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What the Wausau East band teacher investigation files teach us about what really happened
Investigation points to district mishandling, substantiates some but not all claims
This week I received the response to my open records request around the investigation into Wausau East band teacher Rob Perkins.
If you’re just catching up to this story, here is the recap: A Wausau East band teacher was mysteriously and quietly suspended, then reinstated with a press release that essentially gave readers no context to what happened.
Then we were given context by one side of the story: a Hmong student and his mother who works as a counselor at Wausau East accused Perkins of targeting that student with homophobic and racist harassment. We know this because a number of Hmong leaders released a statement to the media explaining their side.
We never got to hear Perkins’s side of the story. The district gave benign responses, without getting into specifics. Granted, there are rules around what can and can’t be released when personnel decisions are involved, but there should have been more done to bring the facts to light, considering the letter previously released by Hmong leaders in the community made this a public situation. Since one side of the argument went public, the other side ought to have had its say as well.
The only counter-argument we got was a statement on instagram by an account called “@eastbandstudents” saying they felt Perkins was treated unfairly, which we also covered. The student’s mother, we learned in the documents, wanted the account taken down but the district responded that it had no authority to do so. The conversation revealed that we were right that it was actual band students behind the account, which The Wausonian verified through confidential sources.
They also stated the media ignored them. Yet at no point did any of the students, or anyone else for that matter, reach out to give their side. No press release was issued. No rally in support of Perkins. There was no way to reach Perkins, and reporters can’t just show up at a school and start asking questions these days.
Now we have the records. The student’s name, as well as other interviewed students, is redacted everywhere except on the supplemental material provided by Deb Foster, who was the Wausau East Principal during this period. I’m not sure why the student’s name was redacted everywhere but that document.
I spent a total of nearly five hours reading everything and taking notes. Included in the records release was:
A complaint filed by the child’s mother, Manee, who works as a counselor at Wausau East, against principal Deb Foster saying Foster discriminated against her because of her race.
A stack of emails about the Rob Perkins situation exchanged between Manee, Hilts, Foster and others.
Documentation around the various incidents Perkins was accused of.
The district’s initial investigative report documenting its interviews and findings. That stack also included the district’s letter about its decision and official dismissal of the claims against Perkins for sexual harassment.
The press release that went out to media documenting Perkins’ return to school (which gave no clue to what the complaint was about). This is where The Wausonian started reporting on the story.
Emails between staff and Manee, discussing things such as the lack of safety plan for the student, her asking administrators to force students to take down the eastbandstudents Instagram post we covered earlier in the year. It ends with a letter from a lawyer asking that Perkins not interact with the student in any way.
The second investigation report, this time from an outside law firm hired by the school district.
Minor corrections to the report, and supplemental material provided by Deb Foster and Tabitha Gundrum, who handles PR for the district.
It’s actually more than I asked for. I believe I only requested the final investigation report.
(Throughout this story, I will be referring to the student in question as “the student.”)
No clear answers
I’d hoped that the files would provide some clarity. I made the records request because it just seemed like the public didn’t have the full story. I didn’t have a sense of what that full story was, but just that we were only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
For example, why was the district’s investigation so different than the law firm’s? What did Perkins say about all this? Why were the student who filed the complaint, and some others, saying Perkins was so bad; yet seemingly a number of students were adamant to defend him and telling the school board how much he’d impacted their lives? It just wasn’t adding up.
Having read through the full file, I now have more clarity; but it’s still complicated. I could write a novel based on the documents I’ve received. But there are some interesting tidbits:
None of the students initially interviewed by the district had anything bad to say about Perkins. According to the district, they selected a diverse group of student witnesses to interview. Even one student, a girl with dwarfism, said Perkins made fun of her height but she was ok with it, because she made jokes about it too. This is one area of dispute between the investigations; the law firm said even if the student is ok with it, teachers shouldn’t joke about it because it might encourage that behavior.
The law firm alleges that the school district mishandled the case. We knew that, since the family’s attorney already said that, upon receiving a copy of the investigation before The Wausonian did. But the reason, according to the report, is because a complaint of that nature should have required a Title IX coordinator be assigned to investigate. Since the school only had one Title IX coordinator and she was about to go on leave, they handled it without one.
