Probe ongoing into New London teacher on leave for noose comments

New London — More high school students were expected to be questioned this week as part of an ongoing investigation into a teacher placed on paid leave for what some have called an overly graphic or racially insensitive description of making a proper noose during a history class lecture on capital punishment.

Longtime social studies teacher Fred Driscoll is at the center of the investigation being conducted by an outside attorney hired by the school district. The probe was triggered by the dissemination on social media of an audio recording made by a student in Driscoll’s AP Government class.

In the short audio recording, which surfaced in October, Driscoll can be heard saying, “The rope has to be soaked in water for a certain period of time so it has a little bit of elasticity to it, and the knot has to be tied properly. The knot has to go between the right vertebrae, so when you drop, it snaps your neck and it kills you automatically.” The discussion came up during a discussion on states where hanging is still legal.

Defenders of Driscoll have said the incident was blown out of proportion and that Driscoll is often blunt in his descriptions and being maligned because of his conservative political views. Some students, however, have come forward with stories alleging a pattern of sexist and racially insensitive remarks by Driscoll to students in the past.

The youth-led social justice organization Hearing Youth Voices, which has called for Driscoll’s firing, collected stories from past students in which they allegedly recounted incidents where Driscoll told one female student that women should not be doctors, referred to rap music as “jail music,” and told one black student “take your hoodie off, you’re scaring me.”

The group, along with the NAACP, said the noose discussion, even taken within the context of the class discussion, was particularly inappropriate considering the history of lynching, its association with the black community and the large number of black students in the school district.

In a recent letter to parents, Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie said “through the investigation it has become necessary for the investigator to speak with additional students and staff who may have firsthand knowledge of alleged incidents that have reportedly taken place.” The investigator was slated to visit New London High School on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Parents were afforded the opportunity to be present for interviews with their children.

Driscoll has declined to comment based on the advice of a union attorney. The union has not publicly defended Driscoll.

Ritchie, in an email on Thursday, said the matter was part of an “ongoing investigation” and declined further comment.  The school board similarly has remained tight-lipped since it potentially could serve as the impartial hearing body if Driscoll is disciplined as a result of the investigation.

Members of Hearing Youth Voices initially applauded the school district’s quick action in addressing the situation but since has grown restless with the lack of communication coming from the school district.

“There’s been zero communication. We heard back before Christmas that the investigation should be finished any day now,” Hearing Youth Voices Administrative Director Laura Burfoot said.

Burfoot said the initial investigation called on experiences from current students and Hearing Youth voices had pushed for past students to submit their experiences, something it appears the district is now doing.

“This is a teacher we’ve heard about for years. We felt strongly any student with interaction with the teacher should have the opportunity to speak" to the investigator, Burfoot said.

Melissa Ramos, mother of a high school senior who had Driscoll in the past, said she was concerned because of her daughter’s experience with him and the stories coming from others about Driscoll creating a climate that has made students uncomfortable. In her daughter’s case, it concerned alleged disparaging remarks about her being a cheerleader.

“I guess everybody just thinks that is the way he is and we just have to accept it. That’s been the attitude through the years. To me, that has to stop. You’re playing with people’s lives. Comments can really mess up a young child. Their mind is not fully developed,” Ramos said.

The Day has a pending Freedom of Information request for the findings of the investigation, which is being performed by attorney Johanna Zelman of the Hartford Law firm Ford Harrison.

In December, the district announced plans to launch "A Look at U.S. History through Ethnic Studies," a new high school history course designed with input from Hearing Youth Voices.

g.smith@theday.com

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