Hartford · In the State

The Connecticut Education Association’s Long Quest To Scrub Public Information On Alleged Child Abuse

In the face of investigations into the chronic failure of school employees to report child abuse, it appears the state’s largest teachers union has been working behind the scenes to scrub records that could aid in tracking patterns of abuse.

Back in 2016, around the same time that Hartford’s Mayor insisted the Office of the Child Advocate investigate into the city’s compliance with mandatory reporting laws, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) attempted — and nearly succeeded — to get a law on the books that would have expunged school employee personnel records of unsubstantiated claims of alleged child abuse.

You might think, what’s wrong with that? The answer is a lot.

The proposed bill, Senate Bill 323, would have required school districts to erase all record of an investigation from teacher employment records if DCF found the claim to be “unsubstantiated,” a measure that would have made it harder for the schools and public agencies to look into patterns of abuse.

The bill was being pushed by the teachers union as a way to protect innocent teachers and remove the stigma of false allegations from teacher personnel records, but as Commissioner of Education Diana Wentzel testified last March, the term “unsubstantiated” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

When DCF refers to an investigation into child abuse as “unsubstantiated,” that doesn’t mean alleged neglect or abuse didn’t occur, it means that the agency couldn’t meet the legal standard to substantiate allegations of abuse, which is a big difference. According to Wentzel, while false allegations do occur occasionally, “unsubstantiated does not usually mean the allegation is false.”

OCA report showed abuse is rarely substantiated in Hartford

This is particularly relevant because the Office of the Child Advocate’s (OCA) independent investigation into Hartford Public Schools, that was released in February, found that DCF chronically failed to substantiate allegations of abuse even when it was obvious that children were harmed:

“Investigators tended to characterize concerns regarding staff mistreatment of youth as a “program concern,” and DCF directed such concerns regarding the appropriateness of a staff member’s conduct, or the lack of appropriate supervision of children to the attention of district leadership. In one of the cases outlined above, even a teacher allegedly using racial slurs to harass students, allegedly calling one of them a “dumb black bitch,” was not enough to incur a substantiation, even with numerous students corroborating the teacher’s pattern of verbal abuse.

Even in the case of a young child, diagnosed with Autism and non-verbal, who was found blocks away from school after having been left unsupervised, no substantiation issued. In that case, school administrators were on notice of the child’s significant disability, had knowledge of his need for one-to-one supervision, were aware of the lack of appropriate staffing to support the needs of this child.”

Even in the case of Eduardo Genao, the Hartford administrator who was caught sending sexually explicit messages to underage students, past allegations of abuse went unsubstantiated by DCF.  While the union insists there is no utility in keeping an internal database, the department used these past claims to aid the investigation into Genao’s conduct.

If the legislature had passed SB 323 last year, it would have been harder for OCA to investigate into district-level failures. It would also make it harder for DCF to look into patterns of abuse. Meanwhile, it almost did pass. 

Despite the testimony from Commissioner Wentzel and Sarah Eagan with OCA, all but three members of the General Assembly’s Education Committee voted in favor of pushing forward this bill.

Part of the reason this bill had so much traction is because union makes a compelling case: No one wants an innocent teacher persecuted.

While it’s understandable to want to protect the falsely accused, tracking alleged child abuse has proved to be a national issue.

According to the Hartford Courant‘s editorial board, that came out against SB 323 last year, a Missouri study found that of the 35,000 Child Protective Services cases investigated in the state, “three-quarters of the children who were referred to CPS two or more times — including child fatalities — had cases that were initially unsubstantiated.”

The problems of tracking teachers go beyond that. A USA Today investigation from last year found that because the federal government has no national registry tracking child abuse in schools (though there is an independently held registry), thousands of educators with records of abuse have been able to find jobs by hopping state lines.

This isn’t the first time the CEA pushed to expunge records

In 2015, the CEA lobbied to pass Raised Bill 926, which was thankfully vetoed by the governor.

This bill would have required DCF to expunge unsubstantiated claims, no later than after five days from the completion of an investigation. This wouldn’t have just removed the information from personnel records, it would have scrubbed DCF’s internal database, making it virtually impossible to track trends of abuse.

To give a real life example that may ring familiar: According to the Hartford Courant, a pattern of unsubstantiated allegations factored into the state’s decision to revoke Carmen-Perez Dickson’s teaching license. To refresh your memory, she was the Bridgeport Principal that was caught on tape allegedly dragging two young children across the floor.

Keep in mind: This bill took a gubernatorial veto to stop. 

This bill isn’t dead

Remember proposed bill, SB 323, well it’s back! Just by a different name: Senate Bill 1017

Senate Bill 1017, originally introduced to require the state Department of Education to do a study “relating to elementary and secondary education in the state,” was substituted with language that looks suspiciously similar to SB 323. Here’s an excerpt for the Joint Favorable bill that the Education Committee pushed forward in March:

(c) (1) If, upon completion of an investigation of a report that a child has been abused or neglected by a school employee, the Commissioner of Children and Families finds that such abuse or neglect is unsubstantiated, the commissioner shall notify the school employee, the employing superintendent, the employing school or school district and the Commissioner of Education of his or her findings. Upon receipt of such notification, the Department of Education, the employing superintendent and the employing school or school district shall remove any references to the report and investigation from the school employee’s personnel records and any other records relating to such school employee.

here is SB 323 as it was last voted on in 2016:

(c) (1) If, upon completion of an investigation of a report that a child has been abused or neglected by a school employee, the Commissioner of Children and Families finds that such abuse or neglect is unsubstantiated, the commissioner shall notify the school employee, the employing superintendent, the employing school or school district and the Commissioner of Education of his or her findings. Upon receipt of such notification, the Department of Education, the employing superintendent and the employing school or school district shall remove any references to the report and investigation from the school employee’s personnel records and any other records relating to such school employee.

Notice the similarities? It’s the same bill. Just repackaged.

While there’s nothing wrong with protecting innocent teachers from prosecution, it can’t be done by removing information that can be vital for investigating child abuse in schools.

If the OCA report shows us anything, it’s that the system of reporting in Connecticut is fundamentally broken. Measures like this only serve to make it even more difficult to ensure schools are keeping children safe.

 

 

 

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