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Board President: Concord Superintendent’s employment not ‘appropriate’ conversation for public session 

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  • Darlene Gildersleeve looks over the petition with almost 3,000 signatures she planned on presenting to the Concord School Board on Tuesday night, September 3, 2019 calling for a no confidence vote of Superintendent of Schools Terri Forsten at the meeting. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Concord Superintendent of Schools Terri Forsten listens at the School Board Meeting on Monday night, September 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Karen Reid asks to speak to the Concord School Board on Monday evening after it was announced that the matter of petition concerning Superintendent Terri Forsten would only be brought up after the first round of agenda items for the board were taken care of. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Concord School Board members start to leave as Chair Jennifer Patterson calls for a recess after people wanted to talk about the petition of a no confidence in Superintent of Schools Terri Forsten and Patterson said that the board needed to go through other agenda items first on Monday evening. Patterson eventually recinded the recess and the meeting continued. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Paula Czeck Lesmerises (right) stands with others before the Concord School Board meeting on Monday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • People stand out in front of the Mill Brook School holding signs before the Concord School Board meeting on Monday night, September 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Signs outside the Mill Brook School before the Concord School Board meeting on Monday night, September 3, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Darlene Gildersleeve talks about the sexual harrassment policy in front of the Concord School Board meeting on Monday night, September 3, 2019 at the Mill Brook School. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • David Parker gets up after speaking to the Concord School Board on Monday night, September 3, 2019 at the Mill Brook School. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Darlene Gildersleeve talks about the sexual harrassment policy in front of the Concord School Board meeting on Monday night, September 3, 2019 at the Mill Brook School. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Concord School Board Chair Jennifer Patterson addresses the crowd after announcing a recess because she wanted to keep the comments about Superintendent of Schools Terri Forsten and Concord High principal Tom Sica to the second part of the meeting after the board finished going through agenda items. Patterson eventually rescinded the recess and the board came back and continued the first agenda items. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/4/2019 6:43:23 AM

People wanted a chance to tell the school board what they thought of Superintendent Terri Forsten and Concord High Principal Tom Sica, but first they had to wait.

About 100 community members wearing blue in support of school safety, crowded the back of Mill Brook School auditorium Tuesday night to talk about how district administrators handled sexual misconduct accusations, including those against teacher Howie Leung. Many stood outside before the start of the school meeting holding signs asking for transparency.

As the meeting began, a few parents approached the board to present an online petition that garnered almost 3,000 signatures asking for the board to remove Forsten and Sica.

The petition wasn’t on the agenda, so people would have to hold their comments until the end of the meeting, they were told.

“I’m going to ask all of the audience members to be respectful of the fact that this board meeting is for us to conduct the business of the board. Those types of comments are not germane to the adoption of a sexual harassment policy,” School Board President Jennifer Patterson said, referencing one of the night’s scheduled agenda items. “We will hear all comments that are appropriate during the second public comment period.”

The crowd grew impatient. Tempers flared.

“I don’t understand why a sexual predator remained in the school for three more months? Was it because you couldn’t find someone to cover his classroom?” a woman shouted from the back. “I just don’t get it.”

“The purpose of this meeting is to conduct the business of the board,” Patterson responded. “I’m going to ask everyone here to be respectful of the fact that we need to conduct our business.”

Shouting continued.

Patterson called a recess and school board members got up from their seats.

“Why don’t you move these important issues to the top of the agenda and we’ll all go home? Why did you put them at the end?” another parent said, raising her voice to be heard. “Because you’re not going to have a quiet audience.”

“If the audience is disruptive, then we will stop the meeting,” Patterson calmly warned during the recess.

David Parker, founder and director of Parker Academy, said it’s actions like forcing people to wait to speak that makes parents upset about how the district has handled public concerns.

“We have a reason to speak, and you are pushing it to the end of the meeting. It’s ridiculous, and people should be upset,” Parker said during the recess, speaking into the microphone. “This board is not taking responsibility for its actions. This is pathetic. This is really pathetic.”

After a few minutes, the board returned and spent the next hour discussing its regularly scheduled agenda items, including the approval of new playground equipment that had been donated to Beaver Meadow School, and the sexual harassment policy revisions. The board did not discuss Sica’s or Forsten’s employment, citing personnel reasons. Sica was not present at the meeting, as he is on paid administrative leave. Forsten sat quietly at a table with other district employees adjacent to the school board.

