Despite repeated ‘red flags’ about Howie Leung, Sica and Forsten ‘failed’ 

  • Concord Superintendent of Schools Terri Forsten listens at the School Board Meeting on Monday night, September 3, 2019.

  • Steve Leone

Monitor staff
Published: 7/13/2020 6:39:04 PM

Two top administrators forced to resign last fall from the Concord School District failed to thoroughly investigate sexual misconduct complaints against teacher Howie Leung and implement “discipline of any consequence” prior to his arrest to ensure student safety, according to a report released Monday.

Multiple witnesses interviewed for the report told an independent investigator that Leung repeatedly violated teacher-student boundaries for years and showed “favoritism” toward certain girls, including some of whom weren’t his direct students.

Leung, who now faces rape charges in Massachusetts, continued to teach at Rundlett Middle School and then Concord High School, where Principal Tom Sica and, later, Superintendent Terri Forsten repeatedly failed to investigate or take disciplinary action in the face of strong evidence that he violated district and state policies, the report says.

The 115-page report, which the district released Monday, was drafted by investigator Djuna Perkins, who interviewed a total of 56 witnesses, including administrators and staff, students and parents about Leung and the district’s response. While the names of those interviewed are redacted, the public report includes substantial information about the allegations against Leung, the concerns brought forward to administrators and the response from top officials, including Sica and Forsten.

Concord School Board members said last fall that their decision to terminate the district’s contracts with Sica and Forsten – which led both to resign – was based in large part on the findings in Perkins’s report. Officials, however, withheld the 115-page report for months until a recent New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling concerning the state’s right-to-know law and a civil lawsuit to produce the report compelled the district to rethink its position.

Perkins cited multiple instances where Leung had “boundary problems” and that swift and “more aggressive action” from district administrators could have prevented the further abuse of students entrusted in their care.

“Time and again, Sica failed to recognize student and staff complaints, however inarticulately made, as what they truly were – complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation,” Perkins wrote. “Because he failed to recognize the nature of the complaints, Sica also failed to investigate in accordance with District policies.”

For example, Sica and Forsten chose not to report to the state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families or Concord police in December 2018 after learning that several female students had seen Leung kiss a classmate in his car. Leung was informed of the allegations but not placed on leave. Perkins wrote that officials also failed to instruct him not to retaliate and not to destroy evidence.

One day after learning about the investigation, Leung tendered his resignation to Sica, the report reveals. However, Sica refused to accept it and, still, Leung was not placed on leave, even after he spoke with students about the allegations and deleted computer files, Perkins wrote. Leung’s response to the allegations underscored his culpability, according to Perkins, but administrators chose not to take swift action and intervene.

“Leung’s behavior raised numerous ‘red flags’ throughout his employment that Sica actually knew or should have known about and failed to act on effectively,” Perkins wrote.

The report shows that Sica and Forsten met with Leung in the weeks after he was seen kissing a student, placed him on a performance improvement plan and removed him as a club advisor. Still, Leung was allowed to teach, even after the investigation concluded the kiss and several other boundary violations with students had occurred. Furthermore, officials still considered renewing Leung’s teaching contract. It wasn’t until March 27, after a student reported to police she was sexually assaulted by Leung, that he was placed on administrative leave and notified his contract would not be renewed, the report says.

Forsten ultimately forwarded in late January the results of the district’s investigation to the state’s Department of Education, and it was state officials who contacted Concord police. The criminal investigation quickly expanded into Massachusetts, where Leung taught at the Fessenden Summer ELL Program. According to court records, the former Concord student said Leung assaulted her approximately 20 times in the Bay State, when she was 13 and 14 years old and worked as an unpaid helper.

Perkins concluded that Forsten made several missteps that jeopardized student safety and a thorough investigation, including failing to consult the district’s Title IX coordinator on the case and by not ensuring the investigation was conducted by individuals with the training and expertise to handle reports of sexual assault. At that time, Forsten had also not mandated training for staff and faculty on how to identify and report sexual assault and misconduct, the report says.

It was widely known that Leung was one of Sica’s favorite teachers, and the report reveals that Sica largely turned a blind eye to other staff concerns about Leung and he took punitive action against students who questioned Leung’s relationships with students. Witnesses said that Leung often allowed a select group of students to eat lunch in his classroom, gave students gifts, wrote them personal letters and drove them in his car. But Sica didn’t tell Leung to stop doing those things, he didn’t speak with other staff who worked with Leung closely and he didn’t closely observe or supervise Leung himself.

Perkins said Sica knew that students were also entering Leung’s high school classroom through the window to hang out behind closed doors and that this should have been serious cause for concern.

“The fact that this behavior was occurring should have set off Sica’s mental alarm bells and caused him to investigate further – especially a teacher with a history like Leung’s,” Perkins wrote in her report.

Concerns about Leung behaving “too casually” with students dates back to soon after 2006, when he was first hired at the age of 23.

Sica told Perkins he had concerns about Leung, but the independent report shows that those concerns were not well documented. In an interview, he recalled five different instances in which he spoke to Leung about boundary violations. While Sica said Leung was appreciative of those verbal warnings, other witnesses told Perkins that Leung resisted the recommendations and retaliated.

Furthermore, Perkins noted that not one instance of a verbal or written warning was in Leung’s personnel file.

Both Sica and Leung moved up from Rundlett Middle School to Concord High School in 2016. Leung applied for a special education position at the high school, which Sica said he cautioned against. Perkins said if that were true, Sica, in his new role as high school principal, would “surely have had influence, if not the final say, in whether to hire Leung at the high school.”

Sica is no longer credentialed by the state’s Department of Education. In the months after he resigned from the Concord School District, he voluntarily surrendered his teaching certificate, according to state records. The details of the agreement with the state are confidential, but the education department said the action was taken after Sica was accused of engaging in “unprofessional conduct,” including failing to ensure the safety and well-being of students.

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