When a public school teacher is suspended amid investigation of a complaint that he molested a student, what are the urgent objectives of a school superintendent? In Stafford and indeed in most Connecticut towns those objectives include preventing the public from finding out.
That's the lesson of the Journal Inquirer's freedom-of-information complaint against Stafford's school superintendent, Patricia A. Collin.
On Feb. 12, as part of its regular monthly inquiries to local government, the newspaper gave Collin a letter requesting access to records of disciplinary action taken with school employees since January. "This request," the letter said, "includes but is not limited to records involving reprimands, admonitions, suspensions, reductions in compensation, and dismissals."
The superintendent replied that the school system had no such records. But she was hiding one -- her Jan. 26 order suspending an elementary school teacher under investigation for sexually touching a girl in his class and abusing another student verbally.
The suspension became known in March when the teacher was arrested on charges o sexual assault, risk of injury, and disorderly conduct. So why had Collin refused to disclose the suspension?
The school system's lawyers offer a technical and contrived defense. As a suspension with pay, they argue, the teacher's suspension did not qualify as a "disciplinary" action, the term the newspaper's request used. Further, the lawyers argue, the newspaper's request for access to records of "suspensions" covered only "disciplinary" suspensions.
The lawyers claim that if the newspaper had asked for records of suspensions alone, the superintendent would have promptly produced her Jan. 26 order. Nevertheless, the teacher's case turned into serious disciplinary action. On April 30 the superintendent formally accused the teacher of misconduct and warned that he might be fired. He resigned in July and in August pleaded guilty to risk of injury, a felony.
So is a suspension with pay during an investigation a "disciplinary" action or not? Some courts have ruled that it is, and certainly such a suspension is often the prerequisite of disciplinary action. Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission will decide and then maybe a court will.
But as for public administration, the important thing here is that the superintendent knew very well what the newspaper was looking for -- information about misconduct by school employees or allegations of misconduct that had prompted action such as the action the superintendent indeed had taken, the removal of a teacher from the classroom and indeed from all school property. Government agencies throughout the country often report or admit suspensions with pay when an employee's conduct is under review prior to any conclusion of misconduct, punishment, or arrest.
In fairness to Superintendent Collin it must be acknowledged that while Connecticut residents often think that they elect their school boards to supervise school operations, in fact most boards are determined not to know anything about school personnel, not even serious criminal matters. Most boards claim that they have to preserve their ignorance of employee conduct lest board members somehow be compromised if they have to decide appeals of disciplinary action.
There is absolutely no basis in Connecticut law for such a position. This is just the rationale superintendents use to intimidate the public's representatives out of doing their jobs so that superintendents can do their jobs without oversight, so that embarrassing and even criminal incidents can be concealed, and so that bad teachers can stay employed or move on to jobs in other schools.
Still they call it public education.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.