New compliance officer for Concord schools starts work amid pandemic

  • Karen Fischer-Anderson, the new compliance officer, stands outside the Concord School District offices on Liberty Street on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Karen Fischer-Anderson at the School District offices on Liberty Street on Thursday, April 23, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/25/2020 4:44:06 PM

Karen Fischer-Anderson started her job during a crisis: the deadly pandemic sweeping the world.

However, she was hired to deal with a different crisis – the healing and safety of students and staff in the Concord School District community in the aftermath of a teacher’s arrest for sexual assault.

Since beginning work on April 7, Fischer-Anderson arrives early to the district office on Liberty Street. She read the 100-plus page confidential report written by an independent investigator that details how administrators responded to sexual misconduct complaints.

The walls of her office, covered with chalkboards, are filled with lists of things to do: review past cases and investigations, create a database to track misconduct complaints, update district policies.

A red binder full of district policies sits on her desk.

“To start really making a difference here, I’ve got to know where to start,” she said, flipping through pages. “I’ve got to know where the problems are.”

Fischer-Anderson wants to make herself known to the community as someone who is approachable, she said. She is not someone who is afraid to speak up and ask tough questions.

“It’s a terrible thing, but it happened, we’re unfortunately probably never going to be able to eradicate predators completely,” Fischer-Anderson said of the events the Concord School District has faced in the last year. “But what we have to do is put the safety and well-being of our students first and foremost, and that’s what I’ve heard from day one from everyone here.”

Background

Fischer-Anderson worked for 30 years as a judge advocate general where she served all over the world as a military prosecutor, defense lawyer and investigator. Her positions included serving as senior counsel to the superintendent at the U.S. Naval Academy.

She said around 2006-2008, military officials realized sexual assault and misconduct was a pervasive issue in the service that needed to be seriously addressed.

In 2013, she was called on to head the Navy Victims legal Counsel Program. The program’s sole purpose was to provide attorneys to represent the victims’ interests after they come forward.

“Usually when you have a sexual assault case, it’s the prosecutor who not only tries the case, but they work with the victims,” she said. “The feedback we were getting from the victims was that the process was as traumatizing in many respects as the actual act itself.”

Many of the attorneys with the Navy Victims legal Counsel Program developed close relationships with victims they represented. Fischer-Anderson remembers attorneys accompanying victims to the hospital where they would sit in the waiting room for support while physicians performed rape kits. In some cases, attorneys worked with victims from six months to a year as their cases weaved their way through the criminal justice system.

For four years, she supervised 29 attorneys in 24 offices all over the world. The program served 3,000 clients during that time.

In 2017, Fischer-Anderson retired from the Navy and began consulting work for universities, prep schools, high schools and the catholic diocese on sexual misconduct cases. Last summer, she was put to task reviewing 18 high-profile cases in the Chicago Public School system.

Although she travels often, Fischer-Anderson’s home base has been her family home in Sutton. It was there she became familiar with the Howie Leung case in Concord and began following its progress. She read the public recommendations that were released by the independent investigator, and started watching school board meetings.

“When I saw they were hiring for the compliance officer job, I knew I wanted it. This is the kind of work I love,” she said.

Grooming and Boundary Violations

Fischer-Anderson said it took her 10 days to read the entire report completed by independent investigator Djuna Perkins. She said she plans to ask if she can meet with Perkins in person to hear more about her observations outside the report.

“The community and the school district put a lot of time and resources into that report. I’ll ask a million questions,” she said. “We just want to learn from it, and do our due diligence if you will.”

Takeaways from the report were the need for more training on grooming behaviors and boundary violations, Fischer-Anderson said.

Letters between school officials and union representatives at the time of the investigation obtained by the Monitor reveal that Leung hugged students, gave them rides, purchased them gifts, including cash, and sent them personal emails.

In her career working as a lawyer, Fischer-Anderson has seen again and again how predators infiltrate safe spaces to build their victim’s trust. It’s a complicated social game and manipulation, she said.

“For grooming behaviors normally it’s slow, and it’s an intentional process of manipulating someone,” she said. “They start by building trust – little favors, things like that, and then they isolate them.”

She said warning signs of misconduct are “undue familiarities” between a teacher and student– sharing food, giving rides or gifts.

