Child advocate's office to take closer look at New London schools

New London — The state Office of the Child Advocate has begun a preliminary review of “child welfare concerns” in the New London school district, a likely precursor to a full independent review of what is considered by many to be a full-blown school scandal.

State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan informed the school district on Thursday that her office is developing “a framework for a fuller review and consultation.” Eagan sent a letter to school Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie, Board of Education President Manuel Rivera and Mayor Michael Passero.

The news comes less than two weeks after Passero and Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein — who is the former state child advocate — met with Eagan to request assistance in identifying potential problems in the district.

Passero said involvement by the Office of the Child Advocate could go a long way to restore confidence of the public in the school district.

“They want to engage with the schools and the city as partners in this and they are developing their action plan that they will share with us,” Passero said. “This is very good news.”

There is an ongoing police investigation into the school district that has thus far led to the arrest of three school employees: two on sexual assault charges and another on a charge of failing to report child neglect or abuse. The investigation has focused on Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, where multiple employees, including two administrators, remain on paid administrative leave.

“As part of this preliminary review, the OCA has also been in communication with Mayor Passero about any assistance this office can provide him in its role as an independent investigative and advocacy organization for vulnerable children,” Eagan wrote.

Eagan said in her letter that once her office completes a framework for a full review, the OCA would explain the scope of OCA’s activities and “learn more from you about matters affecting the safety and wellbeing of students in the District and steps the District and the Board of Education are taking to resolve community concerns.”

She has asked for unfettered access to district records, as required by law.

The Office of the Child Advocate in 2017 released a report following an investigation into the Hartford school district that was requested by Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin.

“The OCA’s investigation led to profound and urgent concerns regarding the school district’s historical lack of compliance with state laws designed to ensure adequate protection and safety for children, including laws regarding mandated reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect ...” the report states.

The New London Board of Education is reviewing its policies and procedures, and Ritchie, who started in the district last year, has called for a hiring audit. It turns out that two of the three employees facing charges have past felony criminal convictions.

“Leaders from the City, Board of Education, State department (of Education), staff, parents and multiple community partners are all working to be most supportive of our district. We have not had a meeting with Sarah (Eagan) yet to collaborate on any detail, but all are open to future discussions. We also continue to await outcomes from the ongoing investigation,” Ritchie said Friday in an email.

The investigation began following allegations that a former middle school behavioral specialist, 35-year-old Corriche Gaskin, sexually assaulted a middle school student at the school. Police allege that in addition to the assault, Gaskin was having sexual encounters with multiple female school employees on schools grounds and using a cellphone to record the encounters. Gaskin has pleaded not guilty to multiple felony charges.

Milstein said she will offer her assistance and expertise to the school district but would not be directly involved in the child advocate’s review.

“We need to know what happened, who is responsible for what, who knew what when, what does accountability look like ... to peel back the onion layer by layer, starting at the beginning,” Milstein said. “The most important thing is to find out what happened, and what needs to be in place to prevent anything like this from every happening again.”

g.smith@theday.com

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