WATERVILLE — Then: A charismatic and respected principal with a great sense of humor, strong relationships with staff and students and boundless energy for discussing and writing about education.

Now: A restless shadow of that former self with his reputation in shambles, an educational career dashed and a future dogged by criminal accusations of misuse of power and authority.

Those conflicting realities have emerged for Donald J. Reiter, 44, of Mount Vernon, who within the past week was fired as principal of Waterville Senior High School and charged by the district attorney with a misdemeanor count of official oppression.

Reiter’s case came to a head following more than two months of uncertainty and scant information as school officials and police investigated the allegation that Reiter asked an 18-year-old student for sex.

And it’s far from over as Reiter mulls an appeal of his firing even as he faces the pending charge and additional allegations that have cropped up in New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, a portrait has emerged of two different Don Reiters.

Some who worked closely with him said in interviews he is an outstanding professional who never showed a hint of trouble, and they still respect and support him. By one account, Reiter was planning to spend his entire career in education.

But others’ faith in him has been rattled, if not shattered, as authorities allege that Reiter has an unseen dark side. The trusted and celebrated educator, police and the Kennebec County district attorney contend, abused his image and authority to have inappropriate relationships with students, threatening a senior at Waterville high school to have sex with him or he wouldn’t allow her to graduate.

Richard Abramson, former superintendent of Readfield-based Regional School Unit 38, is typical of many the Morning Sentinel has talked to who worked with Reiter over the years — surprised by the allegations against a man they see as a consummate professional.

“Nothing would have led me to believe something like that was going on, nothing in my work with Don would have led me to suspect or draw that conclusion,” Abramson said, who often visited Reiter, who was chairman of the school board in that district for several years, at Reiter’s home in Mount Vernon.

The Waterville Board of Education hearing that culminated in Reiter’s dismissal Monday was against a backdrop of vocal support for the principal, some of which came from teachers at the school who were among audience members at the three-night dismissal hearing.

That support, much of it from teachers, included a standing ovation for Reiter the first night of the hearing and vitriolic online criticism of the student who brought the charges against Reiter, including online release of her name.

Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney announced at a press conference Thursday Reiter would be charged with official oppression, a class E misdemeanor, alleging Reiter took advantage of his position and must be held accountable.

The statute holds public officials and those in positions of trust to a higher standard and that the charge “fits the scenario perfectly, she said, because he was a public official,” and “people put an enormous amount of trust in (public officials).”

The statute tells public officials “you’ve been given a trust by the public, you’ve been given a position that allows you to do things that others can’t do” and that Reiter “did misuse that public trust.”

A RESPECTED EDUCATOR

By all accounts, Reiter was a popular and respected principal at Waterville Senior High School, a position he’d held since 2007 and which paid $102,000 this school year.

In a column he wrote for in the Morning Sentinel in 2009, Reiter described how he grew up on Long Island, New York, but moved with his mother and sister to his grandparents’ home in Mount Vernon after his parents divorced.

He attended school in the Maranacook School District that now includes Mount Vernon, Readfield, Manchester and Wayne.

Reiter earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Boston University and a master’s degree in education from the University of Southern Maine.

He was a social studies teacher and then assistant principal for six years at Mascenic Regional High School in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, before becoming principal at Buckfield Junior-Senior High School in Buckfield in 2004.

Mascenic Regional High School officials have declined to comment except to confirm Reiter worked there.

George Reuter, principal at the Buckfield school, was a computer applications teacher when Reiter was principal.

“He was and still is respected by the people he worked with at the time,” Reuter said.

Reiter set up an outing club at the school to take students hiking and other outdoor activities, and hosted a morning basketball session at the school for students and staff.

“We respected him,” Reuter said. “There were no indications of anything other than a professional, well-liked principal.”

When Reiter was hired as principal at Waterville Senior High School in May 2007, he was selected by the school board out of a pool of 17 applicants for the job and hired by a unanimous vote of the board.

ARRIVING IN WATERVILLE

When he was hired in Waterville, Reiter said his interests included the outdoors, hunting, fishing and watching and playing sports.

He expressed a love of reading, and was known to be an eloquent writer.

His energy and enthusiasm for education was high. Reiter was a member of the International Reading Association — a worldwide literacy group — and had recently returned from an association conference in Toronto. He came back armed with all sorts of ideas.

“I think most people’s philosophy of education is to try and improve the educational environment for the kids,” Reiter said when he was hired. “There’s always room for improvement.”

Dan Allen, a literacy specialist at Buckfield, said at the time of Reiter’s hire in Waterville that “I worked under four principals, at least, and he’s the best one I’ve ever worked with.”

“He’s consistent, he’s extremely organized — we tease him about that — and he has a good handle on his job,” Allen said at the time. “I’ve seen other guys whose desks are piled high with work, but he usually completes everything by the end of the day. He makes that his habit. I think he’s a great principal and we’re going to lose a really important part of our team.”

