middleton meeting

The Middleton School District board of trustees during a meeting on Nov. 3, 2018.

MIDDLETON — The Middleton School District board of trustees on Thursday released the findings of an investigation into the Middleton High School principal’s claims that he was harassed by district officials.

The investigation found those claims to be unfounded.

The principal, Benjamin Merrill, was investigated earlier this school year after accepting a camera from parents during an assembly in December. That violated the district’s policy not to accept gifts over $50, and he gave the camera back, according to Merrill’s testimony at a school board meeting.

Merrill, on Feb. 11, testified at a school board meeting that the administration had unfairly targeted and harassed him during that investigation. In turn, the school board opened an investigation into those claims, bringing in an outside consultant through the district’s attorney.

The board’s statement of findings say there’s no factual basis to Merrill’s claims, and while he “improved the climate for students,” he also created a “dysfunctional system” in the high school.

Early next month, the board and Superintendent Josh Middleton will sit down with Merrill to “finalize our plans for the 2019-2020 school year,” according to the board’s statement. “We believe we will have a final determination at the board meeting on May 13th.”

Merrill did not respond to request for comment through phone and email.

Middleton, the superintendent, told the Idaho Press over email that in his 33 years of education, he had never before had an allegation against him of bullying or harassment.

“I welcomed the investigation and am not surprised with the conclusions,” Middleton wrote. “That said, from day one when I arrived here as superintendent, my focus has always been on students and student learning and providing the support to teachers and staff who educate our young people. Through all this, I’ve just tried to keep the main thing the main thing and encourage all to press forward.”

At the Feb. 11 school board meeting, Merrill told trustees that ever since the camera incident, he had been “harassed” by Middleton and Assistant Superintendent Andy Horning, and that he was unaware of the initial investigation against him or offered representation.

Numerous other employees accepted gifts at Christmas, Merrill said during the meeting, yet he was the only one being investigated. Merrill was asked to turn in a list of all cards he received during the holiday season.

Merrill said harassment against him is “occurring at an institutional level,” and asked the board to adopt a universal policy for all faculty and staff to submit a formal grievance if they feel they are being bullied or harassed.

“Every day I go to this school with the primary focus of keeping kids safe. I love these students like they were my own,” he said at the Feb. 11 meeting. “I would not tolerate this happening to a student over and over. And this district is allowing it to happen to me. … I promise I will give everything I have to this school but if this is tolerated, I can’t stay here and put my family through this.”

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Audio in a Facebook Live video of Merrill’s testimony on Feb. 11 showed loud cheers and applause from the audience. Multiple staff and parents testified in support of Merrill, some calling for administrators and school board members to resign.

Trustees held a special board meeting on Feb. 14 and decided to hire an outside investigator through its attorney to conduct and write a report on Merrill’s claims, to avoid conflicts of interest in conducting the investigation themselves.

Shown in a Facebook Live video of the meeting, board member Marianne Blackwell argued against bringing in an outside investigator, saying trustees should be the ones to look into the situation so they would have all the information available to them to make a decision on the situation.

“I don’t want to be responsible for taking someone’s job,” board Chairman Tim Winkle said during the meeting.

In a letter from the school district’s attorney, the board was advised not to take part in the investigation.

On April 23, two days before the board released its statement of the investigation’s findings, Blackwell requested an unredacted copy of the report, with individual interviewees named, according to a letter obtained by the Idaho Press, sent from Blackwell’s legal counsel to the district’s attorney.

According to the letter, the board reviewed a redacted copy, and Blackwell claimed she could not “fully discharge her duties to keep herself fully informed” without a complete copy. The same legal letter requested a copy of an allegation against Blackwell herself. She did not respond to requests for comment.

In Blackwell’s legal request obtained by the Idaho Press, it is noted that the investigator hired was Mary Vagner, former superintendent for Pocatello/Chubbuck School District after previously serving as a superintendent in Wyoming, Montana and Washington.

Some parents alleged during a March 11 school board meeting that superintendent Middleton and Vagner knew each other, having both worked in the Montana school system.

“I had never met Mary Vagner before in my life until she came to Middleton in her role as investigator,” Middleton told the Idaho Press over email.

Winkle declined comment on the situation, citing intentions of not escalating the situation.

“The board has some fractions in it right now,” Winkle told the Idaho Press. “I don’t want give the other side any ammunition.”

Riley Bunch covers federal politics as well as education and social issues for the Idaho Press. Reach her at rbunch@idahopress.com or follow @rbunchIPT on Twitter.

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