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REACH board members, staff question director
3/28/2008 By: Melanie Mazur
Six current and former employees of Skills for Living and Learning this week have said Executive Director Susan Livingston lied when responding to questions from the Times, as well as parents, about how she handled an inflammatory student presentation at REACH.
They said this was the “tip of the iceberg” of problems at REACH, which stands for Resource, Enrichment and Academic Choices, an alternative school in Bayfield operated by Skills for Living and Learning.
Livingston is the founder of Skills for Living and Learning, and the REACH program is now in its fourth year. She began administering the REACH program last year after its director resigned to take another position.
Staff members said other problems at REACH include no written procedures, no hiring process, no campus security, and even a lack of basics such as fire and emergency drills. In an e-mail sent to all Skills for Living and Learning employees on Wednesday, Livingston said any staff member who talked to the media could be fired immediately.
When reached by the Times yesterday, Livingston would not comment.
“I have nothing more to say,” she said.
When asked if she plans to stay on as director of REACH, she replied, “yes.”
Wendy Klusack, the secretary of the board of directors at Skills for Living and Learning, said the board is trying to create a position of executive director for REACH separate from running the occupational and physical therapy programs operated by Skills for Living and Learning.
Klusack said she had two children in a play program run by Livingston, and she has pulled them out of the program.
“I decided to remove them from the program because they were in a class under the direct supervision of Susan Livingston and my faith in her judgment has been wavered by the events of the past two weeks,” she said in an e-mail to the Times. “I was not confident that the attention necessary to supervise 3 and 4-year olds would be provided by Susan. I also felt the safety of the students at REACH and Skills has been compromised by not requiring students and teachers to be held accountable for their actions.”
In last week’s edition of the Times, Livingston said when she saw a Power Point presentation by students with racist and disturbing images, including the body of a mutilated woman, she talked with the students, notified their parents, sought a professional assessment for the students, and notified the Bayfield Marshal’s Office and the Bayfield School District administration.
These things did not happen as soon as Livingston saw the presentation, said the employees, including Deanna Farmer, who works in the programs’s administration office, Hallie Halberg, a case worker for the school, and Kami Seivert, a teaching aide.
Jennifer Loutherback, who was fired two weeks ago, said Livingston lied when she said no one had been fired in conjunction with this incident. Two employees have been fired.
Loutherback, who worked as the program’s financial director, said Livingston fired her for breaching confidentiality. She said Livingston accused her of copying the student Power Point presentation and taking it out of the school building, which Loutherback denies.
The marshal’s office was contacted more than a week later. Parents were notified later about what happened, as well, the staff said.
“We have basically been working without a director,” Deanna Farmer said. Livingston repeatedly ignored concerns from staff about the presentation being on a computer than any high school student could access, she said. The computer was in an unlocked classroom that anyone could some see, the employees said. One said she thought a middle school student had seen the presentation. Halberg said she asked Livingston on three separate occasions to remove the program from the school computer, and Livingston refused.
Two teachers at the school said they will finish the school year, but have submitted their resignations that said they won’t return if Livingston is running the REACH program.
Klusack, the board secretary, said she is concerned that Livingston was more upset about the presentation being taken from the building than other issues, including student safety.
She said she and another board member, Ryan Farmer, the husband of Deanna Farmer, came to school to see the presentation and talk with Livingston and staff members about the situation.
“We consistently had to return the focus of our conversation to our concerns about the project because Susan’s focus was on how the project left the building and was brought to our attention,” Klusack wrote. Klusack said she was concerned about other high school students who saw the images on the program and wondered if they felt threatened by them.
She added that she thinks Livingston should resign as the REACH director and return to her work in occupational therapy, where many people say she is exceptional at working with students.
“I along with two other board members fear for the future of REACH and Skills if Susan continues on in the Director position,” she wrote.
Ryan Farmer said he and other board members are trying to handle the situation and asked for parents’ patience.
“These things have to be resolved and fixed,” he said. “There will be some big changes coming very soon. If they’re not resolved soon, I’m not going to be around.”
He said it’s been hard for the board to handle the situation because some are out of town this week for spring break, and others have had family situations they’ve had to handle.
“We’re trying to get the whole board to meet,” he said. He hopes the problems can be resolved quickly and the school can return to its mission of helping students succeed at home and school.
Kami Seivert, a staff member who was out of town Wednesday, faxed a statement to the Times saying that she has resigned effective at the end of the year if Livingston remains.
“Her lack of judgement and failure to see the situation as a potential safety issue is why I don’t believe she should continued as the admintrator of the REACH program. From what I have heard, she has done wonders with children in her capacity as an occupational therapist. I believe that is where her expertise lies, not with administration or management issues. I also believe that if she had admitted that she made an eror in judgment and had taken steps to remedy any damage already done, she would not be under the scrutiny that she is now under.”
The next board meeting is scheduled for April 14 at 6:15 p.m. at the REACH program, which is located in the old Bayfield Middle School building in downtown Bayfield.
Klusack said in the past, Livingston has escorted people out of the building who wanted to discuss REACH policies because they weren’t on the agenda.
Klusack said she and other board members aren’t going to let that happen again and want people and parents to discuss their concerns at the meeting.
Other board members contacted by the Times for comment on Wednesday and Thursday did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Bill Hesford, a former REACH teacher and the president of the board, said in an e-mail that he had no comment at this time.
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