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Report finds Berkshire Hills School District didn't follow its own policies in book search

An independent investigation into a police search of a Great Barrington middle school classroom in December found Berkshire Hills Regional School District did not follow its own polices when it allowed a book search. In addition, the investigation found no facts to support an anonymous complaint against a teacher. The investigator's report also said that the employee who made the complaint may have been motivated by an effort to retaliate against the district.

The Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee hired a Pittsfield law firm to report on who made the complaint that led to the police search for the book "Gender Queer," how the search was conducted and whether school district policies were followed.

The district commissioned the investigation after Howard Cooper, the teacher's attorney, requested it. Cooper said the teacher asked that her name not be used in the report.

Investigators found that on December 8, 2023, a W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School custodian went to the Great Barrington police department and told the dispatch officer that he had observed a student sitting on a teacher's lap. He also said he was concerned about images in a book called "Gender Queer," that he said was on the teacher's table. The custodian took photographs of the book which he gave to the police.

The custodian asked the officer not to release his name because he feared retaliation. The officer did not tell Police Chief Paul Storti the name.

When police told the school district about the complaint, they did not tell school officials the name of the person who made the complaint.

On the day of the complaint, Storti and School Superintendent Peter Dillon agreed that since the complaint alleged touching of a minor, they needed to look into it immediately.

An officer in plain clothes went to the school. According to the report, the principal, Miles Wheat, told the officer "he did not believe students had been sitting on the teacher's lap and had no concerns about her."

Cooper, the teacher's lawyer said, "Everybody and anybody who knows her realized, frankly, the ridiculous nature of the allegations about touching and dismissed them immediately."

After speaking with Wheat about the teacher, the officer shifted his focus to the book. He looked for it inside the classroom, with the teacher and Wheat present, after shutting the door and switching on a body camera. The officer did not find the book.

Cooper said the teacher is now on a leave of absence.

"The biggest losers in all of this are the students who love this teacher, who has now been out for a while," he said. "Hopefully that can be remedied."

According to school district policies, public complaints about employees need to be made in writing and should be disregarded if they are anonymous. Complaints about books require a signed complaint on a district form. Investigators found the school district did not follow its own policies for complaints against employees and books.

"We should have followed our own policies," Wheat stated in the report. "We should have insisted upon a [police] warrant."

Investigators found that the complaint "appears to have been motivated primarily by an effort to retaliate against the District." The custodian had been reprimanded and suspended for two days by the school about a month before he made the complaint to the police.

The custodian stopped working for the school district on February 15, 2024.

Superintendent Peter Dillon and school committee chair Stephen Bannon declined to be interviewed for this story, saying the investigator's report speaks for itself.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.

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