Before opening the floor to the public, Patterson cited a new school board policy and asked that members of the public offer “respectful” feedback. She urged community members to submit testimony directly to the board through email or in direct conversations with board members.

“It’s important to understand that any complaints and grievances about school district employees need to be brought forward in a way that is respectful of the employees, of the dedication of the people who work for the district and the fact that, even though they work for the district, that does not mean that complaints about their conduct are necessarily appropriately addressed in public,” Patterson said. “There are avenues for that information to be brought forward, and this policy governs that. So any complaints that are presented to the board about school personnel will typically be referred back through proper administrative channels.”

During the public comment period, one of the petition’s authors, Darlene Gildersleeve of Hopkinton, handed to the board a 2-inch-wide folder of white paper with the names and complaints of all signees from Concord and beyond calling for Sica and Forsten to be removed. Many in the audience clapped as Gildersleeve approached the board.

“With respect to complaints regarding the superintendent, we do have a core functionality as a board of supervising the superintendent. That does not mean that that is appropriate for public session,” Patterson said.

Some said they felt censored by the board.

“I don’t appreciate being lectured for 15 minutes on how to complain, and then I’m only given five minutes,” Parker said during his second time at the microphone. “We can complain any way we want.”

Patterson said the board will not take any action on the employment of Forsten and Sica until after the report by an independent investigator from Massachusetts is completed. Djuna Perkins is investigating district officials’ response to reports of misconduct against Leung in 2014 and 2018. Leung was arrested in April and charged with sexually assaulting a Concord student at a summer school program in Massachusetts where he was the director.

The report is due sometime in September. Patterson said the board will review the report during a nonpublic meeting and determine how much of it can be released to the public.

Sica is on paid administrative leave, and has been since June after a junior at Concord High came forward saying she was suspended by Sica in 2014 as a student at Rundlett Middle School after she told him she had concerns with the way Leung treated female students. Forsten was not superintendent at the time.

Forsten came under fire in recent weeks after she wrote to staff about training on harassment and mandatory reporting that would occur before the start of the school year. In the Aug. 22 letter to staff that was anonymously sent to the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and the Concord Monitor, Forsten said that the media had portrayed the district negatively and unfairly in stories about the Leung case and asked staff to engage in more positive conversations about the district.

Forsten sent out another letter to the school community on Aug. 29 saying she made an error when she “unfairly labeled media and social media coverage of the recent and historical events that have occurred in our school district.”

On Tuesday, Patterson reiterated the district’s support of community members who have come to the board to share personal stories and feedback in recent months.

“We understand that it is really important for us as school board members to acknowledge the role of the media, which is incredibly important in our democracy. We all as members salute the courage of the students, the families, the parents who have come forward recently and told us difficult things that we need to hear,” she said. “We really, really appreciate that. We need to hear your voices. We want to hear your voices, but we also need to have the time to fully understand what has taken place.”

“If there are mistakes that have been made, we need to fix those mistakes,” Patterson added. “We would like to hear about how we can improve.”

Clint Cogswell addressed the board reflecting on his decades of work in the district as an employee and later as a school board member.

“During that time, some of this terrible stuff had happened, and I can only say I apologize profusely for not being on top of it, but I’ve searched and searched what I could have done differently,” he said.

“My grandson that just finished Concord High School, I don’t think he would be able to have graduated as easily as he had if it wasn’t for the help of Tom Sica,” Cogswell added. “I know he’s been dragged through the mud in this thing, but I can tell you he’s a wonderful human being, and he’s made mistakes.”

A handful of parents stood outside the school as parents were filing in holding signs that asked for transparency in the district and student safety. Parent Jennifer King, whose son just started at Concord High this fall, was one parent holding a sign.

“I was horrified to hear about the things that have been happening. This affects our community,” she said. King said she signed the petition when there were about 1,500 signatures. She said she wasn’t surprised to watch the number of names on the list grow to almost 3,000.

“It just goes to show how much of an effect this has had on the community, and I’m glad to see everybody coming together to speak out against what has happened because it is just appalling. Absolutely appalling,” she said.

Janet Sprague said she’s worried the school board is more focused on protecting the superintendent than children like her grandchildren in the district. She said she believes the district needs new leadership.

“It’s great that they’re writing new procedures and policies, but if you don’t have a very strong leader to enforce those policies, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

The district spent the summer revising its policies on mandatory reporting, sexual harassment and misconduct.

The next Concord School Board meeting will be held on Oct. 7 at 7 p.m.

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322.)

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