Concord school board president addresses community questions surrounding teacher’s arrest

  • Concord teacher Howie Leung stands in Newton District Court in Massachusetts in April. Eileen O’Grady / Monitor file

  • Patterson

Monitor staff
Published: 5/18/2019 1:16:09 PM

The Concord School Board president said the community’s questions about how the district handled its investigation into high school teacher Howie Leung, who has been charged with sexually assaulting a student, are reasonable.

“With the benefit of hindsight, it is understandable to question whether more could have been done sooner,” School Board President Jennifer Patterson wrote in a formal statement to the community released a month and a half after Leung’s arrest.

“The process worked, in the sense that the district’s decision to turn to the Department of Education, and the department’s decision to turn to the Concord Police, were what revealed the need for further action which has been taken.”

However, she said it is “difficult (or impossible) to answer many of the questions about the district’s actions regarding Mr. Leung” without violating privacy protection laws for students and staff.

The letter was released as a way to address concerns community members voiced to her about the arrest, Patterson said Saturday.

“We felt it was important to get a clear message out about everything we could say, just because it’s such a challenging situation to speak about,” she said.

Leung remained at Concord High for 3 ½ months after the school district first received a report on Dec. 10 that Leung had “engaged in inappropriate conduct” with an 18 year old female student, who is not the victim Leung is accused of sexually assaulting as a middle school student.

The school district conducted its own investigation, which it turned over to the state Department of Education on Jan. 31.

The victim in the criminal case was discovered through the criminal investigation by police. Leung was arrested on April 3.

“The district’s investigation revealed no information that would create a reasonable basis for suspecting the type of conduct with which Mr. Leung has been charged,” Patterson wrote.

Concord Police Chief Bradley Osgood has said he wished police were contacted sooner.

“Based on what I know now as a result of this investigation, I believe it would have been prudent for the school to have notified us earlier,” Osgood said.

Patterson said she felt the district handled its investigation of Leung appropriately. But she also said the district is continuing to discuss how to respond to the arrest.

“I think, generally speaking, people understand the need for strong protections for student and employee confidentiality,” she said. “At the same time, this is something people are having strong emotional reactions to. I think they understand, but they wish they could learn more.”

Not every community member feels that way.

“I realize the district has an obligation to keep personnel issues private but there is absolutely no reason you couldn’t have informed parents of the accusations without naming the staff member,” wrote Breanna Smith in a letter dated May 14 to the school board.

Smith, who said her non-verbal child went through the district’s special education program, called the district’s transparency around the Leung investigation “horrifying” and questioned the district’s decision to report to DOE and not the police.

“They (DOE) had the same information the district had. Explain to me how one body could clearly see this is an issue that should be referred to law enforcement and another felt that no crime had taken place?” she wrote.

Patterson and school board vice president Thomas Croteau were the only school board members informed of the investigation when it began. Patterson said the rest of the board typically isn’t informed of investigations into faculty unless a disciplinary decision is disputed because prior knowledge might complicate that process.

While the investigation “revealed certain behaviors that needed to be (and were) addressed,” it did not reveal any illegal actions worth disclosing to the police, she wrote.

When the district completed its investigation, “neither the Department of Education nor the Concord Police Department … suggested to the district that its investigation or reporting was untimely, or that they should have been contacted earlier,” Patterson wrote.

Leung, 36, is now accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting a Concord middle school student here and at a summer program in Massachusetts following police investigations in both states. The victim in the criminal case is no longer at Concord High.

The district’s internal investigation included interviews with students, faculty members and the student in the allegations.

Officials at the Department of Education contacted Concord Police in February after receiving a copy of the school district’s investigation. A formal agreement, signed by Superintendent Terri Forsten and Concord police chief Osgood in 2016, requires school officials to report all forms of sexual assault, including cases of harassment, to law enforcement.

The victim, now 17, reported being inappropriately touched by Leung on several occasions at Rundlett, both on school property and in his vehicle when he gave her rides home, according to court documents. She also said that he assaulted her approximately 20 times at the Fessenden School, where she was an unpaid helper for the overnight English Language Learning summer program.

Police have said they believe there could be other victims and they are continuing to investigate incidents in New Hampshire.

Patterson wrote in the letter that the decision to contact the DOE was made so the department could “consider whether to take additional action.” On Saturday, Patterson clarified that the DOE could make decisions the district could not, such as whether Leung’s teacher certification should be revoked.

The Concord School District’s sexual harassment policy, revised last March, says one factor to be considered in an investigation is whether the harasser is in a position of power over the student subjected to that abuse.

Additionally, the Department of Education’s code of ethics states that unprofessional conduct includes “soliciting or encouraging participation in a romantic or sexual relationship” until 10 months after a student graduates.

It also includes a section that states faculty “shall maintain a professional relationship with all students, both inside and outside the educational setting, and make reasonable efforts to protect students from conditions which are harmful to their health and safety.”

Patterson said she couldn’t speak more on how the district’s policy was applied to the initial complaint, citing confidentiality reasons.

The district has focused on preventing further harm to students while protecting the confidentiality of students and faculty, Patterson wrote.

The school district made counselors from the Department of Health and Humans Services available during mid-April for parents and students, according to school board minutes.

“Nevertheless, we still have more questions to ask ourselves going forward about what more we can do to create and support a school culture where all members of our community will feel safe,” Patterson wrote.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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