Experts say grooming techniques used by Leung are all too common

  • Lisa Redmond

  • Former Concord teacher Howie Leung appeared in court in Newton, Mass. on Nov. 6, 2019. Eileen O'Grady

Monitor staff
Published: 7/18/2020 4:16:40 PM

Each morning, the Concord High School student received a similar text message from special education teacher Howie Leung, asking her what she wanted for breakfast. Even when she replied, “nothing,” and she frequently did, he would still buy her a donut.

Leung expected the girl to spend time with him before the start of each day, and when she didn’t show up to his classroom, he called her out on it and made her feel guilty.

“It’s hard to reject niceness,” the girl told an independent investigator whose report details a pattern of inaction by school administrators to complaints of inappropriate behavior by Leung.

By fall 2018, the girl tried to distance herself from Leung who was known to favor her and a select group of girls, many of whom were not even his direct students. But, she told the investigator, Leung would not take no for an answer.

There was a sexual component to the “relationship” and, by that fall, he forced her to accompany him to a storage room on school grounds once or twice a week. She said even if she had screamed or yelled from inside, no one would have heard her. A staff member, who passed them on the way to the room more than once, never questioned Leung about what he was up to.

The teenager’s personal account is part of a 115-page report released last week by the Concord School District that details repeated failures by administrators to investigate reports of misconduct by Leung, who continued to prey on students for years before his arrest on rape charges in April 2019. Leung, 37, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which involve a former Concord student, and is awaiting trial in Massachusetts.

Local experts on sexual violence interviewed by the Monitor said the tactics used by Leung, both at Rundlett Middle School and Concord High School, are classic, playbook examples of predatory behavior. Sexual abuse often involves manipulative planning, also known as grooming, by perpetrators who aim to abuse and gain control of their victims. The witness accounts in the independent report illustrate how Leung befriended select girls, how he attempted to gain their trust and establish emotional connections with them, and how he isolated them for purposes of his own sexual gratification.

“So often it’s the people you don’t really expect – and that’s not by accident, it’s by design,” said Scott Hampton, a doctor of psychology who has worked with both perpetrators and victims of domestic and sexual violence.

“It’s not surprising that he would choose a position as a teacher, but then he took it a step further by working in special education, where there is greater likelihood that students would have particular vulnerabilities,” Hampton continued.

In addition to morning donuts, Leung frequently provided select students – referred to as “Howie’s girls” by some staff – an excess of Chinese food for lunch, which he hosted in his classroom. It was common for him to write late passes for the girls who arrived after start time and entered the school through his classroom windows. He also exchanged his cellphone number, talked about his personal life and posted photos of himself with the girls on his personal social media pages. They received Christmas cards with gift cards inside, and his favorites got rides to and from school.

Leung was known as the “cool” teacher, beloved by students and favored by then-Concord High principal Tom Sica, the report says. Staff who considered Leung a confidant at the time had trouble reconciling how his seemingly friendly behavior could in fact violate not just the teachers’ code of conduct but the law.

“Many of Howie Leung’s behaviors should have led to immediate termination, but like many predators, Howie Leung worked hard to be well-liked and, as a result, the staff at the Concord School District kept giving him breaks and even special treatment,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, public affairs director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “Predators want to make sure that if a child accuses them of abuse, their co-workers and the community will quickly come to their defense and say, ‘There is no way he did this, he is such a nice guy.’ ”

According to the report, former superintendent Terri Forsten and Sica did not properly investigate sexual misconduct complaints or discipline Leung to ensure student safety. Both resigned this past fall after the school board reviewed an unredacted copy of the report and voted to terminate them.

Victim accounts

At the request of the board, Djuna Perkins, founder of DP Law and former prosecutor and chief of the Boston District Attorney’s Domestic Violence Unit, interviewed parents, students, staff, administrators and state education officials about Leung and the district’s response to reports of inappropriate behavior over years. Through that investigation, she learned about four potential victims of sexual assault, including cases previously unknown to the district. She said she shared the information with Concord police.

To date, local charges have not been filed against Leung. The Massachusetts case concerns his time at the Fesenden Summer ELL Program, where a former Concord student said Leung assaulted her in the tunnels under school buildings and in her dorm room approximately 20 times in 2015 and 2016. A letter in which Leung declared his love for the girl, who was 13 and 14 years old at the time, was later recovered by authorities on his Google Drive and is also referenced in Perkins’s report, although its contents entirely redacted.

