I’m calling out all the so-called defenders of public education: Your silence speaks volumes.
There’s a whole lot of “pro-public education advocates” in this state who have been focusing on Betsy DeVos, charter schools and the SBAC exam — but where is the outrage over what’s going on in Hartford? They’ll call state standardized testing “state sponsored child abuse,” but what about the actual child abuse being ignored by traditional Public Schools under the guise of protecting teacher’s rights?
In case you are wondering what I’m talking about, on Friday, the Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) released a disturbing report that found the Hartford Public Schools had systematically failed to comply with state child abuse and neglect laws. The report, which was requested by Mayor Luke Bronin after a former top school administrator, Eduardo Genao, was arrested last year for sending inappropriate text messages to an underage student, found that the school district had ignored allegations of wrongdoing for over a decade.
Genao was investigated in 2007 for similar allegations, but “DCF erroneously concluded that it could not legally substantiate Mr. Genao for emotional or physical neglect due to the female victim having turned 18 years of age prior to the state’s investigation.” If that wasn’t bad enough — the reason the district didn’t pursue further action was because, without DCF legally substantiating student claims, district staff was afraid to pursue an “unwinnable legal battle.”
Here’s an excerpt from the report:
“In the wake of DCF’s investigation, Mr. Genao faced internal disciplinary action in the form of a reprimand letter. Through his union representative, Mr. Genao requested that the district take an “aggressive approach” to any Freedom of Information Act request regarding the matter. A district note accompanying the letter of reprimand included a written caution that the matter must be kept “very confidential.” The disciplinary letter which referred to Genao’s “poor judgment,” but not to DCF’s characterization of his behavior as “grooming,” was negotiated by Genao and his union representative during a meeting in January, 2008, who together indicated the Union would demand “a full hearing prior to issuance of anything more than a verbal reprimand.”
In other words, leadership at the Hartford Public Schools left a person in a position of power — eventually giving him a promotion to Director of Special Education Compliance and a raise —after DCF reported he exhibited “grooming behavior.” They did this because they were afraid that his union would pursue legal action against the district.
The union’s whole purpose is to protect workers and their right to due process. While there is nothing wrong with that on the surface, the fact that they can strong arm a district into inaction when children’s lives are at stake is beyond upsetting.
Whether that’s the union intention or not (I want to believe it wasn’t) it has the same effect for the students involved. The union and its members got in the way of investigating child abuse.
This didn’t happen just once either. In the report, the OCA said that the district’s lack of compliance revealed “a disturbing picture of historical non-compliance,” showing that the district (and DCF for that matter) had consistently failed to comply with state law.
A Disturbing Picture Of Historical Non-compliance
“Some of the things that we read were shocking — and heartbreaking,” said Sarah Eagan, a child advocate with OCA, on Friday to WNPR. “That’s really the impression that I had both as the child advocate, and as a parent.”
What they found, according to Eagan, was an assortment of issues beyond the incident with Genao, most of them involving students with special needs.
According to the report, OCA found that nearly half of all reported incidents of neglect and child abuse were either never forwarded to DCF or were not forwarded in a timely matter. The result is that staff members suspected of abuse were left in their positions for months, if not years before DCF was notified.
To give you an idea of how pervasive the problem has become, here is a yearly breakdown from the report:
Notice the sudden increase in reporting in 2014 and then sudden drop off thereafter?
Well, there’s a reason for that trend. In 2013, in response to reports of a Naylor School student coming home with bruises and allegedly slapped in the face by a teacher that went unreported for months — an incident which got to the point where the student told authorities that they were suicidal — the state’s mandatory reporters law was changed.
Steep penalties were added for anyone who hindered or prevented staff from reporting suspected incidents of child abuse and a fine was added for anyone who retaliated against staff that reported or testified during abuse hearings.
Clearly, those reforms didn’t stick.The report included multiple stories of incidents that went unreported for months after 2014. Here’s an excerpt of the report:
“But investigation revealed a clear pattern of concerned educators and staff who often did not report and were unsure of whether such matters should be addressed internally through the chain of command or needed to be reported to an outside authority such as DCF. Many reports reveal this tension between handling matters internally versus reporting to outside authorities.”
Many of these reports came to nothing. DCF rarely substantiated reporters claims, not because inappropriate or abusive behavior didn’t occur, but because they couldn’t prove abuse when incidents weren’t reported in a timely matter — which is exactly what happened in Genao’s case.
This Isn’t Just A Hartford Issue
2014 wasn’t the last time mandatory reporter laws were strengthened. In 2015, after incidents in other districts came to light, a bill was passed that made failure to report a felony, according to the Stamford Advocate. As a result, the state legislature gave school districts a timeline. The law required that all districts upgrade their mandated reporter policies by February 1st, 2016. Cleary, that never happened.
“The new laws say you can be charged with a misdemeanor if you don’t report abuse and neglect. If you sit around the coffee table and talk about it, you can be charged as a felon,” said Gwen Samuels, the founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, who was among parents who testified in 2015 when the latest bill was up for a vote in the General Assembly. “And, still nothing happened. Even with new laws.”
“Each one of these schools was supposed to have had training, these teachers should have been arrested,” said Samuels, who through her organization has filed several DCF complaints on incidents of abuse that occurred in Waterbury, New Haven, and Glastonbury. None of which she said were resolved. “My problem is no one is willing to touch the union and they aren’t being made to report.”
After all this came to light, Hartford’s acting Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez immediately put an “action plan” in place, which according to the Hartford Courant, includes “up to and including termination” for those who fail to report incidents of abuse.
While the superintendent’s quick response is commendable, it looks a lot like business as usual.
The plan doesn’t address the fact that the union and the state played a role in allowing for the abuse of children to persist. Teachers and staff members committed felonies by not reporting incidents of abuse, and still, this “action plan” doesn’t include charging anyone. Just as important. What about DCF? Where is their action plan?
It’s sad that it has be asked, but, how many more investigations into child abuse does OCA have to do before the state takes the welfare of children seriously?
To read the full OCA report, I’ve linked it below: