School board lawyer warns of ‘public embarrassment, humiliation and retaliation’ if Concord report is released 

  • Attorney Stephen Bennett, of Wadleigh, Starr & Peters speaks at a Concord School Board meeting Monday night at Mill Brook School.  LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/7/2019 11:25:28 PM

Amid increasing public pressure on Concord School Board members to release details of an investigation into district officials’ response to reports of sexual misconduct, a lawyer working for the board warned on Monday night against making the report public. 

Doing so could put students at risk and discourage members of the community from coming forward about misconduct in the future, he said. 

“Other disclosures of personnel reports have resulted in public embarrassment, humiliation, and even retaliation against individuals who are merely witnesses and not wrongdoers,” said Stephen Bennett, of Wadleigh, Starr & Peters. “The board believes that … such disclosures could be harmful to individuals who have done nothing wrong.”

“The stifling of reports of misconduct in the workplace hurts the victims of misconduct, the employer and the public,” he added.  

Bennett said that the board-hired investigator, Djuna Perkins, spoke with nearly 60 school employees, a dozen students and their parents, as well as state and local officials, to compile the more than 100-page report into school officials’ response to students who complained about former special education teacher Howie Leung, who was arrested on rape charges in April. Portions of the report examined what might have been done in the district to prevent alleged assaults on students, he said. 

Bennett was hired in July to work as a liaison between Perkins and the school board while she investigated and compiled the report. Perkins is a former prosecutor and chief of the Boston District Attorney’s Domestic Violence Unit. Bennett, a former attorney for the city of Nashua, specializes in municipal, education, labor and employment law. 

The report not only includes names of students and employees, but also other identifying information that could confirm the identity of a student, Bennett said. 

“It is the school board’s opinion that even if the names were removed from the report, the other information contained in the report would allow for the identification of school district employees or students who were involved in the investigation, as well as their individual roles in the events being investigated,” Bennett said. 

Bennett said that the board’s decision not to release the report is consistent with the personnel exemption in the state’s right to know law.   

“Our Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that investigations into public employee misconduct are quintessential examples of internal personnel practices,” he said. 

Bennett and school board president Jennifer Patterson said Perkins is in the process of finishing a second report about the district culture that will be made public. The board should receive that portion any day, Patterson said. 

It will cover the district’s policies around reporting misconduct, whether they were followed in Leung’s case, and highlight “lessons learned,” Patterson said. 

“That part we will absolutely be making public,” Patterson said. “We hope that we will get that part of the report soon and that it will include information that really sheds a light, as we understand there is such a strong interest in knowing what occurred, what went wrong.” 

But community members said the contents of the initial report are a matter of public safety, a concern that outweighs employee privacy concerns. 

“Parents have a right to know what happened, parents whose children were in this man’s classroom,” said parent Elizabeth Young, whose daughter had Leung as a teacher. “I know you are in a tough spot, and you’re doing a lot of great work. I’m sure this is a really tough job right now for everybody, but I don’t think anyone’s going to be happy unless we know how that situation happened when administrators had information.” 

“I think you’re being protected by an attorney because you’re protecting somebody, or something, or some information that you don’t want the public to know,” she added. 

Other parents agreed.

“When you think about it, the school board and the school district has an attorney representing the school board and the school district and he’s providing you with the best information for you, the district. The community is on the other side of that, and as you hear, people get very angry about the right to know and releasing the report,” said Concord parent Karen Knowles.

“When reports are written by attorneys, it’s quite common to have four versions of the report. It’s not common to say, ‘We have the report and that’s it.’ You’re getting another version, you could easily get a third version that provides answers to the community,” Knowles added. “Now, I understand he’s your attorney, but you need to understand where we’re sitting as a community.” 

Parent Dan Habib said he hopes the second report that is released to the public contains more than just information about district policies. 

“It’s unclear to me, perhaps also to other people in the room, is it going to also give us a real, detailed look, without implicating, without violating the law you talked about earlier, about how the whole Howie Leung situation happened, what happened, how it happened, who is responsible?” he said.

“Even though I have a very personal stake in this in that my son was taught by Howie Leung for six years, I’m not looking for vengeance. I’m just looking for accountability,” Habib continued. “I think if that’s not in that report, the public is not going to be satisfied. The public is not going to be able to move on unless we really understand how this happened.” 

Habib asked that if those questions are not answered in the second report, if the school board would go back and ask Perkins to write a customized report that could be released. He also asked if the report would be passed along to Concord Police and the Department of Education.   

Patterson said she did not think it could be released to police or the Department of Education, citing legal ramifications. 

“I think maybe attorney Bennett can speak to that, or perhaps not, but as he indicated, just given the legal framework, it’s kind of an all-or-nothing, if it’s turned over, it then becomes public,” Patterson said. “I think that is a question really that is bound by the legal constraints associated with the report.”

Patterson said the board is working to be as transparent as possible and will release as much information as it can without compromising student and employee safety. 

“To reiterate, we truly understand the public interest in the information in the report,” she said. “I think this illustrates the challenging situation we find ourselves in with respect to our obligation to comply with the law in considering whether or not to release it.” 

  (This story has been updated with a correction to a quote by attorney Steve Bennett.) 

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