GRAND LEDGE, Mich. — A finalist for the Grand Ledge School District superintendent's job is under fire for his support of a former principal who was charged with sexually assaulting a coworker.
Now one advocacy group is demanding the district disqualify him.
Finalist Steven Gabriel, the human resources director for Grand Ledge Schools, penned a letter in 2015 endorsing Scott Eckhart for a job at Heartwood School in the Ingham Intermediate School District where he taught students with autism.
According to documents shared with FOX 47 News, the letter was written just 12 days after Gabriel was made aware of allegations of sexual assault against Eckhart, who was principal of Delta Center Elementary School from 2013 to 2015.
Eckert was charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct in 2019 and pleaded no contest to a reduced charge, molesting/disturbing a worker.
“The question of integrity is really central to somebody’s ability to be effective as a superintendent,” said Zack Whaley, an administrative coordinator for Survivor Strong, an nonprofit that supports survivors of gender-based violence. “They’re setting the tone for the entire district and we’ve seen what can happen when you have somebody who doesn't have that level of integrity.”
Whaley wrote a letter Thursday on behalf of an unnamed whistleblower calling out the Grand Ledge School District for allowing Gabriel to remain in the running for superintendent.
“Culture change is really hard work and it’s impossible when you have the people that have apparently been central to a culture still in that organization,” said Whaley. “Sometimes you just need an overhaul.”
Sara Clark Pierson, president of the district's Board of Education, said in an emailed statement that the district is "well aware of the 2015 allegations involving Scott Eckhart and the 2019 criminal charge that resulted in a guilty plea.
"The letter in question, authored in 2015, was written in a context that is inconsistent with the conclusions suggested by Survivor Strong," she said, but did not specify how, saying that "to be fair to all parties, we will seek legal counsel before making any additional comment."
Grand Ledge interim Superintendent David Chapin said in a letter dated Sunday that Gabriel "did not have access to all detail that later surfaced in 2019 and, in fact, did not have any supervisory authority over the convicted employee."
"Dr. Gabriel has demonstrated time and again high levels of integrity and honorable leadership," he wrote. "Furthermore, he was in conflict with the previous superintendent on several critical issues; the very issues that would align Dr. Gabriel with the letter and spirit of Survivor Strong."
He was referring to former Superintendent Brian Metcalf, who was fired last year after posting Facebook comments blaming George Floyd, at least in part, for his own death.
As it happens, Metcalf also wrote Eckert a letter of recommendation and told the Lansing State Journal in 2019 that he would do it again.
Whaley says the district’s most recent controversy is yet another example of the need for it to reevaluate.
“I think it’s time for a bigger change in their leadership and in their culture,” said Whaley. “Because of these documented instances with Gabriel, I don’t think he’s the right person for that role when it’s been demonstrated that he’s willing to choose optics over integrity or protecting the people he’s charged with protecting.”
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