Editorial: Silence was wrong choice for Pembroke

  • Pembroke Academy as seen on April, 2, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monday, April 04, 2016

Part of a school’s responsibility to students is teaching them to do the right thing, even when it is so much easier to do nothing at all. Unfortunately for the Pembroke Academy community, school leaders there seem to believe such lessons don’t apply to them.

On Feb. 17, the academy’s dean of students was charged with possession of heroin and steroids. That day, Rekha Luther was quietly escorted out of the school in handcuffs. Referring to the arrest, Pembroke police Chief Dwayne Gilman told Monitor reporter Nick Reid that “the kids don’t need to see this stuff, so we did it discreetly.”

A little over a month later, on March 22, Luther officially resigned. That happened discreetly, too. Most people in the community found out about the arrest, resignation and the district’s vow of silence on Friday night, when the Monitor broke the story online, or the following day, when it ran in print.

Parents and students were kept in the dark for a month and a half, and that was the plan. By calling the matter a “personnel issue,” Headmaster Paul Famulari, school board Chairman Tom Serafin and SAU 53 Superintendent Patty Sherman had all the cover they needed. So when the parent of a Pembroke Academy student confronted Famulari about the school’s silence, he told her that protecting Luther’s professional privacy was paramount. Student safety, he added, was never compromised – as if that determination was his alone to make.

Sherman went so far as to suggest that because Luther was a mere dean of students, no memo to parents was required. If it was the school’s headmaster who resigned, she told the Monitor, the district would most likely communicate that information to the community. But for a lower-tier member of the administrative team in the first year of her $73,000-a-year job, probably not.

It’s not easy being a school administrator. Famulari and Sherman are tasked with making sure the school is in the best position to effectively carry out its primary mission: the education of its students. In the age of social media and the unquenchable thirst for scandal, the arrest of an administrator on drug charges can quickly become a national sideshow and major distraction for the entire community. For those reasons, the silence of the Pembroke Academy and SAU 53 is understandable – but that doesn’t make it right.

For years, New Hampshire has been grappling with the problem of heroin. Through media coverage and legislative action, residents have learned that addiction is indiscriminate. Heroin doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, black or white, student or teacher – it wants to get its hooks into you and keep them there. The arrest of Luther was an opportunity for Pembroke Academy to talk about addiction’s capacity to destroy lives, but administrators couldn’t see beyond the delicacy of the issue. They decided that the best course of action was to say nothing and hope nobody noticed.

The school and SAU should have dealt with Luther’s arrest openly and honestly – and with sensitivity – from the beginning. “Professional privacy” ceased to exist once the arrest was made, which discredits the defense of Famulari and Sherman. They had a choice between doing the right thing, which was the harder path, and the wrong thing, which for a time appeared easier.

Instead of leading a community discussion in February on the scope of the heroin problem in the state, they have created the very distraction they hoped to avoid with their silence.