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Former Norwich teacher involved in DCF case reinstated

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published May 03. 2014 4:00AM

Norwich — The state Department of Children and Families has reversed initial findings of physical and emotional neglect that forced a veteran middle school science teacher to resign last fall.

Robert Ashton, who had worked for 14 years as a science teacher in the city's two middle schools, was placed on administrative leave last June and signed a settlement agreement with the Board of Education in October that called for his resignation.

At the time, DCF had substantiated allegations of non-criminal physical and emotional neglect by four students and placed Ashton on the DCF Central Registry, which prevented him from working as a school teacher.

Ashton appealed the agency's findings, and after an administrative hearing in February, a DCF staff attorney reversed both the findings of neglect and his placement on the registry, allowing him to seek new teaching positions.

State law specifically exempts DCF proceedings from the state Freedom of Information law, and all records - including rulings reversing substantiated findings - cannot be released to the public, DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said.

In an interview with The Day, Ashton released a portion of the DCF ruling and said he wanted to clear his name and continue his teaching career, calling it "the job I loved every single day."

According to the ruling by DCF staff attorney Mary Elizabeth Oppenheim, the allegations stemmed from a "gotcha" game played by students before classes started one morning. Ashton joined in the game. Oppenheim wrote that once Ashton learned that students may have perceived the game as "sexual," he immediately ceased playing.

"The evidence presented concerning the students substantiated in this case did not indicate there was any adverse impact, and there is no behavior that was so egregious that it demonstrated a serious adverse impact, and there is no behavior that was so egregious that it demonstrated a serious disregard for the children's welfare," the ruling states.

Citing the reversal of the neglect findings, Oppenheim also reversed Ashton's placement on the DCF Central Registry.

Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver said she was aware of the ruling but declined to comment on the situation.

Ashton said the allegations and subsequent actions by administrators were devastating both personally and professionally. A three-month delay in his hearing date added to the anxiety as he tried to find a job outside of teaching.

With the ruling in hand, Ashton has resumed his search for a science teaching position, preferably at the middle school level.

"I have been telling people 'this is not me,'" Ashton said. "I just want them to know that Mr. Ashton is not an emotionally neglectful person and not a physical neglectful person."

c.bessette@theday.com

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