The above is likely why Deb Foster is no longer the Wausau East principal. Foster included an addendum to the open records request, criticizing many parts of the investigation as inaccurate. She is specifically cited as not following up on one of the complaints in a timely manner. Foster pointed out that Perkins’s file was empty prior to the incident. Foster does acknowledge that she made an error in not immediately involving a Title IX Coordinator, due to her lack of knowledge of Title IX procedures.
Three main violation findings
Perkins, according to the district’s investigation, committed three violations of district policies that were substantiated in the complaint:
Perkins apparently used the German word for bassoon, which sounds a lot like the F-word slur for a homophobic person. Perkins explained he used it when playing German music to explain the German words for various parts of the music. But when one student called another student the word, he would say “surely you mean a bassoon, right?” The investigators argued that Perkins did nothing beyond that to address those slurs.
The dress comment alluded to in the original letter from Hmong leaders, in which he asked the student if he wanted to wear a dress instead of a tux, was substantiated. Perkins says this is because some LBGTQ students swap between dresses and tuxes.
Perkins during a conversation with his students about discrimination talked about how he used to be prejudiced toward Hmong people having grown up in Merrill. He explained that someone helped him changes his ways early on and he no longer feels like that.
Those three were violations of two Wausau School Board policies: Student anti-harassment, and non-discrimination on the basis of sex.
Others, such as Perkins using racial slurs for Asian people, were not substantiated. Neither was a complaint about Perkins intimidating the student at a play rehearsal. Perkins was there to help his daughter who’d just hit another car with her car.
Where to go from here
Out of curiosity, I Googled Rob Perkins to see if he’d landed a job anywhere else. All I found were the old stories. It’s actually kind of amazing how many headlines stated that Perkins used anti-Asian slurs. Even the final report, the most damning for Perkins and likely the reason he resigned, didn’t substantiate those allegations.
The Wausonian seemed to be the only publication that used “allegedly” which is appropriate when a complaint hasn’t yet been publicly substantiated. Remember, for a long time all we had was the family’s word and that of the Hmong leaders who signed the letter.
The attorney for the family, who put out a press release when the school board’s investigation released, never responded to my request for a copy. That could have helped shed light on this often confusing story much earlier in the process.
But not that much. It’s still confusing, and no one really came out well from this. It caused one child to miss his senior year, one teacher who will probably have trouble getting a job ever again, and one principal who had to move on to another job. It left other students without a band teacher that many of them really seemed to love (one student during the initial district investigation started crying when she thought of Perkins being fired). It opened up old wounds for a father in tears at the thought of his son being bullied as he once was. And it divided a band class over the whole thing, and the student lost friends because of it.
I’m thinking about releasing the full records to our paid subscribers. They were obtained through public records. If I do, I would probably redact the student’s name out of the documents where it wasn’t. (Considering how meticulous the redactions are, I’m kind of surprised more care wasn’t taken to redact his name out of Foster’s response to the records request.
From reading the documents, it’s easy to see both how the district came to the conclusions that it did; and why the outside law firm investigation handled it differently. Foster said no one had previously filed any complaints against Perkins. He seemed to be well-liked by his students. And none of the students originally interviewed substantiated the claims made against Perkins.
But the outside law firm looked at the situation from a purely by-the-book, Title IX perspective. Two of the three violations were incidents I hadn’t heard of before reading the report. (The bassoon incident and the discrimination talk incident.) The only original complaint that was both substantiated and a policy violations was the dress incident.
This story, from start to finish, has been a challenge. Both from the get-go, when we learned a teacher had been on suspension but then returned to the classroom, completely void of context. To this set of documents — trying to give readers a sense of what I learned through reading hours of materials, and distilling it down when there really is no “aha” moment in the entire file. I gained more of a broader understanding of a situation that remains very complicated.
I hope I was able to convey that here. Because this was made public by some of the people involved, I felt it deserved a full airing out. With that on the table, I think it’s worth closing this story for good, save any new information that comes out. I will make my decision about releasing the full records to paid subscribers. But until then, or unless some really Earth-shattering news emerges, I am considering this story finised.
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