"FOLLOW THAT STORY"
westword - denver By Julie Jargon - February, 2002
When former P.S.1 charter school principal Steve Myers was accused in January of making inappropriate comments to a male student at Amherst Regional High School in Massachusetts, where he has been principal since August, some of his old Denver colleagues felt vindicated, but hardly surprised.
The colleagues -- Annie Huggins, a teacher who no longer works at the school, and Linda Reilly, who helped found P.S.1 before leaving almost two years ago -- say that when they reported what they believed to be improper interactions between Myers and P.S.1 students to then-executive director Rex Brown, he brushed them off.
But Massachusetts authorities investigating the case are taking them more seriously; they've interviewed both Huggins and Luke Beatty, who was P.S.1's dean of students when Myers worked there, about what they remember.
The tales are similar to what Myers has been accused of in Massachusetts, Beatty says.
In December, a freshman boy at the Amherst school reportedly told his mother that Myers had asked him to see his nipples and had invited him to his home, telling him he had a hot tub. The mother reported the allegations to Gus Sayer, superintendent of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, who responded with a letter assuring her that the matter was being handled. Some parents at the school somehow got ahold of the letter in January, however, and the allegations were made public at a January 15 school committee meeting.
In response, Myers issued a public statement, which was printed in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, in which he gave his own version of the story. Myers said that in November, while he was driving the boy to an art-supply store, the boy told him he was being teased at school. "He said that other students made fun of his breasts, which he said were too big," Myers wrote in the statement. "I said words to the effect, 'So what are they talking about? Do you want to show me?' He raised his shirt for a moment. I glanced across at him and said, 'You don't have anything to worry about.'
"He bought the art supplies, and I drove him to his house. I went inside to meet his mother. She thanked me for taking her son to buy art supplies. They showed me around their house. In that context, I mentioned that I had a hot tub," Myers continued. "I did not invite the student to visit my home. I did, however, say that I take my son to the movies sometimes and that he [the student] would be welcome to come along if he wanted."
But it may be a while before Myers takes his son to the movies again. The Massachusetts Department of Social Services removed the eight-year-old from Myers's custody two weeks ago after social workers became concerned about him during their investigation of the school incident. The Northwest District Attorney's Office has since taken over the investigation, which is ongoing. (Huggins and other former P.S.1 colleagues say Myers adopted the boy from Russia).
"We only remove children when we feel their immediate safety is in danger," says Michael MacCormack, assistant director of public affairs for the Massachusetts social services department, explaining that he couldn't go into any more detail about the case. Myers's son could remain in the state's custody until at least April, when the next court hearing is scheduled.
Superintendent Sayer wouldn't comment on what disciplinary action, if any, he had planned to take with regard to Myers. Before he could do anything, however, Myers resigned, much to the dismay of numerous parents, students and teachers, who felt he was being vilified. In a statement that 88 teachers and faculty issued on January 17, they said, "We are saddened and shocked by the events of the past few days, in which our principal's career and life have been damaged and a student's esteem has been further compromised through the power of rumors and the media."
Annie Huggins isn't sure those teachers and faculty members had all the information, however. About two years ago, in Denver, two male students at P.S.1 claimed to Huggins that Myers had asked one of them to take his shirt off, she says. According to what Huggins says the boys told her, "One boy said to Steve that he was feeling kind of scrawny and that Steve asked him to take his shirt off and let him see.... They were just freaking out."
The mother of one of those boys says her son "did have a few interactions that made him feel uncomfortable," including the one Huggins described. "He said it made him uncomfortable, and he mentioned it to some of his teachers."
Lieutenant Tim Sullivan of the Amherst Police Department, who interviewed Beatty and Huggins, says he's using those conversations as background for his investigation.
He also said his department is reviewing two other investigations -- one in 1994 and another in 1996 -- that California police conducted with regard to Myers when he was the director of the Traveling School, a private school in Santa Cruz; one of those investigations involved an attempt by Myers to adopt a child there. Myers was never charged with any crime.
Matthew King, Myers's Massachusetts attorney, who initially told Westword that he wanted to discuss the Denver allegations with his client before commenting, did not return subsequent phone calls.
P.S.1 co-founder Reilly says students told her about interactions with Myers that made them uncomfortable as well. "I talked to both Steve and Rex [Brown] about it," she says. "Rex told me I was blowing it out of proportion, that I was exaggerating." When the Massachusetts allegations became public and Brown was questioned about it by the Rocky Mountain News, he told the paper that he was shocked. And that's what bothers Reilly the most. "I told Rex that that was one of the reasons I was quitting, and now he's saying he's never heard anything about this?"
The other reason she left the school was because Myers and other staffers introduced Steps Ahead, a youth program with ties to Landmark Education, a company that grew out of Erhard Seminars Training, also known as est. The company offers controversial self-help workshops ("The First Step," May 4, 2000). Beatty and Huggins also left P.S.1 in part because of Steps Ahead, which is still being offered at the school.
Brown, who retired from his executive-director position last January but remains on the P.S.1 board of directors, says he can't confirm or deny whether the staffers ever approached him about Myers. "If they had, it would have been a personnel matter that would have been dealt with confidentially." He points out that Myers left P.S.1 at the end of the 2001 school year of his own volition. "After I left, the board decided it wanted to combine the jobs of principal and executive director, so that was a new job," Brown says. "The question was, did Steve want that job, and he did not. He liked being principal -- that's what he'd signed on for. He didn't want the new job as head of the school."
Brown also gave Myers a recommendation when he applied for the job at Amherst, which Beatty says is "the real problem here." He adds, "All these people in Massachusetts have been under the impression that Steve Myers was just a prince. To them, this was an isolated incident."
Though Brown wouldn't comment on whether he wrote Myers a letter of recommendation, Sayer confirms that the former executive director was indeed a reference for the former principal; however, he declined to discuss what Brown said or wrote about Myers. "We visited the school and talked to about 25 people -- staff, parents and administrators," he adds, explaining that all of them had good things to say about Myers.