The rape case came to light in 2019, months after three students reported to administrators in December 2018 that they had seen Leung kiss a classmate in his car. The students’ report was what launched the only known internal investigation by the school into Leung, which triggered a series of events that culminated in his arrest. The girl is the second known victim to have agreed to an interview with Perkins, and the same girl who Leung texted each morning to join him for breakfast.

The girl told Perkins that her relationship with Leung became “increasingly personal” in April 2018, and that by late May there was a sexual component. Like the victim in the Massachusetts case, she volunteered at the Fesenden summer program and said Leung took her to the underground tunnels.

Before the start of the girl’s senior year, she tried to “break up” with Leung, she told Perkins. But she said Leung would get upset and that she felt trapped. She attempted to refuse his offers to bring her home after school, to which he would reply, “Why don’t you want this?” and so she continued to give in.

“She asked him all the time why she was so special,” according to the report.

By that December, she took the bus home whenever possible. On the afternoon classmates saw her in Leung’s car, she agreed to a ride because she had boxes of candy canes, and it seemed easier than juggling them on the bus.

Once the school launched its investigation, they didn’t tell her until weeks later that Leung was instructed not to talk to her. She said she felt forced to continue to hang out in his classroom so that everything would appear normal to her friends. Leung took advantage of the situation by whispering to her and writing her notes, according to the report.

“She started getting more uncomfortable, and the more uncomfortable she got, the more he made an effort to do nice things for her,” Perkins wrote.

Around that same time, Leung began talking about killing himself. She told Perkins that “she felt responsible for keeping him alive.”

When Leung considered tendering his resignation, he told the girl that she had the final say on whether he actually did so, the report says. Perkins said Sica ultimately refused Leung’s resignation. Leung, however, learned that his resignation would not stop the investigation, and so he did not proceed.

The girl said she did not disclose “the relationship” to administrators then because Leung still taught at the school and he knew where she lived.

The district did not place Leung on administrative leave until March 27, 2019, the same day police showed up at the high school. He was arrested one week later.

Predatory behavior

Perkins cited multiple instances where Leung showed clear “boundary problems” with students, and where swift and “more aggressive action” from administrators could have prevented the further abuse of students. She said the district allowed him to remain on the job despite repeated “red flags,” some of which were reported to Sica and often resulted in only verbal warnings for Leung.

Experts say what is sometimes referred to as the “lone monster myth” or this idea that a maniac is going to jump out of the bushes and attack, ignores the complexities inherit in sexual assault cases – the majority of which are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. Experts say the perpetrator is often the last person whom parents suspect of harming their child.

Hampton, founder of Ending the Violence in Dover, said sex offenders are very patient. He said they devote significant time and energy to “screening their victims” and “conditioning them” so that the abuse is harder to detect, in part, because it happens in secrecy. Leung fits the mold, he said.

“I’m not seeing anything here that I haven’t heard before,” Hampton said of Leung’s grooming tactics.

Girls in the 14 to 16 age group are at the developmental stage where they’re trying to figure out who they are and who they want to become, and that often includes a rebellious period, Hampton said. From inside the girls’ social circle, Leung used those emotions to his advantage.

“A predator will assess an unmet need of the child, such as attention or material objections,” Grady Sexton said. “Predators often try to connect with those they want to victimize by listening to them, buying them gifts, complimenting them, or giving them special treatment.”

From there, offenders test the boundaries by talking about romantic relationships or sexual matters, and they may gradually increase physical contact to try to desensitize the child.

“When a predator progresses into physically abusing a child, they will go to any length to ensure that the victim is emotionally dependent on them, and they will use guilt, shame, and even threats, to ensure that the victim does not report the abuse,” Grady Sexton said.

One of the most extreme threats a predator can make to a victim is the threat of suicide, according to experts. Although shocking, it is an all-too-common one, and it was used by Leung in late 2018.

“It sends a real mixed message,” Hampton said. “He’s saying, ‘You’re so special to me that if you do anything to break off this relationship, in whatever fashion, there will be nothing left of me.’ ”

Prosecutors say Leung composed several suicide notes, which his wife later found concealed in the ceiling tiles in their home. He attempted suicide on March 28, 2019, the day after the district put him on administrative leave.

As part of the criminal proceedings, Leung underwent a mental health evaluation to determine his competency to stand trial. A psychologist concluded in the weeks after his arrest that he was mentally healthy and understood the criminal process.

Leung, whose trial is slated for November, is out of jail on bail conditions.

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