‘I am not ready to give up’ – Fabiana McLeod’s struggle to overcome Howie Leung’s abuse

By JAMIE L. COSTA

Monitor staff

Published: 08-16-2023 10:35 AM

Two years after the sexual assaults started, Fabiana McLeod began to act out.

During the summer going into her freshman year of high school, she started to use substances to bury her secret. When the school year began, she threw parties, disobeyed her parents and showed disrespect toward her teachers.

She had changed, and her parents struggled to understand why.

During her seventh and eighth grade years between 2014 and 2016, McLeod was targeted and repeatedly sexually assaulted by Primo “Howie” Leung, a special education teacher at the Concord School District. The abuse began when she was a 13-year-old student at Rundlett Middle School.

Instead of getting away from Leung when she went to Concord High, he was transferred from Rundlett to the high school just as McLeod and her friends were entering their freshman year. She felt trapped in the same building as her abuser – a man who had been given the school district’s distinguished educator award in 2012 and was later described as a master manipulator by an independent investigator. She felt no one in the school district would believe her.

Last month, on July 19 – nearly five years after McLeod came forward to police – Leung was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of rape of a child, two counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 and assault and battery.

“I didn’t realize I was being groomed until it progressed to physical touching after five to six months,” McLeod said. “He would have the group of girls in his room for lunch all the time, then I started seeing specific special treatment, which involved buying special lunches for me or driving me home after school, which he didn’t do for other students.”

The special treatment escalated to kissing and inappropriate touching, McLeod said, but she didn’t speak out. Leung told her to stay quiet as there would be drastic consequences for both of them if anyone found out.

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“I was scared and I didn’t understand much about that (sex) at that time,” she said. “I was shy and I thought, if anything, I’d be reprimanded for speaking out after seeing what happened to other students.”

A fellow student complained about Leung’s inappropriate behavior in middle school, but instead of initiating an investigation against Leung, school principal Tom Sica suspended the girl for three days for spreading “malicious gossip.”

Leung was desperate to cover his tracks and retaliated against students and staff who complained about him, according to a comprehensive investigative report into the school district’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against Leung.

The report by attorney Djuna Perkins published in September 2019 pointed to years of warning signs the administrators at the time did not address, including inappropriate personal messages and conversations with students, overly casual body language with students, buying food and coffee for a select group of girls and favoring certain students for projects and activities. It was textbook grooming behavior, sexual assault prevention advocates said.

“We trusted the school, and the principal had chances to do more and he didn’t,” said Karina McLeod, Fabi’s mother. “The way he handled it, he suspended the student for creating a rumor and then they called both (Leung and Fabi) into his office at the same time, and she felt like she couldn’t say anything, even if she wanted.”

The school had a chance to stop the abuse, which escalated over the next summer, but didn’t.

“By calling them both, there is no chance that she would have spoken, and I think there was a lot of opportunity and misplaced trust on the part of the school,” said Mark McLeod, Fabi’s father. “They didn’t do their due diligence.”

Crossed lines

During the summer of 2015, McLeod attended a program at the Fessenden School in Newton, Mass., as an unpaid helper to Leung, who was a co-director. He had access to her dorm room, where he assaulted her. The sexual assault continued into her eighth grade year and the following summer.

“That first year, I was living with someone and I thought I’d just be with them, but I was wrong,” McLeod said. “The next summer, I didn’t want to go back, but I had made friends from different countries and part of me wanted to see them again, but I only went for a short amount of time.”

When she entered her freshman year of high school at Concord in 2015, she learned Leung had requested a transfer to be closer to her. His office was directly next to her locker, she said, but she refused his advances and he threatened her to keep quiet.

Her rebellion got worse.

“My freshman year, I threw a party at my grandparents’ house, and that was the first big thing,” she said. “I wasn’t listening to my parents, I stopped coming home after school and I would be gone until my parents started blowing up my phone.”

All the things she used to love began to fade away. She began to skip soccer practice, stopped spending time with friends and gave up her favorite hobbies, like playing piano and skiing.

“During that time, I was very numb to a point where I had no feelings or I only had feelings of shame for myself, and I didn’t really care what happened to me,” McLeod said. “I just wanted to do what I wanted to do, and that was that. I didn’t care.”

At the end of her sophomore year, she transferred to a boarding school in Connecticut to play lacrosse. The opportunity to get away changed her life, she said.

A second victim

During McLeod’s junior year in 2019, she got a call from the Concord Police Department asking her to come in for an interview related to recent allegations made against Leung. Several girls reported seeing him kissing a Concord High School student in a car. Leung told his school superiors she had something in her eye and nothing inappropriate occurred between the two.

That was a lie.

In a restraining order taken out three months after Leung’s arrest, the 18-year-old girl wrote that Leung initiated a relationship with her in June 2018, when she was 17, and when she tried to leave the relationship, he “coerced” her into staying. While the school district began its investigation into the accusations in December 2018, no one told Leung to stop contacting her until the end of January, according to the Perkins report.

“I was upset and didn’t talk to him at school, but he showed up at my house and wanted an explanation,” the Concord student wrote in the restraining order. “Shortly after, the school asked him not to have contact with me, but he ignored the order and the relationship escalated. From Mid-December 2018 through February 2019, he would come to my home almost every single day after school. I continued to try to leave the relationship several times, but he continued to show up, call and message.”

School officials never told police about the accusations against Leung or that they found inappropriate messages to students on his work computer. Instead, the Concord superintendent forwarded the findings of their own investigation to the state Department of Education. Upon reading the report, state officials called Concord Police.