In a 2008 column in the Morning Sentinel written by a Waterville High senior student, Reiter was praised for opening up a line of communication with the community through his writing in the Parent Press, a high school newsletter.

“Most administrators spend their time with internal communication that leaves little room for external communication. Mr. Reiter has figured out a way to do both very effectively,” Waterville Superintendent Eric Haley said in the column.

The column went on describe Reiter’s writing in the Parent Press, stating:

“In relating some of his childhood experiences, educational background — and admittedly inconsistent effort at school — Reiter allowed parents to see inside the man who would be guiding their children. He related his dashed hopes of attending Yale, his memories of the attempted assassination of President Reagan and his tough adjustment after moving from Long Island to Maine. Reiter attributes this occasional personal touch to a bit of introspection several years ago, saying, ‘There certainly was a time when I wouldn’t have done that. I think that really turned around when I got a little more in touch with my emotions.'”

Reiter had built a house in Mount Vernon on land that was given to him by his grandfather, where he lived with his wife Terri Hewett Reiter and their young daughter. Terri Reiter filed for divorce in September, weeks after Reiter was suspended as principal by Haley. She did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Earlier this month, he told the Morning Sentinel if he was fired by the school board, he’d have to sell the house and had spent much of his time on leave preparing for that.

Around the same time he was hired in Waterville, Reiter also became involved in the school board for RSU 38 and was the board chairman for several years.

According to Mount Vernon town clerk Rachel Meader, Reiter was elected to a one-year term on the school board in 2007, and in 2009 was elected to a three-year term. He didn’t run for re-election in 2012, because he didn’t have the time, Meader said.

Abramson, the RSU 38 superintendent at the time Reiter was board chairman, said Reiter was committed to education and expected to rise through the ranks as an education administrator.

“I think he was an individual that certainly cared a lot for education, he wanted to do the right thing for kids in the district,” Abramson said.

In a one-on-one meeting after he was elected, Reiter talked about his aspiration to be a superintendent, Abramson said.

“I know he was planning to spend his entire career in education,” Abramson said. He offered to mentor Reiter but was never taken up on the offer, Abramson said.

As a board member, Reiter “very quickly established a very respectful relationship with other board members,” evidenced by his election as chair, Abramson said.

LEADERSHIP AND SUPPORT

Mark Fairman, executive director of the Waterville Inclusive Community Project and the Out & Allied Youth Theater, said he worked with Reiter for five years on initiatives to empower LGBTQ youth at the school.

“Don’s leadership and support has been consistent and, at time, overwhelming,” Fairman said in an email. “Without his support, we would not be as far along as we are in fulfilling our mission statements.”

When he started working with Reiter in 2009, Waterville High School had a serious problem with bullying and harassment, Fairman said. Reiter became engaged in improving the environment by funding transportation or volunteering to personally take members of Students Taking Action and Negotiating Diversity — STAND — to trainings and workshops, attending WICP and OAYT events, making space available for meetings and covering copying costs.

“A lot of that was his way of supporting us and the school to address high amounts of incidents of harassment at the school,” Fairman said.

“Don’s not the kind of leader who just says we have to do something,” Fairman said. “He invests in it, and finding us time to meet, space to meet, getting students on a school bus, those are all investments he’s making on behalf of enhancing the school environment as well as the lives of other students.”

Last year, Fairman nominated Reiter for a Maine Youth Action Network Empowering Adult Impact award for his contribution to the cause, noting that rates of bullying and harassment had dropped and the presence of STAND had grown between 2009 and 2012. Reiter didn’t get the award, but was named as a great nominee by the network.

Fairman would only discuss his relationship with Reiter and would not comment on the hearing or allegations against him.

Reiter’s love of history also showed through, like in September 2010 when a colorful quilt made 121 years ago as a memento to the Class of 1889 was offered to the high school. Reiter said at the time he was excited when the quilt arrived in the mail because “it is an artifact from the early history of the institution,” and he was fascinated by the detail and symbols.

“I’m planning on framing it and finding some safe wall space to display it on,” he said.

In the 2009 column he wrote for the Morning Sentinel, Reiter talked about his love for skiing and his 17-year involvement with the ski patrol at Saddleback Mountain in Rangeley.

Reiter was also a passionate and prolific writer, penning several letters to the editor to the Morning Sentinel over the years. He sounded off on topics including state funding for education, taxes, school consolidation, and encouraging the public to thank teachers.

He once also blasted a Morning Sentinel editorial headlined, “In hindsight, partial snow day not needed,” writing that it was “one of the more sanctimonious pieces I have read in some time.”

“Litigation and trying to please parents are not the reasons superintendents send students home early, as suggested in the editorial, but rather a concern for the well being of students,” Reiter wrote in a letter to the editor. “Anyone who does not agree with erring on the side of caution does not have any school-age children of their own.”

A DIFFERENT PICTURE

When Reiter and his attorney, Gregg Frame, met with Morning Sentinel staff for an interview Nov. 3, a week before his dismissal hearing, both stressed the principal had no blemishes on his record.

