Investigation expands, more teachers on leave in New London

New London — The New London police department has expanded its investigation into misconduct in the school district, even as the district moves to suspend more employees.

The district already had confirmed the suspension of four people directly related to an ongoing investigation into Corriche Gaskin, the 35-year-old former behavioral specialist accused of sexually assaulting an underage teen and using a cellphone to record his sexual encounters with fellow teachers inside Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in the 2016-17 school year.

There are five additional employees out on paid administrative leave based on allegations not directly related to Gaskin’s criminal case. Three of the five face allegations of inappropriate behavior or conduct with a student or students, information provided by the district as part of a Freedom of Information request from The Day revealed.

Those employees include band director and music teacher Jonathan Gworek, track coach and middle school paraprofessional Jevon Elmore and high school long-term substitute teacher and assistant basketball coach Jason Pellum. The specific allegations against them are part of an ongoing investigation and were not released by the school district.

Gworek was placed on leave May 2 due to a “concern reported to the Department of Children and Families and the school administration regarding your conduct with student(s),” the suspension notice reads.

Elmore was placed on leave May 10 and Pellum on May 13 following separate incidents reported to the district’s human resources office on May 10 — the same day the district held one of four community forums and parents raised concerns about Gaskin and the conduct of several other teachers with students. Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie at that time had urged anyone with concerns to report them to the district and provide evidence where possible.

Allegations that Elmore and Pellum had “interacted inappropriately with a student(s)” were reported by the district to DCF and the men have been barred from school grounds. Employees under suspension and their union representative could not be reached for comment. 

New London police Capt. Brian Wright declined to discuss specifics of the ongoing investigation or identify anyone who was a subject of an investigation. He did say that the “parameters” of the investigation had expanded based on new information gathered by investigators through interviews and tips provided to the department.

Wright said the investigators, who already levied nine felony charges against Gaskin, would act immediately if there was information obtained that a student was in imminent danger of being harmed.

Jasmine Collins, the mother of a middle schooler and who attended three of the four forums, said while she has her own serious concerns about what was going on, she was also proud of the way the school administration and Ritchie were handling the situation.

“It’s not being taken lightly. These concerns are not being pushed under the rug,” Collins said. “We are making legitimate complaints and issues are being looked at.”

Collins said that parents and students need to understand that speaking out as a victim or on behalf of a victim “does not make you a snitch.”

“You are not snitching on anyone when a crime has been committed against a child," she said. "That is protecting our village ...”

Social studies teacher Fred Driscoll was placed on leave on Oct. 31 after concerns raised about his description of noose-making in class. Janet Farquhar, listed as the assistant director of the Science and Technology Magnet High School on the district's website, was placed on leave on April 24 based on a concern reported about student conduct while under her supervision. There are no claims to DCF about any inappropriate behavior with students by those two teachers.

Employees placed on leave in direct connection with the Gaskin case include STEM Director Lawrence Washington and Alison Burdick, director of International Education pathway and teachers. Both are supervisors at Bennie Dover. Washington remains the subject of an investigation into his “conduct at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School,” as reported to the district. There is no indication DCF is involved.

Burdick, through an attorney, has claimed her placement on leave for “handling and possible dissemination of confidential information,” was inappropriate and based on her cooperation with the police investigation. She has threatened legal action.

Teachers Melissa Rodriguez and Laquana Sheppard also are out on leave “pending the outcome of an internal investigation.” Human resources director Taryn Bonner said at least one of the four suspended in connection with the Gaskin case is now “separated from the district.”

A community forum is planned for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Garde Arts Center hosted by the New London Talent Show to discuss the issue. Board of Education Vice President Jefferey Hart and member Jason Catala are among those who plan to attend.

Hart said the public is searching for answers that in many cases will, unfortunately, only be answered at the outcome of the police and DCF investigations. “We’re going to have to all wait to see what facts come to light and of course we’ll take appropriate action,” he said. “I do think it’s going to take a long time to heal, but we will heal.”

Catala said he had faith that the superintendent was handling the situation, was not one of the “good ol’ boys” system and would root out bad actors in the district. He remained frustrated by the lack of information provided to the school board.

“We’re in a situation we have to find out about these serious allegations through the newspaper,” Catala said. “Why are we being kept out of the loop and what else is being kept from us?”

Catala agreed that Gaskin’s arrest and the community forums were providing the opportunity for parents and students to come forward with information on possible misconduct by school employees. He said allegations of misconduct also have come to him and he has passed those along to the district.

“It looks like we have educators in the district not carrying out the teacher’s code of conduct. That’s a problem. This type of culture should not be accepted by anyone in New London,” Catala said.

Collins said actions by a small percentage of teachers was damaging the reputation of all of the dedicated teachers in the district. “There are teachers that enter that building every day that have to bear the burden that other teachers are failing their students,” she said.

Mayor Michael Passero, in a statement released on Wednesday, said the community was “understandably anguished by the alleged inappropriate actions of a few employees of our school system who are accused of conduct that betrayed the trust that was placed in them to safeguard and protect our children.”

“Our focus must be to reassure our children that they are our foremost priority,” he said.

Passero credited the school district, the superintendent, the police department and DCF for taking “aggressive measures to ensure the protection of the children in our schools.”

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Board of Education Vice President Jefferey Hart's name.

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