New London indeed needs 'accountability' as to how it failed its kids

The most encouraging development coming from the forum held Thursday at the Garde Arts Center concerning the growing scandal in the New London school district was the commitment from school board members and the mayor that the public will learn the hard truths about what went wrong and why the city failed to protect some of its kids.

“I can absolutely assure you that there will be accountability,” said Mayor Michael Passero. Any “institutional failures” will be exposed and dealt with, he said.

While the mayor does not have authority over school operations, his clear pledge sends the signal his administration would not tolerate any attempt to gloss over what happened and what policy and personnel failures may have contributed to it.

Passero, however, expressed confidence that Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie will provide a full accounting of the situation and deliver a corrective-action plan without needing any prodding from the mayor’s office.

Indeed Ritchie, who said a scheduling conflict kept her from attending the forum sponsored by a community group — but who is leading a series of listening events presented by the school system — has acted decisively since this scandal first broke two weeks ago with the arrest by New London police of Corriche Gaskin. As a “climate specialist” at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, Gaskin had the job of promoting a positive culture at the school and serving as an outlet for student concerns.

Instead Gaskin, according to arrest warrant records, allegedly sexually assaulted a female middle school student at the school in 2017. Court documents are also filled with allegations that Gaskin had sexual encounters with adult educators at the school during his time there and had a penchant for recording and sharing his exploits on his phone. He faces several counts of risk of injury to minors, second-degree sexual assault, voyeurism with malice, disseminating voyeuristic material and third-degree possession of child pornography.

Questions surrounding the case include Gaskin’s hiring despite a felony conviction, his promotion within the school system, why he was transferred out of Bennie Dover to an elementary school this year and whether concerns or suspicions raised about his behavior were ignored by those in authority.

New information that has come forward since Gaskin’s arrest has led to allegations of misconduct by other personnel in the school system, information that Ritchie has acted on. As of Friday, nine employees had been suspended, four tied to the Gaskin matter, five connected to other investigations, including three employees facing allegations of inappropriate behavior or conduct with a student or students. There have been no additional arrests.

At the forum, audience members questioned whether some offenders had been protected or inappropriately promoted due to favoritism and nepotism within the school system.

“We have a (nepotism) policy,” said school board member Jason Catala, who chairs the Policy Committee. “It is not followed.”

“It will be revealed at some point,” said board member Mirna Martinez about the prospects of favorable treatment having allowed misconduct to fester.

It must be revealed.

The failure of Board of Education President Manuel Rivera to attend the forum, or any of the forums held in the wake of the scandal, is disappointing. Rivera later explained he had only a few days notice and could not reschedule an out-of-town commitment connected to his education consulting business.

Rivera said he is diligent about building his busy professional schedule around the many demands made of a school board president. That may be the case, but if he can’t rework his schedule to deal with something this important, that’s a problem.

And think about this. Rivera was superintendent of New London schools from February 2015 to August 2017. Having shocked the city with his unexpected departure, he then ran and won election to the school board.

This places Ritchie, on the job for just under a year, with the prospect of potentially having to expose malfeasance or failed policies that were in place when Rivera, now her boss on the board, was running the schools.

Rivera said he doesn’t see that as a conflict and considers his experience in the system an asset.

“The board wants full disclosure and will provide full cooperation. Whatever happens is going to come out anyway,” said Rivera. “She will have our full support. I think she is the perfect person for the job.”

It’s a difficult job, we would add, made more difficult by New London’s sometimes chummy politics.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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