Following the arrest of one of its elementary school principals, the Lower Kuskokwim School District is changing its policies on how sexually inappropriate behavior is reported and investigated. In meetings about the new policies, school board members asked whether the district’s administration was capable of investigating its own employees without bias.
In December 2019, Bethel elementary school principal Chris Carmichael was arrested, and later charged with two counts of sexual abuse of a minor. An investigation by KYUK, the Anchorage Daily News, and ProPublica showed that the Lower Kuskokwim School District had received multiple complaints about Carmichael’s inappropriate conduct with students prior to his arrest.
“Unfortunately, we find ourselves in the situation where there's credible allegations,” said LKSD School Board member Michael Husa. “It's been turned over to the court system, and it's working its way through. What we want to do is set up policies that should something similar ever happen, we catch it much sooner or, preferably, before it ever develops.”
Several months after Carmichael’s arrest, the school district staff introduced new policies, which are making their way through the school board’s approval process. The policies identify specific examples of what “sexual grooming” behavior is, and it spells out how the district should respond to reports of such behavior.
State laws require schools to report inappropriate behavior between staff and a student to law enforcement and the Office of Children's Services. But the school district can also conduct its own investigation, and this internal investigative process is mainly what LKSD’s new policy seeks to change.
In board meetings, Husa has advocated for more oversight of the superintendent when the district investigates an employee. He said that this was nothing against the current superintendent, Kimberly Hankins, but just another precaution to take.
“Ms. Hankins has been in the district for a number of years,” Husa said. “She has relationships with employees already. She will continue to develop those, and I want more than one person's eyes on it. So that we don't have the potential bias.”
At Husa’s suggestion, the board decided that any complaint of inappropriate behavior must be investigated by a three-person committee. That will include the superintendent, the director of human resources, and the district’s safety coordinator.
Husa went further. He suggested that LKSD should bring in outside help so that the district’s administration does not investigate employees they may have relationships with.
“It needs to be examined through an independent set of eyes,” Husa said.
The school board passed another change that will require the district to bring in professional investigators in certain cases. The policy is unclear as to what circumstances would trigger the involvement of an independent agency.
Superintendent Hankins wrote in an email that “whether and how an independent agency becomes involved will depend on the circumstances, what is reported, to whom, and what is discovered during the District’s initial review, along with what is discovered in any investigation by local law enforcement.”
Husa had issues with another part of LKSD’s new policy, the part that defines what kind of sexual grooming behavior needs to be reported and investigated. The first draft of LKSD’s policy included giving gifts to students and visiting them at home as behaviors that should be investigated. Husa argued that those behaviors could be normal when you’re part of a small community.
“Being involved in the community shows students that teachers aren't there just to be at the school, they're there as part of the community,” Husa said. “Part of the reason I was successful as a teacher out here was I had those relationships with the community.”
Court records and interviews with parents showed that former principal Chris Carmichael had a history of giving gifts to students. However, the school board agreed with Husa and removed gift giving from the list of behaviors that warrant investigations into school staff. And board members decided that staff visiting students at home is allowed if a parent or guardian is present. Other inappropriate behaviors on the list include, but are not limited to: texting or messaging particular students frequently, being overly touchy with a student, and being alone with a student behind closed doors at school.
LKSD’s school board will take another look at the new policy before adopting it. The next board meeting is on Sept. 24.