Reactions to Leung report: Anger, disgust, vows to reform Concord schools

  • Linda Mattlage holds up a sign at Monday night's Concord School Board meeting at Mill Brook School. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 7/14/2020 5:33:20 PM

Concord parent Dellie Champagne painstakingly went through the 115-page report released Monday that reveals a long pattern of inaction from Concord administrators to reports of inappropriate behavior by former teacher Howie Leung toward students.

She said it was such a “disturbing” read that she had to step away from it several times.

“I am really struggling with the amount of child abuse that is in this report, and the amount of adults that did not do what they were supposed to do,” Champagne said. “People we entrusted to take care of our children looked the other way.”

Champagne has been at the front of the push for transparency and accountability from the Concord School District for the past year. She was the co-plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in November 2019 by the ACLU and the Concord Monitor to obtain the report by investigator Djuna Perkins from the Concord School District. The district originally declined to release the report to the public, saying it contained details of “internal personnel practices” that were exempt from public disclosure.

“I want to hold adults accountable who really failed our children,” Champagne said. “That was part of the reason I signed on to this.”

In May, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled on a different case that records related to “internal personnel practices” are not categorically exempt from the state’s right-to-know law. Days later, the district, through its attorneys, decided to release the report, heavily redacted to conceal identities of victims, Concord students and staff, and witnesses.

Former superintendent Terri Forsten and former Concord High School principal Tom Sica did not investigate sexual misconduct complaints or discipline Leung to ensure student safety, according to the report. Both resigned in November 2019.

But they weren’t alone. Multiple other administrators, who are not named in the report, failed to act when teachers repeatedly spoke up about Leung’s odd behavior with students and his too-close relationship with a select group of girls. Some of those individuals are still employed by the district.

“There is a broken system in place in Concord, that failed our children,” Champagne said. “There were more than just two players in that system. We need to take a look at the people in the system who continue to downplay the horrific nature of this incident.”

Concord interim superintendent Kathleen Murphy, who has been in the position since the beginning of July, posted a statement on the school district website Monday that condemned Leung’s behavior and called for reforms going forward. It did not mention the actions of current employees.

“This despicable conduct of Howie Leung resulted in significant trauma to our students, families and district staff,” Murphy wrote. “None of us can go back and change what happened in our schools. We can, however, work diligently – and together as a community – to put in place the systems that will best protect against future misconduct in our schools. I look forward to working with all of you to do just that.”

School board member David Parker called the report’s contents “ugly on a lot of different levels.”

“The whole thing was ugly. It shouldn’t have happened. A lot of mistakes were made,” Parker said. “The redacted report gives the people a clear understanding of that.”

Parker ran for school board on a platform of transparency in fall 2019, calling for accountability by school leadership following Leung’s arrest on sexual assault charges.

“You have to set up an administrative structure within the school that they trust,” Parker said of parents and students. “You only build that trust by dealing with the truth and being transparent.”

School board member Gina Cannon, who was elected at the same time as Parker, ran on a similar platform of accountability. She said Tuesday that the report shows many teachers spoke up and “did the right thing” when they had concerns.

“We also have to educate our administration about what their obligations are,” Cannon said. “We need to educate our administration on how to mentor new teachers better so that this doesn’t develop.”

On Tuesday, school board chair Jennifer Patterson said that regaining the confidence of the community is “foremost in all of our minds.”

“I am so committed to doing whatever I can to ensure this never happens again,” Patterson said. “To me, I think the key is you can’t just adopt a policy and expect that to create a cultural change. You have to be able to live and breathe a different way of treating people and listening to people.”

Patterson said the school board’s hiring of safety compliance officer and Title IX coordinator Karen Fischer-Anderson in April and beginning its work on the student-employee relations policy over the past year have both been big steps forward toward fixing the problem.

Cannon said having Fischer-Anderson on staff will help to prevent future problems from progressing unchecked, the way it did with Leung.

“At the beginning, when [Leung] was counseled and told ‘you are too casual with students,’ he should have been required to take a professional development course on establishing boundaries between teachers and students,” Cannon said. “That’s why we hired Karen — to tell us what we are not doing right so we can prevent this.”

School board members Chuck Crush, Liza Poinier, Danielle Smith and Jim Richards did not respond to requests for comment. Tom Croteau was unavailable. Barb Higgins chose to defer comment to the superintendent, adding that she feels the situation is too volatile for her to comment as an individual board member.

Concord School Board members can’t comment on taking action against the involved staff members who are still employed by the district, because it would make them a biased jury if a terminated employee appealed the decision to the school board in the future, several members said. Firing employees is the job of superintendent Kathleen Murphy.

However, several board members said the situation is far from over and will continue to play out.

In the meantime, Concord parents are continuing the push for accountability.

“Having read what happened in black and white and seeing the number of missed opportunities school leaders had to keep the kids in their care safe — but instead chose to look the other way — is truly sickening,” Concord parents Kate Frey and Quentin Goble wrote in a joint statement Monday.

Frey and Goble’s daughter, Ana Goble, was suspended at Rundlett Middle School in 2014 by Sica – then Rundlett’s principal – when she expressed concerns about Leung’s behavior toward students.

“We hope that the administration and school board will finally take responsibility and acknowledge the enormous harm caused by the lack of leadership and district-wide systemic failures, so the healing from these tragic events can begin,” the parents said.

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