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Groton - A Northeast Academy teacher who asked her fourth-grade students to keep crumpled paper towels in their mouths for five minutes in an attempt to keep them from talking out loud or yelling out answers is on paid administrative leave, according to the superintendent of schools.
The incident, which involved about nine of 18 students in Carole Van Erven's fourth-grade class, happened near the end of January or in early February, Superintendent of Schools Paul J. Kadri said Saturday.
Van Erven, a 20-year-teacher at the Mystic elementary school, is facing disciplinary action, but Kadri declined to elaborate on the details of that action because it is a personnel matter.
"This is a what-were-you-thinking situation," Kadri said. "We opened an investigation and thoroughly explored the situation and we have zero concern about any risk going forward. This wasn't done to be physically hurtful, and we take student safety as our number one priority above academic achievement."
He said Van Erven is an "outstanding" teacher who has done "outstanding" things throughout her teaching career at the academy. He expects Van Erven to return to school by the end of the week.
Kadri said Northeast Academy Principal Paul Esposito became aware of the issue the week of March 12 after a child told a parent about the incident.
On Tuesday, Esposito sent a letter home to the parents of the 18 students in Van Erven's classroom, inviting the parents to a meeting with him and Kadri last Thursday to discuss the issue further.
In the letter, Esposito called the incident "unfortunate" and "regrettable."
"It was a good session," Kadri said. "We talked about how the school is like a community and sometimes people make mistakes, and how do we know if a person is really sorry for their mistakes? We spoke about what the teacher would need to do to earn the parents' trust back and what we need to provide to the teacher in order for her to be able to get it back."
He said Van Erven already has apologized to the students and that she is "very remorseful and willing to do anything to help smooth over the issue."
Kirsten Hoyt, chairman of the Groton Board of Education, said the board had been briefed, but she would not comment on the issue. Editor's note: This corrects a sentence in an earlier version of this article.
Beth Horler, president of the Groton Education Association - the teachers' union - also would not comment on the issue.