Keeping Us Safe

School shootings. Inappropriate relationships. Questionable conduct. Gray areas abound when talking about a school’s responsibility in protecting its students.

In order to continue on its mission, the school prides itself in the cultivation of strong relationships between teachers and students. But where is the line between healthy and inappropriate.

Eight to one. The ratio is everything to a school.

It’s how easy it is to get help when you’re having trouble with math.

It’s whether the teachers you’ve never even had address you by name when they see you in the hallway.

It’s everyone knowing everyone, always willing to help each other out. And alumni coming back 20 years later to a community that remembers them and embraces them with open arms.

It’s about familiarity, closeness and personal relationships.

But what if those relationships go too far?

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Phillips Exeter Academy, a centuries-old prep school in Exeter, N.H., released a report Aug. 24 detailing allegations of sexual misconduct against 11 former faculty members, including former St. Mark’s instructor Dr. Henry Ploegstra, who taught here from 1984-2012.

Ploegstra, who was employed at Exeter from 1966-1980, was accused of inappropriate behavior with students during his time there, but has repeatedly denied those allegations. Ploegstra also denied ever engaging in any inappropriate conduct with students either at St. Mark’s or at the Trinity School, a private school in New York where he taught before joining the St. Mark’s faculty 34 years ago.

According to the report, Exeter allowed Ploegstra to resign following a student accusation in 1980, not publicly releasing the reason for his departure, paying him a year’s severance and continuing to give Ploegstra positive recommendations to potential employers — namely the Trinity School and St. Mark’s — for the remainder of his career.

Throughout his application, recruitment and hiring, no red flags arose to school officials that would suggest anything concerning about Ploegstra’s past.

The Exeter report—coupled with dozens of other similar cases at universities, high schools and even religious institutions—has raised questions about student safety.

Associate Headmaster John Ashton leads searches for new faculty members. The first step in ensuring student safety begins in the hiring process for teachers, a multi-month, multi-step process that involves whittling large pools of applicants down to the final candidate. Even after that candidate is selected, the rigorous process is far from over.

“We identify the person we want to offer the position, and we offer the position,” Ashton said. “And if they accept, it’s contingent upon a successful completion of reference checking and background check. They get a background check of all public and personal records. Then [we] call and personally speak with at least three references.”

The school does not stop with background checks for new teachers, however, because all school personnel undergo recurring background checks every five years.

“In addition to the screening that we go through when we hire an employee, we also go through ongoing screenings of existing employees,” Headmaster David Dini said. “We do routine, systematic background checks on all employees, even after they’ve worked here for a long time. That’s done across the board, just as a continual check of everybody who works at the school.”

Not only are teachers thoroughly vetted before being hired, they also constantly undergo instructional training regarding student safety.

“We invest a lot of time every year to make sure we refresh that information for everyone,” Dini said. “We focus on the formal training, but we also help people in informal ways so they pay attention to the subtleties of human interaction.”

Teacher training begins well before students set foot on campus, as Director of Human Resources Lorre Allen leads all faculty members in a presentation detailing the rules governing adult-to-adult interactions as well as adult-to-student interactions.

“It’s about two and a half hours long and that’s done every single year, and for anyone coming in, before or after August, they go through safe schools training, which covers harassment prevention: staff-to-staff training online and harassment prevention, staff-to-student,” Allen said.

The school implements specific practices to keep students safe, practices which go above and beyond what is mandated by law.

“Our policies are more stringent than the law provides,” Dini said. “We want to make sure that we’re doing things in a way that protects the well-being of everyone on campus.”

Whether it is teacher-student relations or any other issue on campus, Dini says the school is continually looking at ways to improve its policies and strengthen the entire culture on campus.

“It’s a growth mindset,” Dini said. “It’s woven into the DNA of St. Mark’s.”

In addition to these preventative measures, the school also implements various policies to create an environment that supports the safety of students.

“There are both policies that we have, like putting in place doors with windows,” Dini said. “It also goes to giving employees a reminder about the importance of good judgement and responsibility. Ultimately, the care and safety of every student is our highest priority, and we are responsible for that.”