NORTH ANDOVER — A group of senior girls walked away from Thursday's School Committee meeting celebrating a small victory after it was announced that controversial school safety plans will be rescinded pending their review by a recently hired attorney.
The meeting followed a few contentious weeks in North Andover, after The Eagle-Tribune reported that senior Eliezer Tuttle, 18, was held in a New Hampshire jail for allegedly raping a New Hampshire girl twice, and that he was linked to other sexual assaults among his classmates. In two of those cases, victims told a reporter and provided documents showing they were made to sign school safety plans, which put limits on where in the building they can be in relation to their attacker. Another girl came forward with a safety plan of her own, which involved a student other than Tuttle. She has an active restraining order against the boy.
One of the girls who said she was assaulted by Tuttle, the mother of another and about 150 others gathered in the middle school auditorium to confront the School Committee about the safety plans and the school district's sexual assault policies.
Two seniors, Lexi Regan and Julie Tschirhart, told a reporter before Thursday's School Committee meeting that high school principal Chet Jackson had questioned them earlier about what they'd be asking at the public forum. The girls, who decided not to share details with Jackson, instead delivered original remarks to the crowd.
Regan, Tschirhart and their classmate Ava Gilboard last week organized a walkout, from which the media was blocked, to protest the safety plans. Then, they turned their efforts toward teaming up with classmates, alumni, Merrimack Valley state representatives and community members to rally support in demanding that the School Committee and Superintendent Gregg Gilligan establish an appropriate sexual assault policy and put an end to the restrictive school safety plans.
Gilligan, hired for the leading school district role last year, was the first to speak on the issues Thursday night. He read from a prepared statement, commending the students' passion and drive for change and reiterating an announcement from last week that the district has hired an outside attorney to review policies, practices and forms.
For the first time, however, he confirmed that the school safety plans will be part of that review.
Beverly-based attorney Jeff Sankey — with 30 years of experience in public school law, sex abuse and civil rights laws — started the review Wednesday, and should finish it in about two weeks, according to Gilligan. He said the results will be shared with the community.
Until the review is complete, Gilligan said he asked Jackson to rescind the school safety plans currently in use after consulting with their signers.
Though members of the community asked, neither Gilligan nor School Committee members answered how many contracts are in effect at the school.
School Committee Chairwoman Holly Vietzke-Lynch said that the board will follow through with any changes Sankey may suggest, and that laws prevent the school officials from talking about specific cases.
A dozen audience members spoke next.
"Before we start," senior Ava Gilboard said, "we would like to address the audience and even the School Committee. If you are comfortable, I ask that if you or a loved one is a survivor of sexual violence, please stand now."
Two School Committee members and dozen audience members were on their feet during a drawn out pause.
"What you just saw was a visual representation of how many individuals sexual violence effects," Gilboard said.
Among those who stood was Karin Rhoton, a mother of three, a former teacher and North Andover School Committee member from 2009 to 2012.
"I have the unique position of a collection of direct experience to appreciate multiple positions and the tough place everyone is in," she said.
She urged the committee to "not remain silent" and to start reviewing policies regularly, possibly in increments of three per weekly meeting, to avoid situations like this one.
"I would like to hear commitment from this duly elected body to its constituents to more regularly review policy, especially in an ever-revolving world we live in."
Also urging the board to speak up was Michelle Crowe, who says her 15-year-old daughter was raped in 2017 by Tuttle. No charges were filed against Tuttle in that matter. She presented the committee with a list of 27 questions compiled by attorney Wendy Murphy.
A sexual assault lecturer, Tile IX activist and former Middlesex County prosecutor, Murphy has been approached by the families of four girls – three of them students at North Andover High – who say they were assaulted by Tuttle.
Her list questions if the School Committee has ever seen the school safety plans, when they started being implemented, and "with whom did North Andover consult before using the no-contact contracts?"
"After it learned of Mr. Tuttle's apparently first sex-based offense against a female NAHS student in fall 2017, or the second offense in April 2018, NAHS could have taken steps to have Mr. Tuttle attend night school, or an alternative school," one of the questions on Murphy's list begins. "It also could have had Mr. Tuttle enter the building earlier than other students, leave later, or eat lunch apart from the other students in the cafeteria, etc. to protect other females from harm ... but it declined to do so ... Why?"
Pamela Emmet, the grandmother of a girl Tuttle was put on probation for assaulting, expressed her disgust for what her family went through with school safety plans. Anxious about having to navigate around Tuttle in school, her granddaughter's best shot at graduating was to transfer to night school in December. Even still, her safety plan was altered to keep her away from the gymnasium, where Tuttle participated on the wrestling team after school.
"This should never happen again," she said.
Regan, one of the seniors, said she understands "there are certain laws, policies and protocols which keep the administration from disclosing certain information," she said. "Laws can't be changed overnight, however, there are alternative procedures that can be put in place to work closely with the administration and state representatives, lawyer and the media."
Tschirhart also called for more transparency from school leaders.
"I hope that in the future when a topic this crucial arises, that there's much more communication involved," she said. "... this is just the beginning. We need to do better, and this is where we're going to start."
The girls were backed by state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, who sat quietly in a center row. She wasn't planning on speaking, she said, but she made her way to the microphone to deliver one of the last remarks of the night.
"You are not alone," she said to several victims who spoke.
She reminded members of the School Committee and the community that her role is to engage with locals about changes that may need to be reflected in the law.