Dear Decaturish – Decatur High students speak out about former journalism teacherThe front steps of Decatur High School. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
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Editor’s note: The following letters are from former students at Decatur High School who took classes from or interacted with Jon Reese, a former high school journalism teacher. Reese was accused of sexually harassing students. He will be able to teach again after the Professional Standards Commission, a state board that certifies teachers, agreed to a settlement with him. He received a 30-day retroactive suspension. Reese has repeatedly denied the allegations against him. He has not been charged with any crime and is not the subject of a criminal investigation. He resigned his position at Decatur High because he did not think he could get a fair hearing. He challenged the initial ruling of the PSC that would’ve suspended his teaching certificate for two years. For more on that story, click here.
Decaturish is giving these former students an opportunity to tell their story in their own words. Decaturish used school yearbooks and other materials to verify the identities of the students who signed these letters. Assertions made by the authors are also contained in the public record, which includes records obtained from the Office of State Administrative Hearings and investigation materials provided by City Schools of Decatur.
Dear Decaturish and its readers,
Jon Reese was my journalism teacher and advisor for three years, from 2014 to 2017. I was on the infamous trip that led to his resignation, and I was the one whose birthday took place over the weekend.
I have felt the need to speak out about the incident a lot recently, mostly because I did not feel that I was capable of doing so at the time due to being unprepared for the investigation to happen at all.
At the end of the day, the story coming out had nothing to do with me. But I’m glad that it did come out.
The investigation ended up bringing a lot of things to light that I was thankful for, such as the fact that reports of previous complaints (ones I’d only heard about as rumors) were true and had actually been somehow removed from Reese’s personnel file. The confirmation that he had, in fact, dated a former student, and was accused of acting inappropriately as an athletic coach, further validated the way in which I spoke during the time I was questioned by the School Board. The fact that I felt guilty about speaking honestly, as I now know, shows how Reese’s behavior affected me over the years.
I am going to explain exactly what happened that weekend, in my own words, to hopefully put some of the rumors and speculation to bed.
A tradition of the journalism staff retreat trip that we took every year was to sit in a circle in a dark room, and each person would pose a (usually personal) question that everyone then had to go around the circle and answer.
When we were sitting in a circle, I said I hoped that I would have a good birthday. Reese responded, “we can spank you if you like.” He then turned to a male student sitting next to me and said “or [male student] can spank you.” So, in case anyone was wondering, him walking in on us half naked was not the only inappropriate thing that occurred that weekend.
To continue on with the story of the incident in question, we ended the circle activity after four to five hours and retired to our respective rooms. I was sharing a room with several other girls.
The incident happened like this: I was standing in the middle of the room, undressed except for my towel. I was about to get in the shower. There were girls around me in only their bras and underwear, and girls coming in and out of the bathroom. A girl whom I was staying in the room with left to go ask Reese a question, and accidentally left the door open. I looked up to see him making direct eye contact with me as I stood in the middle of the room, about to get in the shower.
The student who went to ask him a question turned around to see what he was looking at, saw that she’d left the door open, and hurried back to the room to come and close it. To my recollection, no one was even talking to each other (because we were exhausted) but the volume was certainly not loud.
Seconds later, Reese walked into the room. He stood in the doorway, looking around before telling us that we needed to be quiet. One girl who was only in a bra and underwear attempted to cover herself up, but Reese stood there for long enough that she felt the need to dive onto a nearby bed so she wouldn’t be exposed any longer. I stood there in shock that he had just done. If anyone takes anything from this letter, I want them to take that he saw we were undressed before coming into the room. This has not been reported anywhere else but is very important to me personally that people understand.
The fact that his reasoning for coming into the room was to tell us to be quiet made us feel like the violation could’ve been our fault, even though everything about what happened felt incredibly wrong.
My mom picked me up early the next day so that I could spend some time with my family during my birthday weekend. I immediately told her what happened, but that I did not want to report it until graduation because I was scared of retaliation from him.
