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Update: Concord board members surprised by news of district shakeup

  • Concord School Board President Jennifer Patterson meets with editors on Thursday, September 26, 2019 at the Concord Monitor. 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
Published: 9/27/2019 4:16:55 PM

The Concord School Board has placed district superintendent Terri Forsten on paid administrative leave.

The move announced Friday evening follows a report delivered to the board Monday by an investigator hired to examine the district’s response to complaints of inappropriate behavior by former teacher Howie Leung.

Concord High principal Tom Sica continues to be on paid leave, and assistant superintendent Donna Palley will take over as interim superintendent, Concord School Board president Jennifer Patterson said in a statement Friday.

Although they would not comment on the board’s decision to place Forsten and Sica on leave, the news of Palley taking authority over the district was a surprise to at least two school board members, Chuck Crush and Barb Higgins.

“I found out last night probably five minutes before everyone else,” Crush said Saturday. “I was somewhat shocked. I had no idea that Donna Palley was going to be the interim superintendent.”

“I was a bit taken aback by the nature of the communications,” Higgins said. “I didn’t know anything about that. The Donna Palley thing was a big surprise.”

In an interview with the Monitor on Thursday, Patterson said the board is beginning to consider whether to discipline or terminate any staff members after it received the first portion of the two-part report, which focuses on how staff responded to allegations of sexual misconduct brought forward by students. Part of that process will include reviewing the actions of every staff member who was involved with investigations into Leung. Palley, who has worked in the district for 30 years, will likely be among a number of teachers and administrators under the microscope.

Crush said he had no comment on whether he thinks the decision to appoint Palley to lead the school district is the best move for Concord.

“I don’t have concerns nor do I endorse it – I don’t know what to think,” he said. “I need to have more information and further discussion.”

When asked about whether he was concerned about how the board and the public was informed about Palley’s new role, he said, “I’ll let you draw your own conclusion. I think that’s obvious.”

Crush and Higgins both said they didn’t believe Patterson or school board Vice President Tom Croteau had purposefully tried to hide that information from the board.

“I do feel confident that Jenny and Tom came to the decision in a way they thought best,” Higgins said. “We as a board work incredibly hard and we want to do the right thing. It was just a big miscommunication that shouldn’t have really happened.”

In an email to the Monitor, Patterson wrote on Saturday night that she included the information about Palley’s new role in her message to the community because she felt it would be important to let residents know who would be taking over Forsten’s duties in her absence.

“Perhaps I caused confusion to those two board members by using the term ‘interim’ – all I meant was that Ms. Palley would be performing these functions on an interim basis, a service to the community I am confident she will perform well,” Patterson said.

“While perhaps I could have worded the statement more clearly, I did not intend to surprise anyone. The role of the Assistant Superintendent includes acting as Superintendent in the absence of the Superintendent, so this would seem a natural announcement,” she added.

Patterson said the board expects to see the second part of the report next week. She said the second part will be “policy focused” and will highlight “lessons learned.” For now, she said the board is focused on making swift, but thoughtful personnel decisions for student safety.

“Our focus right now is on personnel action – we want to take action as quickly as we can now that we finally have the information about what happened,” Patterson said Thursday.

Patterson said in Friday’s message that the board “cannot provide any further information about these confidential personnel matters,” and that “we will share more information as we are able to do so.”

The next school board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 7 at 7 p.m.

On Thursday, Patterson would not say if the board would disclose any facts contained in the 100-plus page report, citing exemptions in the state’s right-to-know law.

“That’s just a very complicated legal question, because of all of the privacy rights that are inherent in that type of information,” she said. “I think very likely, in terms of what’s in the report, it will probably not become public. That doesn’t mean there won’t be things that become public as a result of that report.”

The school district has no plans yet to share the report with the Concord police chief, either.

“I don’t know about questions about the future,” Patterson said. “Right now, that isn’t our focus.

“Every single board member has heard everything that’s been said and has paid a lot of attention, not just to what the public is saying during meetings, to all of the communications that we’ve received. And that is an important piece of what we consider as we try to figure out what to do,” she added. “Once we’ve gotten through the part of our process, where we figure out what happened and what we do about it, as a board running a school district, then we want to be as transparent as possible, both about what we’re doing, and what went wrong. We really do want to talk to the community about what went wrong.”

The report centers on two incidents – in 2014 and 2018 – when students told of concerns about Leung, who was arrested in April on charges of raping a student. The report focuses on the 2014 and 2018 incidents, but also covers other incidents that may have informed staff members “perspectives” during that time, Patterson said.

Patterson would not say if other complaints had been made about Leung.

In 2014, a Rundlett Middle School student was suspended by then-principal Sica for spreading “malicious and slanderous gossip” after she told him the way Leung treated female students made her feel uncomfortable. Sica, who is now principal of Concord High, where Leung most recently worked, went on “voluntary” paid leave in June. Patterson on Friday indicated the board has placed Sica on paid leave, meaning the status is no longer voluntary.

In 2018, several students reported seeing Leung kiss a high school senior in a Concord High School parking lot. Leung remained at the school for 3½ months after students’ initial report while the school conducted its own internal investigation. School administration forwarded a report of its investigation to the state Department of Education, but never contacted police, in possible violation of its memorandum of understanding with the Concord Police Department.

Additionally, a Concord High art teacher and a guidance counselor wrote letters to Forsten in their roles as co-chairs of the union grievance committee in an attempt to discredit the students who came forward, questioning whether the girls could have seen what they reported, citing the unreliability of eyewitness accounts and suggesting that the girls could have been punished for harassing their classmate by asking her about the interaction with Leung.

Patterson said she understands there is a perception in the community, which was cited repeatedly at school board meetings this summer, that the district has prioritized protecting its staff over the safety of students. Patterson said she knows that it will be frustrating for the public not to be able to know every thing that happened in the Leung case.

“From our perspective, I understand the concern about trying to protect people, I can,” she said. “I am not trying to protect anybody.”

Although Patterson would not divulge any information about the contents of the report, she said it did answer whether or not staff members acted appropriately and followed school policy.

“The report accomplished its goal,” she said.

Patterson said the board understands the strong public interest in knowing what happened. But she said the board is committed to “appropriate transparency consistent with the applicable laws.”

“Frankly, there are some things the public may never know, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not committed to being as transparent as possible,” she said.

The Monitor requested that the board release the report with names redacted or that the board request that the attorney handling the investigation write a summary of the report that could be shared publicly.

The report was completed by Djuna Perkins, who is a Boston-based attorney with extensive experience working with schools on approaching sexual misconduct cases. She has worked with colleges such as Harvard, Tufts and Williams. Perkins was instructed to have no contact with the school board. Municipal lawyer Steve Bennett was hired to act as a liaison between the board and Perkins.

Patterson said the board reviewed the report in a room with Bennett, who brought paper copies for them to review. Patterson said no one, besides the attorneys and the board, had seen it.

She said it is her hope that the report, or portions of it, will be able to be released publicly.

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