Recommendations reveal Leung’s actions should have been clear warning to administrators

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

  • Howie Leung appeared in court on Sept. 12 to ask for a less restrictive curfew. Eileen O'Grady

Published: 10/31/2019 7:17:25 PM

Without mentioning Concord High teacher Primo “Howie” Leung by name, an independent report released to the community Thursday cited many of his actions with students that were in violation of basic professional standards that are, or should be in place in Concord schools.

Leung, who was hailed as a charismatic educator during his time at Rundlett Middle School and later Concord High, often allowed a select group of students to eat lunch in his classroom, he gave students gifts of cash, wrote personal letters to them, and drove them in his car.

In hindsight, all of those things should have been clear warnings to administrators.

“Failure to enforce such policies can enable boundary violations and sexual misconduct,” Perkins wrote. “Because sexual predators use ambiguity to perpetrate their crimes, even minor rule infractions can be indicators of potential boundary violations.”

Perkins report is heavy on recommendations to the school board and community but sheds no new light on what administrators did or did not do following student reports of misconduct against Leung.

In fact, Superintendent Terri Forsten and Concord High Principal Tom Sica, who were both placed on paid administrative leave on Sept. 27 after the board received the first part of the report – more than 100 pages – aren’t even mentioned in the second portion of the report, which is 10 pages long. The first report given to the school board hasn’t been released publicly, even in a redacted format.

Leung, who was arrested on April 3 in Concord on sexual assault charges, wasn’t named in the 10-page public report either.

Leung is awaiting trial in Massachusetts where he faces two counts of aggravated rape of a child, one count of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14, and one count of indecent assault and battery on a child over 14.

The girl, a former Concord student who is now 17, told police she was sexually assaulted by Leung multiple times in 2015 and 2016 at the Fessenden School in West Newton, Mass., which provides an overnight English Language Learning summer program. She reported being inappropriately touched by Leung on several occasions at Rundlett Middle School, both on school property and in his vehicle when he gave her rides home, according to court documents.

Concord school officials were alerted Dec. 10 that Leung had “engaged in inappropriate conduct” with an 18-year-old female student, who is a different student than the victim Leung is accused of sexually assaulting. Leung was reportedly seen by other students kissing the senior girl in a car in Concord.

District officials said they did not report the incident with the 18-year-old to Concord police because of the student’s age. However, they did forward the results of their investigation to the Department of Education, which ultimately notified authorities.

Leung remained on the job for 3½ months before he was put on paid administrative leave.

This week, the education department revoked Leung’s teaching credentials as part of an agreement. He is prohibited from teaching in the state indefinitely.

Parent Dan Habib, whose son Samuel was taught by Leung, said Perkins’s public report does little to help the Concord community heal.

“Parents want to know how Leung was able to continue to spend every day with kids for at least three months after students and staff expressed serious concerns about his actions,” Habib said.

He said the report still leaves parents with many unanswered questions: Why was Leung allowed to remain on the job during the school’s internal investigation? Why didn’t the district report their suspicions about Leung to police? And why specifically were Sica and Forsten put on leave?

“The release of this report, with no other context, is another example of inadequate communication by the board,” Habib said.

Perkins wrote that she was asked by the board to make recommendations that would prevent “similar violations from recurring in its schools.”

The recommendations included specific actions for the district to take, changes to policies, as well as a better understanding of broader concepts, like abuse of power.

“For the sexual predator, schools are a hunting ground,” Perkins wrote.

Recommendations and red flags

At school board meetings in recent months, community members said there were many red flags before Leung’s arrest that should have caught the attention of administrators. Parents said he had close relationships with several female students he taught and would bring them coffee or buy them lunch.

Perkins said students should not be permitted to spend “significant time” with teachers whom they don’t have for class, and that students should not be permitted to change their schedules without written permission from their parents. She also encouraged the development of a policy that discourages staff from socializing with students outside of school.

Under the Department of Education’s Code of Ethics, adopted this year, teachers are prohibited from giving students gifts other than awards authorized by the administration. The code of ethics also states that teachers have a responsibility to maintain a professional relationship with students and that the use of technology and social media to engage in inappropriate communication with a student is strictly prohibited.