After the walking-in incident was reported by one of the girls’ parents, Reese was suspended, and an investigation occurred. During his suspension, he inaccurately left my name off a list of editors that Reese gave the journalism crew members during his suspension. That felt incredibly retaliatory to me.
Prior to my senior year, when Reese had publicly butted heads with one of the former principals of Decatur High about a year earlier, I was prepared to leave the staff if he had been fired. I was very aware of how good of a teacher he was and greatly appreciated his presence in my life.
It has taken me years to fully understand that empowering myself in that situation, and generally against him, was not a bad thing at all. Just because he was much older than me, my teacher, and wrote my letter of recommendation for college, didn’t mean that I needed to see him as the universal example of what was right.
An incredibly disappointing thing aside from the fact that Reese was able to settle for a 30-day retroactive suspension was the way some of his former students reacted to the news of his resignation. They took the time to say that the teenage girls who were asked to speak to the superintendent about events that made them uncomfortable didn’t know what they were talking about, didn’t know Reese, or were just trying to stir up trouble.
I am a victim of sexual assault from unrelated incidents, yet this situation with Reese and what followed is the thing that makes me the most uncomfortable in my life. What went on that weekend was plastered all over social media (rightfully so). But then people belittled my word.
It showed me that while Decatur, Ga. claims to be liberal and accepting, some of the people who live there are not. And destructively so.
I am scared by the idea of Jon Reese teaching again, because I quite literally get triggered by the idea of writing journalistically now. He negatively influenced my self-esteem, my relationship with male authority, and my friendships with people on the journalism crew. But it’s been decided by governmental bodies that his 30 day retroactive suspension is the outcome, so I will respect that.
In the era of Christine Blasey Ford, of #MeToo and the fourth wave of feminism, I knew that I would feel even more uncomfortable if I did not speak out about the events that occurred that weekend. I hope that people see everything with more transparency now, and I do ask that people refrain from contacting me or asking me any more questions, as this has been scarring for myself and my family.
— Alia Carlton
Thank you so much for your excellent investigation of former DHS teacher and coach, Jon Reese, and for shedding light on an open secret in our community. We, the undersigned, were Mr. Reese’s students and/or athletes from 1992 to 2007. We are writing to express our objections to Mr. Reese being allowed to teach in any school ever again. The 30-day, retroactive suspension of his license is nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
The allegations against Reese and the subsequent investigation should come as a surprise to no one. It was upsetting to read the all-too-familiar details of the 2017 complaint. If you passed through the halls of Decatur High School, there’s a good chance you heard personal accounts of his inappropriate actions from people whom you deeply trust.
The Professional Standards Commission’s Ethics Code for teachers in Georgia states: “An educator shall always maintain a professional relationship with all students, both in and outside the classroom. Unethical conduct includes but is not limited to…soliciting, encouraging, or consummating an inappropriate written, verbal, electronic, or physical relationship with a student.”
Those of us signing this letter either experienced some level of Mr. Reese’s sexual harassment firsthand or witnessed with our own eyes inappropriate behavior by Mr. Reese that fits the PSC definition above.
The informal complaints against Reese are plentiful, but when the 2017 investigation began, there was NOTHING formal in Reese’s file noting ANY complaints about his behavior with students.The administrative memo from 2000 detailing his first formal complaint and its resolution was only discovered in 2017 because CSD’s attorney had kept a copy of it. The single memo from 2000 outlined six formal allegations brought by female students of inappropriate verbal and physical actions by Mr. Reese.
That resurfaced memo is even more valuable because it contained the only reference in his file to an “informal” complaint brought by multiple members of the Varsity Girls Soccer team in April 1999. Teammates came together and met with the school counselor to detail all of the ways Coach Reese made them feel uncomfortable. The counselor took their shared testimony to Principal Karen Eldridge, who then interviewed some of the girls before meeting with Reese. The sole resolution of that meeting, in Eldridge’s own words, was that Reese was asked to “examine [his] practices and to make sure that [he] did not do anything that would make the girls uncomfortable.”
After the first “official” complaint about Reese was filed in 2000, however, the administration ordered Reese to adhere to a special set of personalized regulations in addition to the guidelines that regulated every other teacher’s interactions with students in the school system:
– You shall never have students in your home.
