Montville schools to implement more mandated reporter training

Montville — The first thing Kristen Forde does when she walks into a room is check for all the exits in case of an emergency.

"I've been doing this 12 years. I put the safety of students above all else," said Forde, a substitute teacher in the school district. "I'd lay down my life for your children."

Forde's statement sparked boisterous applause from an auditorium packed with residents, students and media for Tuesday night's Board of Education meeting. The session was the board's first public gathering after three top administrators were put on paid leave and charged with failing to report fights allegedly supervised by a substitute last fall.

Parents and students were eager to tout the accomplishments of the school district in the face of recent events, but several also sought assurance that educators, administrators and board members would ensure student safety, proper training and transparency.

"My kids should feel safe coming to Montville," said parent Beth Chateauneuf, who alleged that administrators had long failed to respond to reports of bullying. "I shouldn't have to fight every single day and make phone calls every day."

Laurie Pallin — who was assistant superintendent until being named acting superintendent by the school board Tuesday night — announced that she has scheduled mandated reporter training for all district staff. All staff, including substitutes, also must complete an electronic state Department of Education training program by Friday, she said.

Administrators will undergo mandated reporter training through the district's legal counsel, and "it will be much more detailed as far as how do you decide where the line is when you have to make a decision whether to report or not," Pallin said.

The push for more rigorous training comes after Superintendent Brian Levesque, high school Principal Jeffrey Theodoss and Assistant Principal Tatiana Patten were charged with not reporting classroom fighting police say was monitored and encouraged by former substitute teacher Ryan Fish.

Fish, 23, was fired on Oct. 10, a few days after administrators were alerted by parents that fights in his class were caught on video. Police say they only became aware of the incidents in December, when a Department of Children and Families social worker told them a 15-year-old student had reported being assaulted by three students during school.

Levesque has said he would have alerted authorities had he been aware of more than one fight. He could not be reached to comment. Messages left with Theodoss, Patten and Fish were not immediately responded to.

Timothy Reardon, whose two children have gone through the Montville schools system, said training is not the district's only problem. There are times the school district sends him a letter to let him know what's going on, "and then there are times I feel in the dark," he said.

"There needs to be some serious training and commitment ... on transparency towards the parents," Reardon said. "If you don't have that, this problem will continue and any type of issue that might be small could blow up into a larger issue."

Others alleged that district officials, including Levesque, had been dismissive of concerns about disciplinary actions.

Donna and David Swinburne said administrators failed to follow up on complaints that Assistant Principal Phil Orbe treated their son more harshly than others in a disciplinary matter earlier this year.

Orbe had been filling in for Patten since she was placed on paid leave in January. He was placed on paid leave Monday in a matter separate from the Swinburnes' complaint and unrelated to the classroom fights.

The couple declined to detail the matter in a brief interview after the meeting, saying they were awaiting a response from the school board.

Orbe said he wouldn't comment, as it was a protected disciplinary matter involving a student.

Pallin noted the district was responding to all emails from residents expressing concerns or making suggestions.

"We take their concerns seriously and we are listening," said Pallin, who noted she also had received "an overwhelming number of emails ... from parents, teachers, community members and offers of support from area districts, former superintendents, the state department. ... The support has been amazing."

Several parents and students thanked teachers and administrators, including Theodoss and Pallin, for their dedication over the years, saying now is a time to call attention to Montville's successes.

"There is no shortage of positive activity occurring at Montville High School at any given time," said Joshua Archibald, the school board's student representative. "There are many good teachers and mentors and many students doing their very best to make our nation and the world a better place. While it is important to correct errors and inform the public about the negative parts of our schools, we must always remember that there are many wonderful people doing their best every day at Montville High School."

b.kail@theday.com

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