Days before his arrest in April 2019, Leung gave the 18-year-old girl $10,000 in cash.

While the student declined to press charges against Leung, she sued the school district and settled the case for $1 million in February 2022.

Coming forward

The night before McLeod was slated to meet with Concord police detectives in the winter of 2019 to give her statement, she gave her parents a glimpse of the abuse she’d endured.

“We asked her what was going on and said we wanted to help and support her,” Mark McLeod said. “She didn’t go into great detail, but that was when we first learned what he was responsible for. It was devastating for us to hear that – we were stunned and very upset.”

The next morning, McLeod’s parents drove her to the police station. Unsure what she would say, if anything, she contemplated the school district’s failure to protect her.

“It was a last-minute decision. I didn’t know if I was going to say anything. I had convinced myself I wouldn’t say anything to anyone,” McLeod said. “But then I started talking and I couldn’t stop, and after a few teachers tried to discredit me, I wanted to say more.”

After Leung was arrested, he denied everything until finally admitting what he did for the first time last month.

For McLeod, coming forward nearly five years ago was just the beginning. Her relationship with herself, her family and her friends was forever changed.

“The way she used to be, she was very respectful to us and her teachers, she was a good student, she had a big heart and she liked to help others,” said Karina McLeod. “Then all of a sudden, there was a big change, and I asked her because it was like she was a different person, and she said it was school and girl drama, but she never said anything else was happening.”

“She loved to be with her family and play games. She had a broad range of interests, like music and sports. She and her sister even did Scottish dancing,” added Mark McLeod. “She always put her mind toward doing well in what she was interested in but, all of a sudden, there was a lot more disinterest. She started hanging out with different friends, school wasn’t as important to her and she was less open with us.”

Now 21 years old, McLeod sat on her living room couch wiping the tears from her eyes.

“It starts from the second I wake up in the morning. I have to tell myself it’s going to be a good day, I’m OK and I’m safe,” McLeod said. “There are still times when I don’t want to be here, but I have come this far and I am not ready to give up yet, but it’s also not easy to control something like that.”

Every relationship in her life was touched by the continued abuse. She’s pushed away so many of her friends, especially men, and building new relationships is tough.

“The abuse affected my sexuality and my view of men and what I am comfortable with,” McLeod said.

Through ongoing therapy, McLeod has learned to trust her instincts, set boundaries, be confident in who she is and what she is capable of and accept that the abuse she endured was not her fault, she said. Though some days are harder than others, she knows that she has to keep fighting to stay true to her younger self and the future she wanted.

“I think she’s a remarkable young woman and one of the strongest people I have ever met,” said Mark McLeod. “To see where she is now and how she’s been able to keep everything together through all of this, I have so much admiration and respect for her, and I hope she’s able to continue healing and focusing on herself and what she needs. We are both here behind her and with her for anything she may need to get where she wants to be.”

After she graduates from the University of New Haven in the fall, she plans to travel before joining a non-profit to help support survivors of sexual assault. She may even start her own organization, she said.

“I look forward to slowly getting there and not feeling as numb, so I can just exist every day without feeling so exhausted with just being alive,” McLeod said.

Pursuing new charges

While the most serious sexual assaults took place in Massachusetts, some of the abuse happened in Concord and Leung could be facing additional charges, police said.

No charges have been announced yet, but Leung could face time in the New Hampshire State Prison after his sentence in Massachusetts is over, said Concord Deputy Chief John Thomas

When criminal charges were first filed against Leung in Massachusetts, many wondered why New Hampshire didn’t follow suit.

“Back when this case broke, Massachusetts was going to be the lead on the investigation because more of the serious crimes happened in Massachusetts,” Thomas said. “We didn’t want to move forward with charges here until that case was resolved.”

The trial was delayed six times before Leung agreed to a deal to plead guilty.

In addition to waiting on the Massachusetts case, police wanted to make sure McLeod gave them the thumbs up to move ahead.

“I am happy that she feels comfortable enough to face her abuser – it’s not easy for any victim to face an abuser, especially in this type of circumstances,” Thomas said. “I applaud her for really being as strong as she has been throughout this entire case.”

By meeting again with McLeod, the extent of the charges, whether misdemeanors or felonies, is still being considered, he continued.

“I have no hesitation in moving forward with charges in Concord,” McLeod said. “I really wanted something done here. I’ve spent so many years doing this stuff. As much as I wish he went in for longer in Massachusetts, this is a part of what was done, and I’m glad the Concord stuff got picked up so I can finally be done with it all.”

In a civil suit, McLeod sued the Fessenden School for $1 million. A settlement was reached for less than the requested amount, McLeod said.

“We support her and we know this is hard for her – she’s starting all over again,” said Karina McLeod. “But she wants to do it, even on the days when she’s feeling overwhelmed and scared.”

McLeod came forward publicly in May 2021 while filing the lawsuit against the Fessenden School, saying at the time that she wanted to help protect others. The Monitor doesn’t name victims of sexual abuse unless they choose to be identified.

“I think she feels a responsibility that although this happened to her, she wants to help prevent it from happening to someone else, and that’s been a lot of her motivation. I am extremely proud of her that she has found a way not to let this disrupt her future,” said Mark McLeod. “It’s very important that she’s able to speak openly because, for so long, she couldn’t and she felt scared. This takes away from the power and secretiveness of it all and gives her back her control.”

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