“I’ve tried to look for a smoking gun for 64 days,” Frame said. “I’ve turned over every leaf and it’s not there.”

Frame also said that “every witness” he planned to call at the hearing would be a character witness.

“The unique thing here, and it’s truly unique to any case I’ve ever had, is there’s not a single person I talked to who speaks poorly of Don’s leadership and character,” he said.

An evaluation by Superintendent Eric Haley a couple weeks before the hearing “basically says Don Reiter walks on water,” he added.

Haley did not respond to calls requesting comment for this article, though earlier this month he said, “Don and I did have a good solid working relationship.”

At the first night of Reiter’s dismissal hearing Nov. 10, Frame said in opening statements said that Reiter’s dedication to his students was evident, and that he had counseled students “countless times” in his career.

Frame said the board would hear school district attorney Melissa Hewey say it’s unusual for a principal to deal with an issue involving a student — that it’s the guidance counselor who does that. But Reiter, he said, addressed issues with students on a daily basis and always was willing to meet with students and parents.

Hewey said Reiter was approached by the student and her mother Aug. 26 with regards to her academic record. He said she’d have to speak to a guidance counselor first.

The next day, Aug. 27, the first day of school, was also the day of opening ceremonies for the alternative school, and for years Reiter has attended those ceremonies.

Hewey said that a couple of days before that, Reiter told Assistant Principal Brian Laramee that he was going. She said witnesses would testify that Reiter is “even-keeled, deliberate.”

“He’s the kind of person that sets a schedule and sticks to it religiously,” Hewey said.

But on Aug. 27, Reiter changed his mind and sent Laramee to the alternative school opening ceremonies. Reiter, Hewey said, then called the student out of class and into his office, and that’s when the proposition was made.

She said that Haley and Assistant Superintendent Peter Thiboutot “have concluded, based upon what they know about Mr. Reiter, that being the person he is, his story just doesn’t make sense, and what the student says is what happened in that room that way.”

SCHOOL SUPPORT

Reiter’s popularity in the community was on show during the recent disciplinary hearings before the Waterville Board of Education, when supporters, including high school staff, gave him a standing ovation and chanted “Don, Don, Don!”.

At a rally to show support for Reiter the Friday after the first two days of his dismissal hearing, a group of about 30 supporters gathered at the high school and held signs bearing Reiter’s photo with a backdrop of an American flag, reading “fight for what’s right” and “#FreeReiter,” which had become the social media hashtag for those supporting the principal.

Supporters also included teachers, and when the name of the student in the case was made public online during the dismissal hearing and details about the young woman, many of those accompanied by insults and name-calling, many believed it came from inside the school.

Sexual assault victim advocates were critical of the support for Reiter during the hearing, before a decision had been made. The criminal charges against Reiter — highlighting alleged abuse of his authority — underline the advocates’ point.

“It’s concerning to me the level of support that was given to somebody accused of this type of behavior, particularly without knowing the facts of the case,” Donna Strickler, executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Center, said Friday. “Everyone has a right to believe what they believe and show support for either person, but it’s the way that support happened and the level to which it happened that’s concerning.”

Sexual assault advocates Friday said that there is no profile of a typical sexual offender, and that people who are perceived as leaders or good people in the community can commit acts of sexual violence.

“When you have a credible person that is being accused it’s understandable people would have a difficult time believing the allegations and would possibly want to put their support behind that person because they themselves believe it couldn’t be possible,” Strickler said.

Perpetrators are often people who the community really holds in good standing and really trusts,” said Cara Courchesne, communications director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “For example, Jerry Sandusky (at Penn State) ran what people considered to be a really important non-profit for kids.”

Shanon Dixon, a mother of six Waterville High School graduates and one of the supporters at the Reiter rally, this past week questioned her certainty after Waterville police announced they were investigating similar allegations from former Reiter students in New Hampshire.

One former student produced 147 pages of letters Reiter allegedly wrote to her that corroborate the relationship, police said.

Those revelations rattled Dixon’s certainty and she said in an interview this past week she’s now skeptical.

“I’m not 100 percent sure he’s guilty. I’m not 100 percent sure he’s not guilty,” Dixon said.

“There’s some healing that needs to be done,” she said. “There’s some work that needs to be done.”

During testimony given in open session, character witnesses in support of Reiter included Joyce Blakney, a high school math teacher and a president of the Waterville Education association, Claudia Pellerin, Reiter’s former secretary, and Carol Laqualia, a high school guidance counselor. All three said they thought the charges were unbelievable when they heard them.

Reached this week, both Blakney and Laqualia declined to comment further on Reiter.

Blakney cited the negative atmosphere at the high school as her reason for not discussing the former principal. There is a lot of pain, anger and dismay in the school community, and colleagues and students are “wrestling with things” Blakney said. More media attention won’t help, she added.

“We are trying really hard to heal,” Blakney said.

Staff writer Rachel Ohm contributed to this story.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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