– You shall not give rides to students in your car.
– You shall never be alone with a female student. (In your classroom if you must work with an individual student then the door should be open.)
– You shall not physically touch students even though it is typical in the confines of coaching. Let the female assistant coaches help instead.
– You shall rethink wording that you use in talking with students. Statements with sexual overtones need to be eliminated. Nicknames with any sexual connotation need to be eliminated. There needs to be a clear line of distinction between you the teacher and the students.
– There shall be no retribution against [redacted student’s name] and her family. This means that no public comments should be made to anyone about them nor should you approach [student] or her parents.
– When you take a field trip or an athletic trip you shall have a reliable female chaperone in attendance and present at all times.
Reese was effectively allowed to self-enforce those rules and interpret them as he saw fit. The school didn’t notify parents and students that Reese was prohibited from being alone with female students. This “resolution” was an absolute failure on the part of the administration. They failed the soccer players who reported him in 1999. They failed the female volleyball players he continued to coach. They failed students whom he continued to take on off-campus trips.
To mention just one example of Reese’s inappropriate contact with students, unwanted shoulder rubs are mentioned in the complaints and are revealing examples of his modus operandi. A shoulder rub doesn’t necessarily look unethical from the outside, especially when the whole class is there and no one else seems to have a problem with it. But if you’ve ever had your shoulders rubbed by someone you didn’t want to touch you, you know that there’s a distinct and hard-to-shake chill that comes with it.
In dismissing the gravity of his use of touch, Reese said, “This technique was not done in private but in settings where students and I were surrounded by others.”
This was clearly Reese’s go-to gauge of appropriateness because many of his actions were committed with others present: trusted teachers, friends and classmates, administrators, even parents. And the sad truth is that, even though they took place out in the open, these backrubs were non-consensual. Mr. Reese never asked students for permission to touch them — he simply touched them, and unless they were brave enough to tell him to stop, he continued. There are many reasons why there weren’t more formal complaints filed, but the common knowledge of his behavior and the witnesses who let it slide are enough to make a teenager second-guess their instinct that something might be wrong.
Among the signers of this letter are teachers, social workers, attorneys, nurses, professors, advocates of victims of sexual abuse, parents of CSD students, and more. Many of us have extensive professional training that assures us that Mr. Reese’s behavior should disqualify him from working with minors.
We refuse to accept the PSC’s claim that their investigation is final. In fact, we feel that they and the City Schools of Decatur must reopen their respective investigations. As noted in the original Decaturish story on this topic, City Schools of Decatur did not attempt to contact Reese’s students between the 2000 and 2017 complaints to determine if any other incidents may have occurred. When the administration discovered the 2000 memo that had been sanitized from his file, they didn’t investigate whether there had been ongoing, pervasive violations of his special set of rules and restrictions in that seventeen-year period.
We loved our time at Decatur High. Many of us have great memories of soccer and journalism and video production. Some of his former students and their parents still feel that Reese was an otherwise great teacher and coach. Instead of keeping the stress of harassment to ourselves, perhaps if we had all filed formal complaints about Reese’s frequent, and not at all minor, acts, he would have been counseled early in his career and far fewer students would have been affected. At least the Professional Standards Commission would have had a more complete picture of his actions when they decided on his punishment. Now the burden of filling in those blanks is on us, his former students
We ask that every individual who personally experienced or witnessed any misconduct by Jon Reese as defined by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission to report these incidents to the PSC. There is a formal process to file a complaint. Below is the link for those individuals who would like to pursue further action and ensure that their voice is heard.
In closing, we urge the Professional Standards Commission to reverse its decision to restore Jon Reese’s teaching license and we call on the City Schools of Decatur to finally investigate the full extent of his infractions and to support our appeal to the PSC to revoke his certification. Mr. Reese’s behavior demonstrates that he has no place teaching students in any context.
We are sharing a copy of this letter with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, the City Schools of Decatur Board of Education, and the City Schools of Decatur Title IX Compliance Officer.
