VIDEO: New Londoners continue to seek answers in school scandal

New London — In an atmosphere saturated with concern and anger, community members turned out for a forum Thursday looking for answers to what appears to be a growing scandal in the school district after the arrest of a school employee on sexual assault charges.

There has been just one arrest but a growing number of educators, coaches and administrators being suspended, in some case because of accusations of misconduct with students.

More than 100 people gathered Thursday at the Garde Arts Center to air grievances, seek assurances, ask questions and seek accountability from a panel that in some cases was at a loss to ease tensions.

“How are we supposed to trust people about what’s going on in the district ... focus on our work, focus on our sports, when we have this thing we’re not supposed to talk about?” said high school junior Eliza Brown, a member of the local activist group Hearing Youth Voices.

New London police arrested school employee Corriche Gaskin this month on charges he sexually assaulted an underage female student at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School when he was working there as a climate specialist in the 2016-17 school year.

Investigation by New London police revealed allegations that Gaskin had engaged in sexual acts with at least two middle school teachers and at least one middle school student and used his cellphone to record the encounters.

Curtis Goodwin, president of the New London Talent Show, said that in organizing Thursday’s event he sought to help channel the collective angst in the community as he had done years ago when he started the talent show. After the murder of Matthew Chew by six teens in 2010, in an effort to dispel the subsequent racial tension and negativity, the New London Youth Talent Show was born.

Goodwin said like that incident, the current crisis in the schools has divided the city.

“How could you not be angry right now? There are lives at stake and they are our children,” he said. “Our youth are the single most important thing in this community. We need to protect them. We need to guide them.”

The community learned this week that in addition to four employees placed on leave with pay directly connected to the Gaskin case, three others are suspended because of allegations of inappropriate conduct with students.

The specific allegations against them are part of an ongoing investigation, and New London police Capt. Brian Wright — one of Thursday’s panelists — said “we’re going through a lot of information.” He reiterated that any suspicions of wrongdoing by a school employee should be brought forward to police, the school district or the state Department of Children and Families.

“We all have to take responsibility to protect our youth,” he said.

Other panelists included Mayor Michael Passero; Randi McCray, a representative for Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie; and school board members Mirna Martinez, Jefferey Hart and Jason Catala. Ritchie had earlier announced a prior engagement, but audience members noted the absence of Board of Education President Manuel Rivera, who was school superintendent at the time of the alleged criminal actions by Gaskin.

“You don’t live in the district. You don’t acknowledge your community and realize it’s hurting,” Jasmine Collins said of Rivera. “You should not be the chairperson.”

Others asked about nepotism in the school district, whether it might have had a role in the hiring of Gaskin in 2014 or his transfer from the middle school to Harbor Elementary School last year.

Gaskin was hired as a paraprofessional in 2014 under former Superintendent Nicholas Fischer, who said in a recent interview that Gaskin had been up front about his felony criminal conviction for drug possession. Fischer said his administration would not turn away someone looking to better their life with a job or higher education.

Fischer was replaced as superintendent several months after Gaskin’s hiring but said that during his time there, Gaskin was in a position where he was being supervised at all times.

The question of a conflict of interest in the investigation also arose Thursday, with Wright finding himself in a position to answer whether or not there was a conflict because of the relationship between police Chief Peter Reichard and Alison Burdick, director of International Education pathway at Bennie Dover.

Burdick, along with middle school STEM Director Lawrence Washington, are the two administrators on leave — Burdick for the alleged “handling and possible dissemination of confidential information” related to the Gaskin case.

Wright said the chief, from the start, had removed himself from the investigation. Wright heads the investigative division and retains all oversight of the Gaskin investigation.

“The chief’s personal life has nothing to do with this investigation,” Wright said in a recent interview. “We’re all professionals.”

In an earlier interview, Burdick deferred any comment on her relationship with the chief to her attorney, Jamie Sullivan.

“I see no bearing or relevance at all to the situation ... a mature relationship between consenting adults who are both respected professionals in the community,” Sullivan said. “The suggestion that their relationship is in any way inappropriate is flat out absurd.”

Reichard has declined to comment.

In the end, Cmdr. Royce James, a professor at the Coast Guard Academy, said the community and school district could only heal once there has been accountability. His concern was that it had yet to happen, especially when the school employees remained on paid leave.

Passero assured the public that there would be accountability but that the right people would be held accountable. Emotional at times, Passero said, “We cannot let someone else write our narrative.”

“This is not us. This is not New London,” Passero said.

Members of the audience were still asking questions of the panel at press deadline.

Wright said that anyone with concerns about employees should contact the school district, police detectives at (860) 447-1481, himself at (860) 447-5287 or the state Department of Children and Families at 1 (800) 842-2288.

g.smith@theday.com

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