Montville school officials' emails shed light on reaction to classroom fighting
Montville — "What the heck is going on?"
Board of Education member Colleen Rix says that was her reaction when a resident showed her a video of a school fight that appeared to be monitored by a teacher.
Rix says she immediately sent an email to Superintendent Brian Levesque with the video attached. The message read, "Have you seen this????"
Sent just before 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 6, Rix's email sparked a chain of internal discussions that led to the firing of substitute teacher Ryan Fish four days later. The Day obtained emails and other documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed shortly after police arrested Fish on April 12 for allegedly refereeing a handful of slapboxing bouts in his math class last fall.
In the emails, administrators react to the fights with dismay. Levesque quickly suggests Fish will be axed and calls for disciplining students who slapped each other or stood and cackled as they shot cellphone videos of their scrapping classmates.
But the administrators — Levesque, high school Principal Jeffrey Theodoss and Assistant Principal Tatiana Patten — did not discuss contacting authorities in the emails. All three are on paid leave and were charged last week with failing to report suspected abuse under the state's mandated reporters law.
No one picked up at a phone number listed for Levesque. Messages left with Theodoss, Patten and Fish were not immediately responded to.
While the emails show some effort to get to the bottom of what happened and a push for swift punishment, the state Office of the Child Advocate says mandated reporters are not required or expected to conduct their own investigations. Mandated reporters must alert the Department of Children or Families or police within 12 hours when they have "reasonable cause to suspect or believe that a child has been abused or neglected or placed in imminent risk of serious harm," per the statute.
Discussion among administrators about contacting DCF went nowhere, Patten told police in January. Theodoss told detectives he didn't believe it was a DCF issue and said when he asked Levesque if police should be notified, Levesque said no. Levesque, meanwhile, has maintained he didn't contact authorities because he was only aware of one incident, while others in the district were aware of more fights, he said.
Failure to report is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison, up to a $2,000 fine, or both.
Fish, 23, told police he knew of four fights in his class between September and October. He faces two counts of risk of injury to a minor, second-degree breach of peace and four counts of second-degree reckless endangerment.
"There is a difference between a 'schoolyard fight' and a facilitated fight in a classroom setting where the facilitation is provided by a teacher, considered by DCF to be an entrusted caregiver," state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said.
Police learned about the incidents in December when a DCF social worker told them a 15-year-old student had reported being assaulted by three students during school.
The district noted acting Superintendent Laurie Pallin was not involved in the investigation. She wasn't included in the email chain. Heather Sangermano, principal of the Palmer Building, has been named acting high school principal.
Pallin has scheduled mandated reporter training for district staff. The district's attorney will guide training for administrators, which "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," she said Tuesday.
'Due process then you terminate him'
In one exchange, administrators appear to briefly make light of the matter. After confirming Fish was in a video sent by Rix, Theodoss asked Levesque on Oct. 7, "How do you want this to go down? Do you want me to see if I can find more information or call Ryan down and give him due process then you terminate him. Or just let me kick his ass."
"Probably both. Lol," Levesque replied. "The kids need to also be dealt with. The fighters. The kids videoing it. Any staff in room investigate and send them home until they meet with me. Can't believe this."
Levesque wrote to Fish on Tuesday, Oct. 10, to explain the substitute's ouster was "a result of your failure to provide a safe environment for students and for encouraging students to engage in dangerous activities in a classroom you were responsible for managing." The letter, obtained through The Day's FOIA request, cites a single incident on Friday, Oct. 6.
Fish — whose mother, Cheryl, teaches math at the school — was filling in for a teacher on medical leave. Pallin said he served as a substitute for 14 days this school year.
Despite Levesque's letter asserting Fish egged students on in an unsafe fashion, the superintendent told police he thought it was a one-time incident that wasn't criminal.
"If I had known the severity of this and the number of instances ... we would have called police and DCF," he said in a recent interview.
'As a parent, I was concerned'
Board of Education members are not mandated reporters "unless they have some other role in the district or community that requires them to report," Eagan said.
Rix, who is not a coach or have any other role that would make her a mandated reporter, is a parent of a freshman and stepparent of a sophomore at the high school. Neither was in Fish's class at the time of the video, she said. Rix noted she used her personal email to contact Levesque.
"As a parent, I was concerned," Rix said. "Children obviously weren't safe. If that was my kid, I would have wanted somebody else to stand up and say, 'This is what happened.' I did my due diligence as a parent above anything else. That was my perspective."
Rix said she didn't think of contacting authorities at the time and thought Levesque as district leader was the person who could take action.
Rix later sent Levesque two more videos of the same incident. About 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 7, Levesque forwarded the videos to Theodoss — and Theodoss forwarded them to Patten — for verification that it was at the high school and that Fish was on video.
Days later, Rix said she received word from Levesque that the "matter was handled appropriately."
"We're not mandated reporters. We're there to set policy and curriculum in the school district," she said of the school board. "We put our trust in the superintendent in hiring all these people and doing background checks. From bus drivers to custodians to substitute teachers, we don't handle that."
Because of her role in notifying administrators, Rix said she planned on recusing herself if the school board holds any hearings on the matter.
'I find it very disturbing'
Patten has been on paid leave since January, when administrators and police said they were investigating her in connection with the firing of a substitute in October. They did not name Fish at the time, and repeatedly said they couldn't disclose why Patten was on leave, other than to debunk social media rumors that financial malfeasance was somehow involved.
The email exchanges indicate by the day Fish was fired, Patten knew about at least two fights he allegedly supervised. The emails do not show that information passing up the chain of command to Levesque. The superintendent said he only learned of other fights in December, when police described other videos and the school IT team discovered videos of other incidents on district servers.
According to the emails, Patten didn't immediately tell supervisors that guidance counselor Allison Delaney had informed her of a parent's report that a video of a fight had turned up on social media. Patten informed Theodoss of the parent's message in an email on Oct. 9, two days after Theodoss had forwarded her the videos sent by Rix and Levesque. Patten told Theodoss, "Allison was going to try to get video for me."
Patten's email to Theodoss didn't specify when Delaney relayed the parent's message; she told police in January that a guidance counselor shared the parent's message on Oct. 6. Patten also told Theodoss she planned on asking School Resource Officer Mike Collins "to help me investigate the fight and ask kids about the video ... but now I see you have several videos. After reviewing them I find it very disturbing that Ryan is actually standing in the background observing the fight."
On Oct. 10, Delaney emailed Patten two videos of a classroom fight allegedly monitored by Fish.
Eagan and DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said this week that alerting supervisors does not technically meet mandated reporting requirements.
A message left at Delaney's office was not immediately returned Wednesday. Asked about Delaney's efforts to relay the parent's message and videos, Pallin on Tuesday issued a statement that "following my internal investigation and meeting with the counselor today, it has been determined that the information that was shared by a parent with the counselor did not fit the criteria of mandatory reporting and therefore, no disciplinary action was taken."
Pallin did not immediately respond to an email seeking more details on that determination.
On Oct. 10, Patten wrote to Delaney and said she "just heard about the other fight this morning while interviewing kids." She did not specify the date of the other fight.
Patten sent an email to Theodoss the same morning, stating only, "Last week, Oct. 2," with a video attached. That video was sent to Patten by an unidentified person with a southeastern Connecticut phone listing, who did not immediately respond to a voicemail.
The school district and Montville police say the investigation remains ongoing. Michael Regan, the State’s Attorney to whom DCF referred the case, said he cannot comment on a pending case, nor confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.