Needed outside review of New London schools has arrived

The sheriff is coming to town. That means no one will be protected from scrutiny when there is an accounting of what went wrong to create an environment that allowed predators to — allegedly — prey on New London kids.

Having an outside, objective and credible agency conduct a thorough review is critically important if the public is going to have faith in the findings and if the city is to successfully rebuild the reputation of its school system, said New London Mayor Michael Passero.

Only with findings that have unquestioned credibility, and through corrective actions that result from those findings, can New London schools hope to start to repair the damage done to its efforts — now well underway — to transition to a full magnet-schools district, meaning a regional system attracting kids from neighboring towns.

On Thursday the city received a letter from Sarah Eagan, the Connecticut Child Advocate, saying that she’s in. Our newspaper had editorially backed the call for an intervention by the advocate’s office and welcome its arrival.

The mayor and Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein had reached out to the Office of the Child Advocate in response to the scandal that has shaken the city and led to the arrests of three school employees, two on sexual assault charges involving student victims and one for failing to report abuse. There have also been several suspensions of school personnel.

Milstein previously served as the state child advocate and suggested to the mayor that the city turn to the current advocate in the wake of the crisis.

In her letter, Eagan states her office is already “engaged in a preliminary review of child welfare concerns received by this office that were raised in conjunction with the recent arrests.”

“The OCA is still developing a framework for a fuller review and consultation,” Eagan continues. “And upon completion of such framework I will reach out to you and other stakeholders forthwith to discuss the scope of OCA’s activities.”

The letter is addressed to Passero, Board of Education President Manuel Rivera and Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie, who is approaching her one-year anniversary in the job. Rivera served as superintendent for two and a half years, starting Feb. 1, 2015. He was superintendent in 2017 when some of the alleged crimes and misconduct would have occurred. After his surprising decision to retire — Rivera had vowed to take the city through the magnet conversion when hired — he then ran for school board.

Rivera reacted with skepticism when he learned the mayor was attempting to bring in the state child advocate. He characterized the school board as having already taken ownership of the situation, reviewing policies and procedures for gaps that may have contributed to the situation and should be addressed.

While looking forward is admirable and appropriate, also needed is a hard look back at what role hiring, favoritism and a failure to heed warning signs might have played in allowing the alleged aberrant behavior to occur and to go undetected for a long period.

Given he was the guy in charge, Rivera should recuse himself from all matters having to do with the examination of this scandal. So far, he has shown no interest in doing so.

If there was any question about jurisdiction, Eagan’s letter sets that straight, noting her office’s statutory authority to “review complaints of persons concerning the actions of any … municipal agency providing services to children.”

The child advocate, she wrote, has “unfettered access to, including the right to inspect and copy, any records necessary to carry out (her) responsibilities.”

We like the sound of that.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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