Pembroke Academy student: School feels unsafe after dean’s arrest

  • David Pearl (top), the Hooksett father of a girl attending Pembroke Academy, gestures during a back-and-forth with school board Chairman Tom Serafin in Pembroke Academy's library on Tuesday. NICK REID / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, April 20, 2016

At a school board meeting Tuesday, parents and a student brought sharp criticism of the Pembroke Academy administration’s response after the dean of students was arrested in mid-February and charged with bringing heroin into the school.

One parent called the meeting a “sham,” after he said his comment was unfairly silenced, and a sophomore from Epsom said she no longer feels safe at the school.

Pembroke Academy made no public acknowledgement of Dean of Students Rekha Luther’s Feb. 17 arrest in the six weeks following, until after it was publicized in the news media.

Responding for the first time to questions asked at a meeting two weeks ago, the chairman of the Pembroke school board detailed what the board knew about the arrest in a pre-written statement.

Amid his explanation, Tom Serafin noted that Luther was placed on administrative leave before her arrest and was arrested on the first day she returned to work, he said. He wouldn’t say why she’d been placed on the initial leave.

Serafin said the police found “a small amount of a substance” in Luther’s office Feb. 17, and the administration didn’t know for sure what it was until police announced that it was heroin. He said school officials determined there was no safety risk to students and decided to “defer from making an announcement about the arrest in order to allow the police to conduct their criminal investigation without the risk that public comment from the school could jeopardize their investigation.”

Serafin said the superintendent reminded the board “that the details of this incident would need to be withheld in order to afford Ms. Luther a fair and unbiased hearing under state statutory law.”

Superintendent Patty Sherman was confident by late March that the board would accept the resignation obtained from Luther, Serafin said, and “at that point she was able to share some of the details” about the arrest, he said.

Sherman sent a letter home to parents April 4, two days after the Monitor broke the news of the arrest. Parents have said the fact that an arrest occurred could have been announced without violating personnel policies. Sherman has said state and federal laws barred her.

In subsequent school board meetings, parents and community members asked questions of officials about the arrest, mostly without reply.

The Hooksett father of a student at the high school, David Pearl, began to criticize the superintendent in a comment Tuesday when he was halted by Serafin and board member Patricia Nardone Boucher.

Serafin cited a law that explains exemptions under which public boards are allowed to enter nonpublic sessions and told Pearl that if he wanted to criticize an individual, he’d have to agree to go into a nonpublic session with the board.

“It’s not that anyone can’t be critical,” Serafin said, “it’s that the nature of those criticisms will be handled in nonpublic sessions.”

Pearl declined to go into a nonpublic session, proclaiming, “What a sham.” He later “sanitized” his comments by pointing them instead at the high school generally.

James Decker, the father of a student from Epsom, said he was unsatisfied with the determination that Luther wasn’t buying or selling heroin at the school. There’s only three reasons to carry drugs around, he said: if you’re about to sell, you just bought or you’re about to use.

“The fact that this has not been explored causes me a great deal of concern,” he said. “Not only did you have heroin in your school. You have heroin in your school. Anyone who says otherwise is simply being myopic. That’s a fact. It’s here.”

Decker also said that the board misinterpreted the state’s right-to-know law when it previously cited an exemption as the reason that parents could not be made aware of the arrest. He requested that the board consider a policy revision at its next meeting to publicly announce all arrests of adults made on school property.

Jonatha Decker, Decker’s daughter, a 15-year-old sophomore at the school, stood up to speak after him.

“Your statement earlier saying that all students were safe isn’t true,” she told the board. “I don’t feel safe in school anymore knowing this happened. It’s really uncomfortable for me to know that I wasn’t told by the school; I was told by another student who found out online.”

She said most students still haven’t received any guidance from the school, leaving the impression that it’s not okay to discuss substance misuse issues.

The younger Decker requested that the administration hold a schoolwide assembly to open a conversation “about the severity of what happened, that people can come forward and talk about it . . . or that if anyone is having problems with drugs or any kind of alcohol abuse, they can come in and talk to a counselor, administration, anyone.”

“We need to be told that it’s okay for us to be open and get help with it, instead of us having to hide behind these closed doors because we’re afraid that if we come forward something’s going to happen to us, like it happened to” Luther, she said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)