Critical of media coverage, Concord superintendent says it’s time to move on 

  • Concord School District Building Courtesy

  • Concord Superintendent of Schools Terri Forsten, left, and School Board Chair Jennifer Patterson listen to testimony at the board meeting Monday night at the Mill Brook School. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Linda Mattlage holds a sign at a recent school board meeting. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/23/2019 12:59:26 PM

In a letter to Concord School District staff Thursday, Superintendent Terri Forsten said it’s time to move forward.

Forsten cited policy changes made over the summer intended to increase student safety and the district-wide staff training scheduled for next week on sexual harassment prevention and the state’s mandatory reporting law. The training will include a presentation from the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence on understanding trauma when responding to accusations of sexual assault.

Forsten did not directly address special education teacher Howie Leung, who was arrested in April, accused by police of repeatedly sexually assaulting a former Concord student. However, she said recent newspaper articles and social media posts about the district in the wake of Leung’s arrest have been negative and unfair.

“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,” Forsten wrote. “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.”

The coalition, which agreed to help with the district’s teacher training before the start of school, is displeased with Forsten’s letter and its message.

“We committed to providing this training to advance the safety of children in the Concord Schools and to prevent future assaults,” Coalition Executive Director Lyn Schollett said. “We are stunned by the cavalier tone of this letter that dismisses the serious events at Concord high school as a ‘dribble’ of media events instead of the serious series of crimes against children that it is.”

Several parents felt the same way.

Rebecca McHugh, the mother of an incoming sixth-grader at Rundlett Middle School and an incoming freshman at Concord High School, said the letter felt like an attack on community members who have been speaking up at school board meetings in recent months asking for more accountability in the district.

“Terri Forsten says you must either be a loyal soldier and agree that there is nothing negative going on or you are somehow against the district,” McHugh said. “Asking for transparency in our district is not mutually exclusive from loving the amazing individual staff and efforts they make for our kids.”

Parent Dan Habib said Forsten’s letter to staff undermines the progress he thought the district and school board was making to regain families’ trust.

“I thought the district was starting to take responsibility for its role in these recent events,” Habib said. “Instead, in this letter she is taking the position that the concerns expressed by students and families are what is causing harm to the district – not the district’s own flawed leadership, policies, trainings, responses to recent events, and culture.”

At the last Concord School Board meeting on Aug. 5, nearly 100 people attended, many wearing blue to show their unified concern for student safety. During public comment, 32 spoke, including current and former students.

Concord City Councilor Jennifer Kretovic – chairwoman of the Crisis Center of Central New Hampshire and a parent of a former student – said Forsten’s letter doesn’t accurately depict the work the district has put into engaging with the community on changes being made in Concord schools.

“There has been this thought there’s been open conversations about how things need to change and that the district is willing to listen to parents for their recommendations. It’s been very productive – that letter makes it seem as though they aren’t listening,” she said.

Kretovic said she understands why district officials aren’t able to disclose all the information they have about the Leung case.

“The district is not being transparent, but they are never going to be able to be 100 percent transparent,” she said. “There are personnel issues at play and there has to be an acceptance, of, ‘We’re not going to know everything’ – it would be impossible for that to happen. There also has to be some level of report back to us and the community that says, ‘This is what occurred these are the mistakes we made’ before we can move forward.”

City Councilor Fred Keach said he thinks the district will have a tough job regaining public trust moving forward.

“It’s an overused word, but transparency, it’s really important and just the confidence that everything is being handled appropriately is not there,” he said. “I don’t think the way the district handled the situation ever gave anyone confidence.”

School will be starting on Aug. 28, a day later than planned so district staff can undergo a day of training. All employees will attend a session on Know & Tell, with Stephanie Arroyo from the Granite State Children’s Alliance, which will focus on the state’s mandatory reporting law. Linda Douglas, a specialist from the Coalition, will speak about how trauma impacts children long-term and how adults should respond when someone is disclosing that they have been harmed.

In her letter, Forsten urged teachers to focus on next week’s training and not speak negatively about the district.

“As a district employee, please join me in using your voice to tell our amazing stories about Concord teachers, about Concord students, about Concord staff, about Concord programs, about Concord’s success,” she said. “Let’s begin to purposefully not engage in negative conversations. Let’s focus time and energy on sharing what we are doing that is so impressive.”

Forsten acknowledged there have been questions about why the district chose not to respond to some articles.

“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,” Forsten wrote. “We have chosen to put energy into moving forward.”

Following new stories about instances in which the district officials disciplined or tried to discredit students who came forward with concerns about Leung before his arrest, the district hired a Massachusetts attorney to investigate whether its own policies were followed in 2014 and 2018. It is expected to be released after Labor Day.

Amanda Grady Sexton, an at-large Concord City Councilor and director of public affairs for the Coalition, posted Forsten’s letter to Facebook on Thursday night, which elicited dozens of comments.

“ ‘Moving forward’ requires a thorough understanding of what has happened in the past and what should never happen again,” Grady Sexton said in an interview Friday.

“Real change can only begin when the school is willing to commit to full transparency and accountability for the past,” she added. “Until then, I hope the community will turn this “dribble” of outrage into river of action.”

Brian Harlow of Concord was one of the people who commented on the post. Harlow told the Monitor the district’s approach to dealing with backlash is nothing he hasn’t seen before.

“It’s just the same narrative, whether it was Penn State or Michigan State or USA Gymnastics or the Catholic Church – the district is using the same tactic of, ‘If you just wait it out or blame the victim or blame people who speak out, it will go away,’ ” Harlow said.

Thursday’s letter was sent to the Monitor through an email that purported to be from Forsten. When asked, she said she did not send it to the newspaper.

“I offer several internal messages to our staff that are not intended for public communication,” she said. “Whoever sent it to you sent it in error and without my permission.”

Forsten did not offer further comment.

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