ROCKPORT — “I don’t care about this man. I care about the children,” Jude Stearns said.
“You’re turning this into a legal inquisition,” Don Campbell retorted — “or a witch hunt,” Kathy Burley added.
That was just one exchange Wednesday night among about 15 Rockport school parents and others at a hastily-organized grass roots meeting to hash out feelings and concerns in the wake of Rockport schools’ decision to place a middle school guidance counselor on paid leave, pending investigation into alleged sexual misconduct on his part toward students when working on a prior job.
Howard Kasper was placed on leave Tuesday by new Superintendent of Schools Robert Liebow after Liebow, schools’ attorney Noami R. Stonberg and middle/high school principal Phil Conrad met with Kasper on Monday.
Rockport schools launched the probe after being notified July 24 that Kasper is alleged to have inappropriately touched at least two students while he was serving as dean of students at the private Landmark School in Beverly in 1979 and 1984. Kasper worked for 23 years at Landmark until 2000, before leaving to take the job at Rockport.
At the meeting, middle school parent Laura Wood read off a list of concerns from other parents she said had approached her this past week. The list included inquiries about how parents should speak to children, how the school system is handling the investigation and about the hiring process before Kasper began at the school.
Rockport schools’ lawyer Naomi Stonberg said in a prior interview with the Times Monday that, when Kasper applied to Rockport, Landmark gave no signs that Kasper had been accused of sexual misconduct or anything of the like. Also, nothing in Kasper’s file suggested any allegations, she said.
“There was absolutely nothing, and we check references very carefully,” Stonberg had said Monday.
Wednesday night’s meeting was punctuated by moments of sometimes four or more people speaking at once as Rockporters came at the issue from all different angles. Some residents leaned back in their chairs, arms crossed; others rubbed their temples, and some shook and wiped away stray tears.
Paul Murphy, Rockport selectman, the board’s liaison to the Rockport schools, and assistant principal at Manchester Essex Regional High School took in the meeting as a community leader and objective voice, he said.
“I was very confused by it,” Paul Murphy said after the meeting. “I didn’t think there was any direction ... I was disappointed. Liebow and Stonberg had emphasized that Kasper’s paid leave status is not meant to convey guilt or innocence on his part as the investigation continues.
While some in attendance urged everyone to wait out the investigation and “let the authorities do their work,” still, other parents said they had already decided their own opinions about Kasper.
“We don’t want a pedophile in our school,” Stearns said. Stearns offered to call the two alleged Landmark victims, but attendees declined the offer.
In a meeting with the Times Tuesday, one of the reported victims, David Breed, had said he understands that it may be hard for some Rockport parents to embrace the investigation, given the seriousness of allegations.
“In the absence of any obvious bad experience, you’d want affirmation that you’re not sending in your child to see a monster,” Breed said in the Monday interview.
Parents at the meeting, however, urged patience.
“As far as I’m concerned, I do not want my children around this man,” Campbell said. “But still we should presume innocence here.”
At least a handful of attendees agreed to avoid jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about Kasper.
Adriana Tulian, one of the parents who had organized the meeting, tried to steer people toward helping children and preventing crimes against them, while creating a stable environment for children to speak in and be heard.
“This is how you protect a community and protect children is that there’s an open discourse,” Tulian said.
No school administration officials, including Liebow, attended the meeting.
“People have a right to discuss and I support that,” Liebow said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. “Sharing how you feel with people is part of a process in which you learn how to deal with something that people are not used to handling.”
While many parents agreed that Liebow has handled the situation well, Stearns said Liebow’s actions will help shape her opinion of the new superintendent.
“This is a good test of my opinion of him to see how he handles this,” Stearns said.
Murphy commended the school administration’s work.
“The school administration, in my opinion, has done a nice job investigating, not jumping to conclusions ... I think it’s wise that they’re not in attendance,” Murphy had said in a telephone interview before the meeting.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.