On Lopez Island, a former principal faces sexual harassment allegations. It’s not the first time
In 2017, David Sather was disciplined for engaging in sexually harassing behavior toward colleagues. But he remained employed, and his accusers say his behavior continued.
Eight current and former employees and their relatives have filed a legal claim against the Lopez Island School District for what they say is a failure to address the alleged sexual misconduct of one of its educators. They’ve also filed complaints with the Washington State Human Rights Commission.
Former school principal David Sather, who recently moved into a new role as a history teacher, is accused of sexually propositioning female colleagues and creating a hostile work environment for other witnesses to the alleged harassment. He is still employed by Lopez Island Schools and is currently on administrative leave, pending a third-party investigation commissioned by the district.
An initial tort claim submitted to the district by attorneys Lara Hruska and Shannon McMinimee in early August alleges that an unidentified female employee of the district was on the receiving end of sexual comments and gestures, stalking and retaliation by Sather. Several other accusers who plan to sue the district have come to be represented by Hruska and McMinimee since then.
These are not the first such accusations against Sather. In 2017, the Lopez Island School Board found that he had engaged in sexually harassing behavior toward colleagues, but Sather remained employed as a principal and Title IX coordinator.
Sather, who has been on administrative leave since early August, was hired by the district in 2015. Hruska and McMinimee said the alleged sexual harassment detailed in the most recent complaints began almost immediately following his hiring and has been persistent.
“You hear these stories and you’re like, ‘How is this happening?’ ” Hruska told Crosscut. “But you know the reality is they’re on an island. … Things get kind of insular and normalized.”
Lopez Island, the third largest of the San Juan Islands in northwest Washington, is home to fewer than 2,600 year-round residents. The Lopez Island School District serves approximately 250 students and roughly 75 employees. The district has two campuses: one on Lopez Island with separate elementary, middle and high schools, and one K-12 school on Decatur Island. School has been back in session since Sept. 3.
A 2017 letter to parents from the Lopez Island School Board asserts that an initial allegation against Sather that was brought to district Superintendent Brian Auckland was investigated by a third party after an internal investigation by the district. The third-party investigator determined that Auckland had handled the internal investigation appropriately, and no misconduct was discovered, according to the board’s letter.
However, later accusations made to the district against Sather, including the sending of sexual content to a colleague in 2017, were found to be true by another third-party investigation, which the district commissioned. In response to that investigation, the school board reprimanded Sather and required him to complete sexual harassment and safe workplace training.
According to the same letter from the school board, Sather had “acknowledged his inappropriate behavior and apologized to the board and staff.” The board said that it was “disappointed with his lapse in this area,” but that it “[continues] to value the many contributions he is making to [his] school and students.”
Sather remained employed by the district and, according to McMinimee, continued to harass his co-workers. Complaints made against Sather this year had gone unaddressed prior to the filing of the tort claim last month, McMinimee said.
“The district was not proposing to conduct a fair, prompt and impartial investigation, so our clients felt it was necessary to bring in a third party to do so,” McMinimee said of the new allegations. “And so that’s why they filed complaints with the Human Rights Commission.”
A recording from an Aug. 28 school board meeting obtained by Crosscut points to a number of concerns on the part of community members over Sather’s continued employment with the district, despite the previous finding of misconduct. It’s unclear if the parents in the recording were also aware of the new accusations at the time of the meeting.
Becca Peter, who has two young children enrolled in Lopez Island schools, expressed shock that Sather was listed online as the district’s Title IX coordinator, meaning that he would oversee sex-based discrimination complaints.
“As a parent, it is concerning to me that the school did not see fit at that time to remove him from his position,” she said. “If our children were to be sexually harassed by other students, having someone involved with the process who has founded allegations of sexual harassment in their past creates this perception that the complaint will not be taken as seriously, and that the administrators in charge will have some level of bias in favor of the accused.”
To be clear, none of the accusations against Sather have involved allegations of misconduct toward students. And several board members said that the online listing was outdated at the time of Peter's testimony and that he was no longer in the Title IX coordinator position.
However, when asked by Peter why the board had not immediately removed Sather from the Title IX coordinator position amid the 2017 sexual misconduct findings, board chair John Helding said, “Dave went through all of the letter of [reprimand] that we provided him after the previous investigation” and added that the board “felt comfortable keeping him in that role.”
Helding added that the board decided to keep Sather in the Title IX coordinator role after consulting legal counsel, and said that continuing to have him in the position was “the legal thing to do” and that “it’s also the thing, quite honestly, that protects the community.”
“I have a really hard time sitting through this,” one voice is heard saying to the board. “You guys are a joke,” another interjected, condemning the board, the person said, for failing to protect women in the community.
During an interview with Crosscut, Helding described his statements at the August 28 board meeting as being a miscommunication. He asserted that Sather's position as the Title IX coordinator was embedded in his job as a principal, and that the board did not make any considerations of keeping him in that role separately from the decision to keep him employed altogether.
Helding said the board maintains that its response to the 2017 sexual harassment investigation was "the appropriate level of discipline" for Sather, "given disciplinary actions in other school districts."
Helding added that the district frames its safe schools and employment policies around guidelines created by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Washington State School Directors’ Association.
Before coming to Lopez Island, Sather had been employed by Mosier Community School, a public charter school in Mosier, Oregon. In 2013, the Dalles Chronicle reported that the school’s board had opted not to renew Sather’s principal contract, but did not divulge the reason. Sather lived in Mosier for only a year, according to a post published on the Lopez Island School District website.
Sather did not respond to Crosscut’s request for comment at the time this report was published.
Auckland sent Crosscut an email statement on behalf of the district, stating, “it would [be] inappropriate for [the district] to comment further specifically on this matter,” citing a new internal investigation into Sather’s conduct. Auckland added that the district takes “such allegations very seriously and [district officials] intend to complete a thorough, fair, and impartial investigation of all of the facts and, following that, take appropriate action.”
However, Auckland later told Crosscut that the investigation is being conducted by a third party – not the district.
The district's next school board meeting will be held Sept. 25 at 6 p.m. at the Lopez Island School District headquarters.
(Teaser photo of Lopez Island ferry terminal by Joe Mabel/Creative Commons)
Lopez Island School District officials initially told Crosscut that the district was conducting an internal investigation into the new sexual harassment allegations against David Sather. However, officials later clarified that the investigation is being conducted by a third party.
Additionally, Crosscut has identified Becca Peter, who was previously unnamed, as being the parent who testified before the Lopez Island School Board on August 28.
This report has been updated to reflect this new information.