Candidate for Concord interim superintendent had complicated past at Hampton school system

  • Kathleen Murphy

Monitor staff
Published: 5/30/2020 6:23:26 PM

The Concord School Board has settled on a nominee for the next interim superintendent, nine months after district leader Terri Forsten resigned amid growing frustration with the handling of a student rape case.

But the new nominee, the current Hampton Superintendent Kathleen Murphy, has weathered controversies of her own.

Murphy presided over a set of disciplinary decisions in Hampton that frustrated some members of the community. One of those decisions invited a federal investigation, according to press reports and public documents.

In one case, a family pulled their African American daughter from the Hampton School District after incidents of racial discrimination they say were insufficiently addressed by the school. That prompted a probe into the matter by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. This February, that office concluded that the school system had responded insufficiently to the racial discrimination behind the bullying, even as it responded promptly to the bullying itself.

In another decision, Murphy placed a well-liked principal on temporary leave while she investigated a complaint of workplace harassment. That move angered some parents, who jumped onto a near 300-member petition to remove Murphy last year.

The incidents paint a complex portrait of Murphy, who will appear at Monday’s school board meeting for a vote by the board. That vote will come after a comment period from the public. If voted in, Murphy will start July 1 for a one-year contract.

But members of the Concord School Board say they are largely fine with Murphy’s past controversies, pointing to what they say is an impressive and lengthy career in public education. They say her track record with special education – as well as her oversight of a redesign of a Hampton-area middle school – are promising points on her resume.

And to some board members, Murphy’s experience with controversies is an advantage, not a disqualification.

“I respect administrators that aren’t just trying to be popular but are doing the right thing,” said David Parker, a school board member who helped select Murphy. “We need somebody like that.”

In an interview Friday, Murphy said the incidents are unfortunate eventualities with the superintendent position, and she said that they had each been learning opportunities for the district.

“When you’re in the business as long as I’ve been in the business, there are situations,” Murphy said. “There are situations that come up all the time, and superintendents have difficult decisions to make all the time. It’s part of the job.”

Both public controversies are recent.

Three-year bullying incident

In early 2019, John and Julie Cochrane brought a complaint to the Hampton School Board detailing three years of treatment of their daughter, Kora, at Hampton Centre School.

In 2016, Kora, who is black, had been teased by a white first-grade student that she was the only student with brown skin. The school separated the two children, but cases of racial bullying continued for years, the family says, with what they said was an unsatisfactory response by the school to deal with the underlying causes.

“During that time we had complained multiple times to the SAU,” Cochrane said. “The principals, the teachers.”

In early 2019, the Cochranes wrote a letter with an official complaint, shortly before deciding to withdraw their daughter from the school entirely.

They transferred Kora to a private school in Massachusetts, and sought a manifest hardship exemption to get the tuition paid for by the district. The school board rejected that request.

Cochrane said that Murphy had never responded to the letter of complaint, and that she had stopped meeting with them after they approached the Seacoast NAACP. In an interview, Murphy said she had sat down with the family but had stopped when she determined they were seeking civil action via the NAACP.

Murphy has said that the district moved swiftly to tackle the problem.

“The administration reviewed it, dealt with it, but unfortunately not to the satisfaction of the family,” Murphy said in the interview. “These were 7- and 8-year-olds. The administration sought remedy in the sense of providing the kinds of support to these youngsters to help them better understand the consequences of their actions.”

But the Cochranes were still frustrated, and in September, the federal government got involved. Acting on a recommendation from the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, the Boston branch of the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights opened a probe into the district’s response to the racial discrimination.

In a five-page summary of their findings – released this February with names redacted – the OCR found that “the District promptly responded in some form to both incidents,” using its anti-bullying protocol. But “OCR is concerned that the District’s response may have focused on bullying, to the exclusion of considering whether racial harassment had occurred,” the report read.

The report also concluded that the district did not share important details with the family and fell behind on documenting and tracking racial harassment incidents in general.

In response to the probe, Murphy committed the district to a series of reforms to improve the way it handled racial discrimination. Those reforms included additional training for staff members on how to handle bullying incidents relating to race.

Speaking Friday, Murphy said that she understood the findings of the report, and could see how the district had fallen short.

