Leung report reveals pattern of inaction by Concord administrators

Monitor Staff
Published: 7/13/2020 6:36:02 PM

Interviews with staff and students reveal former Concord teacher Howie Leung displayed a long pattern of behaving “too casually” with students going back as far as 2006, according to a report released Monday by the Concord School District.

Leung is awaiting trial of charges of sexually assaulting a former Concord student over the summer when she was in middle school.

Administrators counseled Leung on “favoritism” and staff members addressed him directly about his “close” relationships with students for years leading up to December 2018, when a report of him kissing a student in a car led to his eventual arrest by Concord Police.

The 115-page report shows that teachers and staff members, including former principal Tom Sica said they were “concerned” about his behavior on many occasions over a full decade, although few steps were ever taken to address it.

The report was drafted in September 2019 by independent investigator Djuna Perkins, who interviewed 56 witnesses, including administrators, teachers, students, parents, and state Department of Education staff.

The report is heavily redacted to conceal names of victims, Concord students and staff, and witnesses.

Warning signs

Leung started working as a special education teacher in Rundlett Middle School in 2006, when he was 23 years old. The report says Rundlett Middle School’s assistant principal at the time noticed that Leung was behaving too casually with students during his first couple of years on the job. The assistant principal said she would walk by Leung’s classroom and see that his body language and manner with students was very informal — he sat on the edge of his desk while teaching, and some students would eat lunch with him in his classroom instead of in the cafeteria. Several times during those first couple of years, she said she spoke to Leung directly about the importance of maintaining boundaries with students while teaching.

“I told him it was risky. Be careful. You need to have clear boundaries with kids,” she said. The assistant principal, who was not named in the report, said she also told Sica about Leung’s casual behavior.

In Leung’s district personnel file, there is no record of discipline or verbal counseling of any kind from 2006-2010.

In fall 2014, one teacher said she noticed Leung displaying favoritism toward a specific group of female students, often buying them lunch, including Chinese takeout and donuts, and eating with them in his classroom. A teacher said she spoke to her colleagues about it, after some of these students would frequently show up late to her class after lunch. When she told the students to go get a late pass, Leung would return with them, apologizing that they were late, and explaining that he had bought them lunch.

Although eating lunch with teachers in classrooms was not uncommon at the school, teachers and staff said they were unaware of any other teachers who consistently hosted the same students for lunch the way Leung did.

One student quickly emerged as Leung’s “favorite.” Many in the school community were aware that Leung had a particularly close relationship with this student, who was described as being like Leung’s “shadow.” They would be seen together in the halls, in the cafeteria, alone in his classroom and in his car, riding to and from school.

“Everyone knew [the student] and Leung had a very close relationship. It was very well known, at least among students, and I don’t know how teachers wouldn’t have seen it,” one student witness told Perkins.

In fall 2014, students began to complain about Leung’s favoritism of certain students, saying he picked some over others for special projects and opportunities. A complaint arose about racial bias by a student who “thought he was racist or mean or blamed her for everything.” In a meeting with the student and some staff members, Leung defended himself against racism allegations. There was no evidence that either staff member documented the complaint or reported it to Sica, in accordance with the Equal Opportunity in Education policy.

In December 2014, a seventh-grader at Rundlett Middle School, was suspended for spreading gossip about Leung.

Sica told Perkins that Leung and a fellow teacher went to Sica’s office one morning “in a heightened state that was not typical,” claiming that the student was spreading a rumor that Leung was having an affair with a student and they “insisted that something had to be done.”

In the report, Sica says he called the student into his office to talk to her after meeting with Leung.

The girl’s parents were called into the school for a meeting, and the student was suspended for three days. Later, a witness recalls seeing the girl by the lockers crying, and said “I’m getting in trouble for telling the truth.”

Without investigating Leung, or questioning why the girl why she had concerns, Sica decided to discipline the student, Perkins noted.

Sica also met with the student who was the subject of the rumor. During the meeting, Leung hovered outside Sica’s office, opening the door at one point and asking “Is everything okay?” According to the girl’s message to a friend afterward, she said she felt Leung’s “presence and influence throughout the meeting, even if he was not in the room the entire time.”

Sica said he then met with Leung, and counseled him about favoritism, and asked that he reflect on it. Sica said Leung was “very receptive to feedback and was grateful.”

Sica did not verbally report the incident to Chris Rath, who was superintendent at the time, or to the District’s Title IX coordinator, or to DCYF. There was no documentation of any of the meetings that took place.

Instead he and Leung corresponded by email.

“Thank you for all your help and support throughout this incident. I just wanted to share my appreciation again and I hope you have a fantastic holiday with your loved ones,” Leung emailed Sica on Sunday Dec. 21.

