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    Friday, August 19, 2022

    New London schools scolded for not sharing information for investigation

    New London — Five months after launching an investigation into student safety and abuse prevention in the New London school district, the Office of the Child Advocate remains frustrated by a lack of cooperation and communication by the district and delays in providing information considered critical to the investigation.

    Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, in a Nov. 13 email to New London School Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie, said her office is "now forced to issue additional subpoenas and may take any and all legal action as permitted by state law to compel compliance."

    The apparent lack of the information also led to cancellation of a planned Nov. 6 meeting among Eagan, Ritchie and other district employees.

    The email, obtained by The Day along with other communications between the district and Eagan's office, reveals that Eagan awaits the results of a human resources audit commissioned by the district and information regarding the number of paraprofessionals working in the district and their assignments and students. Eagan said there have been numerous requests for the information.

    "To date we have neither received the above information, nor have we been provided with a basis, legal or otherwise, for the District's failure to provide it," Eagan wrote.

    The district argues the audit is not yet completed.

    Eagan's office undertook the investigation at the request of Mayor Michael Passero in the wake of the arrest of three different school district employees, including Corriche Gaskin, 35, a noncertified employee hired as a paraprofessional in 2014 who worked closely with troubled students as a behavioral specialist at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School. Police allege Gaskin sexually assaulted two underage middle school students in 2017.

    Police additionally have charged Jevon Elmore, a 25-year-old former middle school paraprofessional and track coach, with sexual assault of a 16-year-old high school student. Former middle school teacher Melissa Rodriguez is charged with failure to report a suspected incident of child abuse or neglect.

    Information obtained by The Day revealed both Gaskin and Rodriguez had previous federal convictions that were known to the school district when they were hired. Rodriguez was a district employee before and after she was convicted for her minor role in a mortgage fraud scheme. Gaskin was convicted of a federal drug charge prior to his hire under former School Superintendent Nicholas Fischer. Fischer, who left the district in 2014, has said Gaskin should have been more closely monitored by staff even though his past crime had no connection to what he is now charged with.

    Kevin Roy, an attorney from the firm Shipman & Goodwin working for the district, disputes Eagan's claim in the Nov. 13 email and indicates the human resources audit is not complete.

    "Your letter suggests that our client has either ignored or failed to address additional requests for documents," Roy wrote in a response to Eagan, dated Nov. 15, which was obtained by The Day.

    "The first request you mention involves an audit report with a string of dates requesting a copy of the audit. At no point in this string of dates do you claim the audit is complete. In any event, as we responded previously, 'once the audit is complete and reviewed' we will contact you to discuss that issue. To date, that has not happened. The tone of your letter seems to suggest that the Board of Education or the Superintendent is in possession of that audit. That is not true. Again, once the Board is in receipt of materials related to the audit, we will be sure to provide those materials," Roy wrote.

    He additionally requests a subpoena for the paraprofessional information.

    It's not the first time Roy had expressed frustration.

    Prior to the release of a status update of the investigation in October, Roy questioned the timing, since Eagan's office had not yet been updated on the initiatives and interventions undertaken by the district and said he was cut off by an attorney working for Eagan's office.

    "We are certainly all on the same page in terms of addressing the events in the past in New London and the means to ensure that they do not happen again. I am disappointed that I was not permitted to discuss that approach in a collaborative manner," Roy wrote.

    Board of Education President Manny Rivera, the former superintendent, similarly expressed displeasure in release of the update without the knowledge of the school board.

    "A complete report with more explicit and instructive recommendations would have been more appropriate for public release," Rivera wrote at the time.

    Rivera has said that Eagan and the school district each share the same concerns and objectives: the safety and welfare of the students in the district.

    Eagan's status update in October did not represent any findings from its investigation but did make some suggestions, such as the district should have clear protocols in place regarding interactions between students and close supervision of employees who frequently meet alone with students.

    The Day has a pending Freedom of Information request to the school district for results of the human resources audit, which has not yet been presented to the Board of Education.

    Eagan's Nov. 13 email follows a series of exchanges between her office and the district that date back to June. The district has apparently complied with some of the requests, which have included a subpoena for documents related to policies, procedures and practices regarding mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse or neglect. Eagan's office also obtained information specific to the background of Gaskin and other district employees.

    Ritchie has kept in communication with Eagan's office and at one point relayed the host of initiatives undertaken by the district that include increased mechanisms for reporting incidents or concerns and an increase in mandated reporter training.

    The district, under Ritchie, also has retooled its human resources department, made changes in numerous administrative positions and added a Climate and Culture Department. The district has a new process to more closely examine criminal records when they come up in the hiring process. The process involves an analysis of the criminal record and a course of action for that employee.

    Eagan was not immediately available to comment.

    Ritchie released a statement on Friday evening:

    "A tremendous amount of work has gone into collecting and sharing information with OCA over the past several months. The district responded to their subpoena, on time, back in August. Recent additions for other information arrived through email at the end of October," Ritchie said in the statment. "These collections have been prepared and most have been sent. The HR Audit, which wasn’t completed at the time of request, should be completed at the end of this month. We have had ongoing email communications with OCA since June and look forward to continuing to work with them and meet with them soon. In the meantime the district continues its steadfast commitment to putting students first."


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