“I believed that teachers saw that there were ‘unkind remarks,’” she said. “They didn’t see it as a racial issue. And you know what, I accept that conclusion, because that is what has driven our district to do a lot of work. And that is what we’ve done.”

But the reforms have not moved fast enough for Seacoast NAACP President Rogers Johnson, who has called Murphy’s district’s handling of the Cochrane case and another bullying incident “discriminatory.” And he argued it was a warning sign for Concord, a much bigger and more diverse district.

“Given all the problems that the Concord School District has had, why in the world would they invite another problem into their system?” said Johnson.

Parker, the School Board member, defended the choice.

“I don’t think you can be in educational administration as long as she has without having some degree of controversy around you,” Parker, the Concord school board member, added. “I also think that she didn’t go through all the criticism unaffected. I think it was traumatic, and she showed that.”

Community frustration

Murphy faced additional criticism from Hampton community members over her handling of an alleged hostile work environment at one of her schools.

Last August, Murphy put Hampton Academy Principal David O’Connor on leave over an allegation by the Academy’s assistant principal that he had created a hostile work environment, the Portsmouth Herald reported. After a third-party investigation that the administration said found no evidence supporting the allegation, O’Connor was reinstated the next month.

But the temporary removal of O’Connor, a popular principal of 22 years, touched a nerve. Nearly 300 parents signed an online petition asking for a vote of no confidence in Murphy by the school board, the Herald reported.

Among the complaints was a lack of transparency. Parents accused Murphy of creating an environment where school staff couldn’t voice their opinions of the accusations for fear of reprisals.

The board did not take that vote, but Murphy announced her pending retirement the following month. That same month, the assistant principal who made the accusation abruptly resigned without explanation.

In October 2019, Murphy announced she would retire from the post after June 30, 2020, when her contract expires.

At the time, she told community members that she thought the 10-year period was “an appropriate time” to leave, the Herald reported.

In the interview Friday, Murphy said she had made a tough but necessary call. “When you’re in this position, and you make decisions, decisions are made every day, you don’t always have people agreeing with the decisions you make,” she said.

Board support

Despite some past controversies, Concord School Board members appear happy to support Murphy’s bid. A question and answer session Thursday evening brought out widespread praise of her record and her candidacy.

Murphy, who holds an undergraduate degree from Plymouth State College, a Master’s from Rivier College and an Advanced Graduate Degree from UNH has been connected to the Hampton School District since its inception. The district, SAU 90, was formed in 2011; previously Hampton had been part of neighboring districts.

Murphy was Hampton’s first superintendent. She held the position for 10 years.

In 2017, Murphy was named New Hampshire Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.

Murphy has also served in state government, at one point directing the Division of Instruction in the Department of Education, which oversaw accountability efforts, special education, and school health.

Murphy’s nomination comes at a time of uncertainty for the district as it seeks to find a permanent superintendent. Midway through May, Jennifer Patterson, the board president, announced that the final two permanent candidates for the post had withdrawn their names from consideration.

The candidates, which the board has declined to name, dropped out in order to stay with their current districts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Patterson said. Within two weeks, Parker and board member Barb Higgins had found Murphy as an interim option with the help of the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), the nonprofit organization that had been helping with the permanent candidate search.

The district has been involved in a search for the next leader since Terry Forsten resigned last year amid growing frustration with the handling of the Howie Leung student rape case. Last year, the board hired Frank Bass to serve as interim superintendent for the duration of the school year while it looked for a more permanent replacement.

Bass is not interested in serving another year, Parker said.

During her interview with the board Thursday, Murphy stressed the importance of transparency as the district moves forward to implement a set of reforms by an outside investigator over its handling of the Leung case and its treatment of Concord High School Principal Tom Sica, who resigned last year.

The board has declined to make public a 100-page detailed report into the actions taken around Leung ahead of his arrest in 2018 on rape charges in Massachusetts. The Concord Monitor and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire are presently suing the school district for release of that report

Murphy said that she would favor transparency, but would need to wait to read the report before knowing further.

“I would want to engage with the Board again about the information that can be released, that’s safe to be released without providing the detail on personnel and/or students,” she said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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