Sica responded on Monday, Dec. 22.

“I am sorry this incident ever occurred,” Sica said. “Be confident in the strong bonds (and) trust that you have established.”

Leung’s sexual assault of the student began two months later, Perkins noted.

More favoritism

During the 2015-2016 school year, staff members again reported favoritism being shown to students in the classroom. One teacher said she was “very uncomfortable” working with Leung because he was too familiar with the students. She had to insist that Leung stop giving a regular education student assistance on a test without a documented need — something that could result in claims of disability discrimination. Leung allowed the female student, who did not have an IEP or a 504 plan, to take a math test alone in his room, the report said. She and another teacher worked as a team to get Leung to stop feeding students answers in the classroom.

The teacher said she confronted Leung multiple times about his informal style with the students. But Leung did not change his behavior as a result of these conversations.

Another teacher said he knew Leung frequently had a group of female students in his classroom in the mornings around 7:30 or 7:45 a.m., before students were allowed to be in the building.

Another young male teacher who shared a classroom with Leung, said he would often arrive to find Leung in there alone with girls with the door closed and the window blocked, and said “the appearance and risk this created for he and Leung caused him great concern,” the report said.

When a teacher told a member of the administration about Leung’s attention to the girls, the administrator responded by saying “I know, it’s been a problem,” according to the report. When the teacher asked “Does [Sica] or [anyone else] in administration know?” the administrator answered “yes” and when the teacher asked if anything was done, the administrator said, “no.”

The administrator, who was not named, said in the report that she told Leung to be careful back in 2014-15 school year.

“I need you to be careful about boundaries, because someone might accuse you of something,” she told Leung. Leung did not change his behavior.

By spring 2016, Sica said he had developed concerns about Leung. During an end-of-year potluck breakfast, Sica said he became “very uncomfortable” when he saw Leung pictured in at least a dozen photos with students in a slideshow of activities from throughout the year. Sica said it made him question Leung’s “judgement and morality”

During the same time period, Sica told Leung he could not engage physically with students, after an incident where Leung engaged in “horseplay” with a student in the hall, resulting in injury to the student. Sica said Leung was “apologetic.”

On the last day of school in 2016, an incident occurred at the school talent show where a student tripped, and Leung made a comment that one teacher witness said made it appear to her as if Leung were bullying the student. The teacher told Leung loudly to stop, and then went to Sica’s office to report the concerns.

“I went off on him and told him what happened,” the teacher said. “You know you’re taking him to the high school and he has baggage. If you don’t do something, someday he will be on the front page of the Concord Monitor and so will you if you don’t do anything.”

Leung was to start a new job at Concord High School the next fall.

The teacher said Sica replied to her by saying “you are emotional. Calm down, I promise I will deal with this.” Sica has denied that the teacher reported any concerns to him about Leung.

Some staff at Rundlett Middle School say they had concerns about Leung but did not report them to Sica because they did not feel they had sufficient evidence that he was doing anything sexually inappropriate, although they thought he was violating appropriate boundaries, the report said.

Other staff members said they did not say more because they did not feel that Sica would respond appropriately, based on past experiences where they felt he had not taken decisive action. One teacher said the staff talked among themselves about how it would be “futile” to report concerns to Sica.

Continuing concerns at high school

In May 2018, one staff member said she overheard Sica questioning why Leung was being driven home by high school students. Leung had torn his right meniscus and was unable to drive for five weeks. One employee who worked directly with Leung in his classroom offered to give him rides, the teacher said, but he instead began riding to and from school with students.

An educator who worked in Leung’s classroom said staff who worked in Commons D with Leung noticed the students who would gather in his room for lunch, and discussed it among themselves.

“Anyone who came in that room would be aware of his behavior,” the educator said in the report.

The educator said she addressed Leung directly about her concerns, and when he did not change his behavior she reported him to a higher level staff member.

The higher-level staff member said that employees working in Leung’s classroom complained “frequently” about Leung, a few times a month throughout fall 2018. In early November, one educator reported to the higher-level staff member that Leung hugged a female student for a full minute.

“I felt really uncomfortable,” the educator said.

Sica said he told Leung that hugging students was inappropriate. Sica did not speak with the educator who made the report, or verify any accounts. After this, Leung was told not to have any unassigned students in his classroom.

On the morning of Dec. 10, 2018, three students reported to a CHS administrative assistant that they saw Leung kissing a student while t hey were stopped at a red light. The administrative assistant reported the incident to Sica, who then told Forsten.

Leung was allowed to remain on the job for three and a half more months before any action was taken against him.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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