Ninety-three percent of juvenile victims know their abuser in person. Perpetrators could be family members, neighbors, teachers, faith leaders or coaches.

“The real predators are drawn to institutions where they know they can find kids, and they know they can prey on those that are most vulnerable, lacking something in their life,” she said.

In order for the community to move on, it’s important to have conversations about these warning signs and how to identify them, Fischer-Anderson said.

Fischer-Anderson said she plans to host conversations with small groups of faculty where she presents scenarios for staff members to study and unpack.

She said the district made a lot of progress by passing its new “employee-student relations” policy, which sets guidelines limiting physical contact, social media use and gift-giving between students and teachers.

She said there is more work to be done, such as making the gift-giving policy more specific.

Fischer-Anderson said the policy should set a price limit and provide examples of times when gift-giving is appropriate and when it is not. Those who want to give larger gifts than what is allowed could get specific approval, and the school could have a review process to track the gifts, she said.

She said the guidelines aren’t meant to scare teachers.

“Right now, my observation is, you have educators who are feeling like, ‘I can’t have a relationship with my kids, because now everybody’s going to think I’m doing something wrong,’ ” she said. “That’s not true. It’s just that they have to be watchful and careful to stay within the bounds of an appropriate relationship.”

She hopes that people will come to her if they have questions or concerns about behaviors they see in school.

“It’s not to rat people out, it’s so I can be the eyes and the ears, “she said. “And maybe I can help.”

She said there were “strong indicators” early on that something wasn’t right with Leung’s relationship with students based on warning signs for grooming behavior. However, communication policies need to be sharper to help faculty know what types of incidents should be reported and to whom.

Investigation

As her job as Title IX coordinator, Fischer-Anderson will be tasked with leading future investigations in the district.

Fischer-Anderson said her job is to be independent, unbiased, and thorough. She is not an advocate for victims, like during her time in the Navy, but it’s her job to make all people making a report feel protected and safe.

Fischer-Anderson said she hopes to get an office at Concord High School, where she plans to spend three days every week. She also hopes to have a presence at Rundlett Middle School.

She wants to find an office off the beaten path at Concord High, away from the administration.

“When you are interviewing a potential victim for the first time, you don’t call them to the principal’s office,” she said. “What happens when somebody gets sent to the principal’s office? You get in trouble. You’ve got to take into consideration what’s going to make the victim the most comfortable.”

She said she starts conversations with students by asking them if they want their parent, a friend or an advocate present who can help support them through the reporting process.

“First and foremost is always physical or mental well-being of that person,” she said. “I think, when they know you’re concerned about them, then they start to trust you.”

A common pitfall she finds with a lot of institutions investigating sexual misconduct is that there isn’t a clear process for interviewing potential victims.

A student might report to one teacher and be passed around to multiple staff members and have to make a report several times throughout the investigation process. A victim should be interviewed once – maybe twice – during the whole process to minimize trauma, she said.

She wants to make flow charts to help guide staff members if they think they need to report potential sexual misconduct. Instead of sitting down and reading a policy, staff members will be able to use the chart, which will lay out what steps to take, including who to notify, throughout the process.

Measuring success

Fischer-Anderson said she doesn’t see it as a bad thing that she’s not able to work with students right away because of COVID-19.

The time has given her the opportunity to start building relationships she says will be key to her work. She has already met with officials at the state Department of Education, the resource officer at Concord High and the administrative team there, as well as principals from other district schools.

She says next on her list are Concord Police, representatives from DCYF and the independent compliance overseer at St. Paul’s School.

She said she wants to make sure her name and contact information is listed in the student and handbooks and other school-wide resources.

Fischer-Anderson said she’s been thinking a lot about how she’ll measure her success in the next year. The Concord School Board has stipulated that the position exists through the end of this school year and next school year.

She said it’s a good sign if she sees more people coming forward to speak with her.

“Seeing increased reports may be a sign of success, but you won’t know until you see what those reports are,” she said.

The true measure of success is how she is received by the community, she said.

“If I do my job, right, I want people to feel free to call me, to seek me out to come to the office. I’ll get invited, I’ll get sought out,” she said. “Kids will come to me and I think that will be the greatest success metric of all.”




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