Federal authorities investigating if NFA violated rights of alleged sexual assault victim

Norwich — A federal civil rights agency is investigating whether Norwich Free Academy violated the civil rights of a female student who was allegedly involved in a sexual relationship with an athletic coach now facing criminal charges.

Attorney Jason Burdick, who represents the student, filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in November. He alleged that NFA fostered a hostile environment that left students vulnerable to sexual assaults and that NFA concealed the allegations from the public and failed to provide counseling services to the victim.

Burdick filed his complaint two months after former assistant coach Anthony Facchini was charged Sept. 12 by Norwich police with two counts of second-degree sexual assault in connection with alleged sexual relations with two students in 2017 and 2018.

Asked in the complaint form what he would like NFA to do in response to his complaint, Burdick wrote that NFA should “take steps to protect its students from sexual abuse by its employees.” He wrote the academy should develop policies prohibiting inappropriate conduct and procedures for identifying and responding to allegations and should provide counseling services “and other therapeutic resources in order to aid victims in the recovery process.”

According to several arrest warrants and search warrants filed by Norwich police in the investigation, NFA first received allegations that Facchini was involved in a sexual relationship with a female student in April 2017. The Campus Safety Department and NFA top administrators dismissed the case as unsubstantiated without reporting to either DCF or Norwich police as required by state law.

Facchini then allegedly became involved with a second student the following school year, and in June 2018, a different coach reported the second allegation to NFA Campus Safety and DCF, which contacted Norwich police.

NFA did not alert NFA parents about the police investigation until late August 2018, two weeks before Faccini was charged by police. An investigation conducted by the NFA Board of Trustees in January cleared Head of School David Klein of any wrongdoing in the school’s response to the initial allegation.

Klein then placed three NFA staff members who were connected with the allegations on paid leave: Curriculum Director Denise Grant, Physical Education Department Head Susan Hopkins-Terrell and Campus Safety Director Kevin Rodino. Grant and Hopkins-Terrell had learned of the initial allegation in April 2017 and reported it to Rodino, who conducted the cursory investigation and dismissed the complaint without reporting to DCF.

On Monday, NFA spokesman Geoff Serra responded to an inquiry about the suspended staff members that there was “no news to report regarding the status of the NFA employees listed who are on paid leave.”

Rodino was charged Feb. 25 with failure to report suspected child abuse, tampering with evidence, issuing a false statement and interfering with a police officer for his role in the school’s response to the initial allegation. Police said the one-year statute of limitations had expired on potential charges against other NFA officials who knew of the allegations and did not report to DCF.

In a request for comment on the complaint, Serra wrote in an email that NFA disputes Burdick’s complaint to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and will respond to it.

“OCR may dismiss the complaint,” Serra wrote. “If it elects to investigate anything, NFA will cooperate fully.”

Serra continued that NFA has policies in place to protect children, specifically policies titled Suspected Abuse and Neglect of Students, Non–Discrimination Policy and a Harassment Policy. Also, Serra wrote the federal Title IX law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in athletics is outlined in the NFA policy titled Interscholastic Sport vs. Club (Sport) Determination.

All the NFA polices are “publicly available,” Serra wrote.

In a response letter to Burdick dated Feb. 28, Tokufumji Noda, acting compliance team leader for the DOE's Office of Civil Rights, wrote that the office has opened an investigation into the issue of “Whether NFA failed to respond appropriately to notice from the (state) Department of Children and Families and the Norwich Police Department in June 2018 of allegations that the student was being sexually harassed by an NFA employee.”

Noda wrote in the letter that opening the investigation did not imply that the office had determined that Burdick’s complaint had merit.

“During the investigation, OCR is a neutral fact-finder,” Noda wrote, “collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from you, NFA and other sources, as appropriate.”

Burdick said he hopes his client’s complaint will result in changes at NFA.

“Everybody has the right to go to school and not be discriminated against and not be harassed,” Burdick said Monday. “School should be a safe place, hopefully this federal investigation will result in some policy changes.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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