The district’s social media policy discourages teachers from communicating with their students on social media and forbids teachers from using personal social networking accounts while at school. She said failures to enforce that policy enables sexual predators to use ambiguity to perpetrate their crimes.

Parents said Leung used his personal Facebook at school and posted photos of students on his private social media pages without parents’ permission.

In the days before Concord police arrested Leung in April, they executed a search warrant at his home and at Concord High School, where they analyzed computers, cellphones and paper records.

District communications obtained by the Monitor in a right-to-know request this summer show that officials were aware of interactions between Leung and the 18-year-old student that included “friendly emails,” the “frequent” presence of the student in Leung’s classroom, Leung’s recruitment of the student to the Fessenden School summer program, and Leung giving rides home to the student and a $200 gift to the student that he said was for her mother.

They also show that staff members who worked in Leung’s classroom expressed concerns about Leung regularly hugging students and having hushed conversations with the student whom he reportedly kissed.

In her report, Perkins said the district should adopt a policy that forbids staff from hugging students or engaging in any type of physical contact other than a handshake or fist pump. She said similar consideration should be given to a policy that outlines specific situations in which it’s acceptable for a staff member to give a student a ride. She said that ride should only happen with parents’ permission.

Further, she said, the district should require students to address teachers by their last names to remind both staff and students that “their relationship is that of teacher and pupil and not one based upon friendship.”

Community members have said that students often referred to Leung by his nickname “Howie.”

Administrators should constantly be on alert for these red flags and question any teacher’s failure to follow district policy, Perkins said.

Other recommendations

Whenever administrators speak with a staff member about concerns over conduct issues, Perkins said they should document any concerns. That includes any time there is a report of boundary violations of sexual misconduct, which in all instances should be forwarded to the Title IX coordinator in compliance with federal laws.

“Reporting all concerns to the Title IX Coordinator would also serve another critical function: ensuring institutional knowledge of concerns about sexual misconduct related to any particular staff member, student or trend,” Perkins said.

She said the Title IX coordinator would be in the best position to ensure preventative measures are taken and that behaviors are being monitored.

If there is an internal investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct, Perkins said that investigation should be conducted at the district rather than at the individual school level to “avoid the appearance of bias, reduce the risk of retaliation, and minimize retraumatization and embarrassment among individuals who will have ongoing contact unrelated to the investigation.”

Concord High School guidance counselor Karen Slick and art teacher Jeff Fullam – in their roles as union representatives – tried to discredit and disprove staff and student reports about Leung in February, two months after the students complained while he continued to work at the school.

As a matter of student safety, Perkins said any employee who is the subject of an investigation should be placed on paid leave as soon as the district is made aware of “a credible allegation of sexual misconduct.”

Students who come forward as the victims of sexual misconduct or assault should be referred to a victims’ advocacy organization or crisis center to better understand their rights.

Above all, Perkins said her biggest recommendation is basic awareness about the issues of sexual violence, from which no district is immune.

“Sexual misconduct can and does occur everywhere, including public high school, regardless of how supportive, caring or wholesome a community may be; regardless of whether a staff member has no prior criminal history, has been credentialed by the Department of Education, or is a popular or charismatic teacher; and regardless of whether a district has policies prohibiting misconduct and mandating reporting of suspected sexual abuse.”

In 2012, Leung was one of seven Concord teachers who was given a “distinguished educator award,” by Superintendent Chris Rath.

In 2014, a Rundlett Middle School student told her friends the way Leung treated some female students made her feel uncomfortable.

The girl, who was in seventh grade at the time, was called into the office the day before Christmas break, accused of spreading “malicious and slanderous gossip” and suspended for three days by principal Sica.

“A sexual predator will use any tools at his or her disposal, including ambiguity of rules, a lack of enforcement of rules, or a charismatic personality to accomplish it,” the report continued.

The school board is holding a special meeting at 6 p.m., at the district office Friday to consider the hiring of an interim superintendent. The board’s regular meeting will take place next Monday at 7 p.m., at Mill Brook School.

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