Alice Kent – Class of 2006 – Volleyball
Allen W. Graham – Class of 1998 – Volleyball, English
Amanda Minton, parent of two CSD students – Class of 1997 – English, Independent Study
Professor Andrew Guthrie, Ph.D. – Class of 2000
Ashley Hedrick Browning, RN, BSN – Class of 1999 – Soccer, English
Brady Horne – Class of 2000 – Volleyball, English
Charlie Baxter Graham – Class of 2001 – English
Caroline Jones – Class of 2006 – Volleyball
Casey Heermans, MSW – Class of 2007 – English
Cecily Rogers Holbrook, Teacher – Class of 2000 – Soccer, English
Charlotte Ives – Class of 2003
Professor Christopher Dietrich, Ph.D. – Class of 1997 – English, Student Newspaper
Clarke Hill – Class of 1999 – English
Colleen Sullivan – Class of 1997 – Soccer, English
Daniel Petrey, J.D. – Class of 1998 – English, Video Production
Daniel Zeiger, Assistant Director, Children and Family Learning, American Museum of Natural History – Class of 1997 – Student Newspaper, English
Elizabeth Martin Clark – Class of 1997 – Soccer, English, Independent Study
Emily Ahlquist O’Donnell, J.D. – Class of 1997 – Soccer, English
Emily Robertson Weil, parent of two CSD students – Class of 2001 – Volleyball, English
Emily Schmidt – Class of 2001 – Soccer, English
Ginny Thompson – Class of 2002 – Student Newspaper, Volleyball
Greg Donaldson – Class of 2000
Gretchen Kaney – Class of 1996 – English, Soccer, Student Newspaper, Volleyball
Gretchen Schmidt Fry – Class of 2001 – Soccer, Volleyball. English
Professor Hannah Miller, Ph.D. – Class of 1997 – English, Soccer, Student Newspaper, Volleyball, Independent Study
Hannah Stalcup-Burris Guzewicz, MPA – Class of 1997 – Soccer, English, Independent Study
Hayley Bergman Turner – Class of 1998 – Soccer, English
Janie Hitchcock Young – Class of 2001 – Student Newspaper, English
Josie Peyton Sturkey – Class of 2002 – Soccer, Student Newspaper, English
Professor Josh Davis, PhD- Class of 1997 – Student Newspaper, English
Kirk Riley – Class of 2006 –
Kristen Schaefer – Class of 1999 – English
Latangela King – Class of 1997 – English
Laura Kent, MSW – Class of 1999 – Volleyball, Student Newspaper, English
Lauren Dobbins Webb – Class of 2001 – Student Newspaper, Soccer, Volleyball, English
Lauren Gunderson – Class of 2000 – English, Student Newspaper, Soccer, Volleyball
Leigh Hooten – Class of 2000 – Soccer, Volleyball, English, Video Production
Leslie O’Brien Gibbs – Class of 1997 – English, Independent Study
Loren Carty – Class of 2002 – Soccer, Student Newspaper, English
Mara Kent Davis – Class of 2000 – Soccer, English
Matthew Coker – Class of 1998 – English
McCalla Hill Mckaharay, Teacher – Class of 1998 – Soccer, Student Newspaper, English
Miriam Denard Brightwell – Class of 2002 – Volleyball, Student Newspaper, English, Video Production
Nancy Tanner Coleman – Class of 1996 – English
Natalie Spitzer – Class of 2007 – Student Newspaper, English
Natalie Thompson Lee – Class of 2001 – Soccer, English
Nicholas Holland, J.D. – Class of 1997 – Student Newspaper, English
Quiana McCann – Class of 1999
Rachel Courtright Hammond – Class of 1998 – Soccer, English
Rachel Kaney Weaver, MSW, EDS – Class of 2001 – Soccer, Volleyball, Video Production
Rachel Stalcup-Burris Mullins, LCSW – Class of 1999 – Volleyball, English
Samuel Roberts – Class of 1997 – English, Independent Study
Sarah Miller Nathaniel, parent of two CSD students – Class of 1998 – Soccer, Volleyball, English