To our readers: School district’s silence will not put an end to questions

Monitor editor
Published: 8/25/2019 8:00:11 AM

When news broke in early April that a Concord High teacher had been arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a student, we reached out to Superintendent Terri Forsten to learn more. It was a stressful time for the school district, but we had some important questions that needed to be answered.

Why did Howie Leung remain at the high school for 3½ months after students reported seeing him kiss a female classmate in a car? Why didn’t the district report the allegations directly to police back in December, in accordance with its own agreement with Concord Police? Were there any previous complaints made against Leung during his time at Concord High or Rundlett Middle School?

These questions went unanswered, so we kept asking. That’s when it became clear that the Concord School District had little interest in speaking with us regarding Leung or whether its policies were followed. Instead, the district, citing legal advice, has relied on the fallback position that speaking on the record would infringe on privacy rights and personnel matters. We have clearly stated our position that the community’s right to know how the school district responded to allegations about Leung outweighs his privacy rights.

We continued to pursue transparency and clarity through records requests, interviews with parents and students, and by covering school board meetings and policy workshops, in an attempt to advance public understanding of the district’s actions surrounding the Leung case. Each time, we asked school officials for comment.

With students set to return to the classrooms, Forsten reached out to staff in a letter Thursday in which she wrote the following:

“The local newspaper and social media have offered a continual dribble of articles and posts that have presented singular perspectives and have negatively impacted some of the community’s viewpoint of our schools and work. I know there are questions about why we have not offered a response – why we have not offered an alternative perspective to counteract this negativity. To participate in and respond to these stories would be a full-time job and very likely would garner an increased number of negative responses. We have chosen a different response – we have chosen to take a close look at policies and procedures that support a safe environment for teaching and learning and safe schools for Concord students. We have chosen to put energy into moving forward.”

With that, we feel it’s time to respond.

“Continual dribble:” We’ve had a lot to report, all of it important. In addition to the arrest and Leung’s legal proceedings in Massachusetts, we’ve reported on the district’s current sexual assault and harassment policies, the suspension of a student who years ago reported inappropriate conduct by Leung during his time at Rundlett, current principal Tom Sica’s continued paid leave of absence, the ongoing independent investigation, a federal lawsuit against the district, the details of two Concord High staff members who tried to discredit Leung’s student accusers on behalf of their union, comments made by parents and students during public meetings and the ongoing discussion around the district’s revamped policies. The community has contributed as well with many letters to the editor.

Singular perspective: Our door is always open. We’ve asked district officials for comments on each of these stories. We’ve had personal discussions reiterating the point that we want their perspective. The community needs their perspective. The role of a public official and a public institution is to communicate with those who pay their salary. The district is right in saying that their side has not been heard, but only they can change that. When they do, we’ll publish their comments. In fact, we view our role as a community organization as parallel to that of the school district. We’re in a position to facilitate difficult discussions, and in this case, to help increase student safety.

No time to talk: Forsten contends that keeping up with the questions would be a full-time job. In fact, our total “on the record” time during these past five months has been less than a couple of hours. We’d be happy to sit down with the superintendent for a half-hour once a week. That seems like it’d be time well spent to help get answers to the community.

Time to move forward: Not yet. Right now, it’s still time to look back, just as the district’s independent investigator is doing. In order to learn from mistakes, one has to first understand the past. The community, especially parents with children in the school district, want to know about all complaints and investigations regarding Leung during his time in the district. These are valid questions, which is why the local newspaper has asked them. Hopefully, these answers will come from the independent investigation.

Negative conversations: Later in her letter to staff, Forsten writes, “Let’s begin to purposefully not engage in negative conversations.” It’s a sad statement that a superintendent would tell staff members that open, honest dialogue about an issue as serious as student safety could be seen as “negative conversations.” Open dialogue may not help the district win the PR battle they feel they’re facing. But it would help win back the trust they’ve begun to lose.

Forsten does strike a positive note in her letter to staff, commending her employees on their dedication, adding that positive stories need to be told as well. We agree. As one parent recently pointed out, the community can ask tough questions of its leaders and still fully support the noble effort of public education and its teachers. The Monitor will continue to write about the success of Concord School District staff and students in the classroom, on the playing field, on the stage and in the community. But we will not stop asking the hard questions.

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