money for themselves as well. And they feel the need to do this now while the Democrats’ supermajority, which is totally in bed with the teachers’ union, is in place and can override Governor Scott’s vetoes.
Obviously, a broad, public conversation focused on violence and psychological trauma being inflicted upon young children by public school officials and gotten away with due to lack of transparency and competent oversight isn’t one that recommends placing toddlers into that environment to be either witnesses to or victims of these practices.
As for the independent school/tuitioning issue, the main arguments that public school lobbyists have put forward to justify shutting down tuitioning is that independent schools don’t serve students with special needs whereas the public schools must and do. And public schools are transparent and accountable where independent schools aren’t. Neither accusation is true about independent schools. But what Hier is trying to expose provides evidence for the exact opposite case: that public schools aren’t transparent and accountable, they aren’t actually serving special needs kids, and, in fact, beyond mere neglect may be actively causing them serious harm.
So, says our press, nothing to see here. Move along.
The Curtis Hier story exposes two stories behind the story. 1) The public school system is not performing as it should, especially for our most vulnerable students. And 2) Our reporters and editors at our most widely read/viewed news outlets are more concerned with protecting a politically powerful special interest than they are about informing the public about serious issues taking place in the most expensive sector of state spending – Pre-K-12 education. Our ignorance is their bliss.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience in Vermont politics including three years service as chair of the Vermont Republican Party and nine years as President of the Ethan Allen Institute, Vermont’s free market think tank.