West Tisbury School deals with teacher's arrest and the need to 'rebuild trust'
School administrators moved swiftly last week to inform parents and students and deal with the aftermath of the arrest of West Tisbury School industrial arts teacher Daniel K. Johnson on December 9.
The next day, the day on which Mr. Johnson appeared in court, West Tisbury School Principal Michael Halt wrote to parents, "Last night the State Police arrested Mr. Dan Johnson, our Industrial Technology Teacher, on several charges involving inappropriate conduct with minors."
Mr. Johnson appeared before Judge H. Gregory Williams in Edgartown District Court on December 10 to be arraigned on five counts of furnishing alcohol to minors, one count of assault and battery, and two counts of disseminating obscene material to minors.
Tisbury police began investigating Mr. Johnson on December 1, on allegations that he furnished alcohol to students and young people and hosted parties where young people consumed alcohol.
Cape and Islands assistant district attorney Laura Marshard told the court that the charges against Mr. Johnson involved at least five individuals. In addition to allegedly furnishing alcohol to minors, Mr. Johnson continually and repeatedly supplied pornographic material to young people ages 16 and 17, many of them former students, according to Ms. Marshard.
In his December 10 letter, Mr. Halt assured parents of students currently enrolled, "To the best of our knowledge, no West Tisbury School students were involved in the alleged inappropriate conduct."
Judge Williams set bail at $5,000 and told Mr. Johnson he was not to have any contact with the victims or any unsupervised contact with people under the age of 18. He was released on bail on the afternoon of December 10.
"While we fully believe that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, due to the nature of the charges, Mr. Johnson has been put on administrative leave pending the outcome of a school investigation," Mr. Halt's letter also explained. "This leave is not punitive in action, but it is in my estimation necessary to protect the rights of all."
Tisbury Police Chief John Cashin said last week that his department would continue to investigate the case in conjunction with the State Police, particularly material including computer records seized from Mr. Johnson's house on Mariner Road in Tisbury.
On Monday, Chief Cashin said he thought publicity about Mr. Johnson's arrest might result in other students and their parents coming forward with additional information. However, he added, "As of right now, there have been no further complaints leading to additional allegations or charges. We have had a lot of feedback from the community, though, about how upset they are."
James Weiss, superintendent of Island schools, said this week, "The legal system says someone is innocent until proven guilty, so until we know the particulars, we will have to see where we are as this moves forward." In the meantime, he added, "Michael [Halt] is working with the staff to help kids who are upset by this - and it is understandable that some might be."
Mr. Halt said on Monday he received only a few phone calls from parents after his letter was distributed. "The majority of parent contact was very favorable," he said. "They've appreciated not just the timeliness of the response, but the manner in which the school responded."
In addition to notifying parents last week, Mr. Halt said he discussed Mr. Johnson's departure with grade 4 and 5 classes individually and with upper level students in grades 6-8 in a group setting.
"Guilty, innocent, right or wrong, a certain level of trust has been damaged - the allegations alone are enough to damage trust," Mr. Halt said. "If the allegations are true, we need to be prepared for that, and we need to start rebuilding trust and communication regardless."
Mr. Halt said he and the West Tisbury School staff pride themselves on working toward making sure every child is comfortable talking to at least one adult in the building. The staff also encourages students to talk to an adult, if they believe something is going on that makes them uncomfortable.
Mr. Johnson began teaching at the West Tisbury School in 2001 and has lived on Martha's Vineyard for 10 years.
Mr. Halt said he did not become aware of any incidents involving Mr. Johnson until after a police report was filed. "No student, parent, teacher, colleague - no one had expressed any sort of concern such as this to me," he said.
Mr. Halt said a substitute teacher has been hired who began this week to cover Mr. Johnson's classes for an extended period of time.
"We've very thankful for Bob Lane, our assistant principal and a former industrial arts teacher, who has been working in the classroom as needed," Mr. Halt said. "He's been helping to ensure that kids who are trying to finish projects for holiday gift-giving are able to do so."
Mr. Halt said he also received calls from people in the Martha's Vineyard community offering to help out if needed, including carpenters, woodworkers, and a retired industrial arts teacher.
"We'll do fine as far as the teaching of industrial arts goes - and we'll also do fine with rebuilding trust and communication - that's my greater concern at this point," Mr. Halt said.
Adding to his remarks by email yesterday, Mr. Halt wrote, "We will not allow these allegations to define us here at the West Tisbury School. We remain committed to ensuring the continuation of our strong academic and co-curricular programs in the best educational environment on Martha's Vineyard."
In addition to teaching at West Tisbury School, Mr. Johnson has worked as an emergency medical technician (EMT) with the Tri-Town Ambulance Service and is the squad representative on the Tri-Town Ambulance Committee, though his work as an EMT has been suspended. He was named EMT of the year in 2007.