Response of the Academy to Recent News Reports
This is a strange story of “#metoo” claims gone wild, creating a situation that risks destroying a fine, upstanding institution.
To start at the beginning: we are the sole owners of a small career school, Montana Academy of Salons, here in Great Falls.
With some 60 students at any given time, we have been teaching students of all ages—mostly women—to be barbers, cosmetologists, estheticians, manicurists, and licensed massage therapists. We’ve graduated hundreds of students into new careers, and many of them remain our neighbors, with graduates’ successful businesses operating in Montana and elsewhere, serving guests, and supporting their spouses and children with the skills and business savvy they learned at the Academy.
We are proud proprietors of an important and valued member of the Great Falls business community.
In September of 2015, we received one complaint, and launched an investigation of alleged inappropriate behavior on the part of a massage instructor. A few students, after we inquired, concurred that the instructor had made several remarks that they found questionable or inappropriate and had behaved strangely in class. None of the accusations involved sexual touching of a private body part or any outright sexual behavior, but several students nevertheless reported feeling uncomfortable in the man’s presence.
We acted promptly and firmly: We called the instructor into our office, relayed what we had learned of the complaints, and listened to his responses. He was immediately suspended from teaching at the Academy while we conducted our investigation. During this investigation, we consulted with our employment lawyer and we were advised that the instructor’s actions, as alleged, did not justify employment termination under Montana law, but that given the circumstances the Academy should place him on a final written warning. We did that, and also told our students, “We took your complaints seriously and we will provide a safe and comfortable learning environment.” We did so.
In accordance with our advice from legal counsel, we allowed the instructor to return to work following his suspension. Before he resumed teaching, we met with him and established very strict conditions for his return. We reminded him of our behavioral standards, forbade him to touch any student except under circumstances directly necessary to teach massage, and reminded him of our policy forbidding any kind of teacher-student fraternization. He agreed to all our conditions and returned to the classroom. The Academy also re-trained the staff and students on issues regarding sexual harassment and protections against sexual discrimination.
For the following eight months we saw an improvement of his demeanor, monitored his presence through different means, and heard absolutely no complaints about his behavior or speech. Then, in June of 2016, a student told us that “you have an inappropriate instructor.” In responding to this notice, we discovered he had been texting with a student–not sexually, but somewhat flirtatiously–and shared information about a former student. There was now sufficient cause to suspend and then fire him, and he has not set foot in the Academy since.
That ought to have been the end of the story.
We took every appropriate step that an experienced employment lawyer–and our own sense of justice and integrity—dictated. Upon receiving notice of the instructor’s alleged behavior, we conducted investigations, suspended him and then ultimately fired him. We applied our policies and procedures, took the right steps to protect our school community, repeatedly–and got burned, anyway.
At one point, the local sheriff, seeking information, contacted us and we were, as always, cooperative. We were told of an investigation into the instructor’s private massage therapy practice, and also told that information about the investigation needed to be kept confidential. The sheriff then shut down his investigation–perhaps prematurely–but that was no fault of ours. We received no information and had no knowledge about the investigations conducted by Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana Board of Massage until we read about them in the Tribune’s article.
Sometime after our termination of the massage instructor’s employment some former students raised new allegations against the instructor. Again, by this time, the Academy had already investigated the prior complaints and had already fired him. In addition to complaints against the instructor, these new complaints alleged that the Academy somehow failed to properly respond when students previously raised their concerns regarding this former instructor.
The Academy categorically denies any allegations that it failed to properly respond once we received complaints regarding the instructor’s behavior. As described above, we responded immediately once we were made aware of the allegations against him and took swift action to protect our students and our school community. Nevertheless, as readers familiar with this kind of litigation will know, defending oneself in such a circumstance can be financially ruinous, irrespective of the innocence of the accused. As an alternative to risking bankruptcy by engaging in costly litigation to defend these spurious allegations, we authorized our insurance lawyer to negotiate small settlements. Even though we know that the complaints against the Academy regarding our response once we received notice of the allegations are absolutely false, we decided to settle to avoid the financial and emotional costs of defending ourselves in litigation.
Now, with the newspaper accounts encouraged by a graduate, we have been subjected to criticism, ridicule, and damage to our reputation from which it will be very difficult to recover. We continue to offer top-notch instruction, our students praise our efforts and the quality of our instruction, we are recruiting for our next class of future salon owners, and yet–we are operating under a shadow cast by the media seeking a sensational story, at the cost of integrity and the truth.
We hope interested students and others in the community interested in fact, rather than fiction, will look at the evidence demonstrating that our narrative here is what actually occurred. We are certain that we have earned, and that we deserve, the continued support of our students, prospective students, the Great Falls business community, and the general public. We are very sorry to be in such a circumstance, which we did nothing to deserve. But we will persevere.
–Linda and Mike McPherson
Montana Academy of Salons