Longform

CLOSED ENCOUNTERS

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Myles demanded that teachers put more time into helping students prepare their self-evaluation portfolios, "which, of course, meant more work," says Honnecke. "And some of them did not like that."

"In particular, she and Ted Bettridge often butted heads," says one Open School staffer. "You could hear them yelling at each other, even when the doors were closed. Ted considered himself the guardian of the school philosophy and didn't like that Karla was taking over. Even in a so-called `liberal' school, the idea of an intelligent, powerful woman doesn't sit well with some men. The fact that she was a lesbian made it even tougher."

As the interim principal, Myles disciplined Bettridge for having "failed to safeguard Open School funds, which resulted in the theft of over $700," according to court documents. She also disciplined Delaney for being "verbally abusive to other teachers and assaulting two students."

The day before a letter of reprimand was to be placed in Delaney's file, Smith went to the school district's deputy superintendent for personnel matters, Peggy Schwartzkopf, and filed a sexual-harassment complaint against Myles. She took the interim principal's cards, letters and poems with her as proof.

Myles had continued to put notes and presents in Smith's mailbox at school, according to documents filed with the court by the school district. "Smith further alleges that despite her repeated attempts to discourage Myles' attentions," they continued, "Myles showed up at the Smiths' residence on several occasions uninvited."

According to Smith, when Myles came and asked for her correspondence to be returned, she refused to leave until Smith threatened to call the police. Smith told school officials that Myles's actions made her feel threatened and "stalked."

Smith's allegations against Myles came just as the district was determining who would assume the role of permanent principal at the Open School, since Steele had announced she would not be returning when her sabbatical ended. Myles was a leading candidate.

Schwartzkopf began investigating Smith's allegations on April 1, 1994, according to court documents. On April 7, Schwartzkopf and deputy superintendent Hefty, who was also serving as the Open School's assistant principal at the time, met with Myles and informed her of the complaint. Myles denied that she had harassed Smith.

Schwartzkopf's investigation continued through mid-April. She reviewed both women's personnel files, read the correspondence given to her by Smith, and interviewed seven witnesses. Her report concluded that Myles had violated the district's policies regarding sexual harassment and also conflicts of interest. In the latter case, she said, Myles exercised "extremely poor professional judgment by pursuing a romantic relationship with a person she was responsible for supervising and evaluating."

Myles's actions, Schwartzkopf determined, "had created a hostile and intimidating environment for Smith."

Myles's supporters would later contend that Schwartzkopf either ignored statements from witnesses who supported Myles, or failed to interview them at all.

On April 18, Hefty and Schwartzkopf met with Myles to review the report. According to their version of events in court documents, "Myles was offered the opportunity to review and discuss the report, but declined to do so." Myles was told that the report would be kept confidential and would not become part of her permanent file; she could also continue in her position as interim principal through the remainder of the school year. She'd even get a letter of recommendation from him, Hefty said: All she had to do was resign.

Honnecke was at home that day when she received a call from Judy Huckeby, a parent who worked as an educational assistant at the Open School. She'd overheard a teacher's telephone conversation and was relaying what she'd heard: "Karla's been charged with sexual harassment by Judith Miller Smith."

Huckeby couldn't talk long; she was on her way to a staff meeting called by Hefty. According to several people who attended that meeting, Hefty would not discuss the nature of the charges against Myles, but said that she had violated school-district policy.

"He said the matter had been under investigation for two weeks," says one employee. "Of course, they later started claiming that they had been investigating the charges for six weeks, because it's in their rules that they have to take at least that long before jumping to any conclusions and writing a report."

Hefty warned teachers and staffers that anyone caught discussing the case could be fired. But the rumors were already flying.

"I got a call from parents who were thinking about enrolling their child but wanted to know if I knew anything about teachers sexually harassing students," Honnecke says. There were also stories about Myles going after male colleagues because she was a man-hating lesbian.

Ian Watlington, a member of the school's leadership group, says that in the absence of accurate information, students were left to figure things out on their own. "Kids would go to their counselor and ask, `What's up?' But all they'd get is, `I can't talk about it.'"

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Steve Jackson