David Andreatta • Staff writer • October 12, 2008
Parents of eight third-graders with special needs were thrust into a nightmare in April when they received a confidential letter from the Rochester School District stating that their children may have been abused at School 43.
Nearly six months later and well into a new school year, parents say they still don't know what exactly may have happened to their children at the Lyell Avenue school, except that the alleged abuse was not sexual.
The terse, two-sentence letter from the district offered no details of the alleged abuse except that it occurred two months earlier "on or about February 5." The letter then directed parents' attention to three enclosed pages spelling out the section of state education law pertaining to child abuse in schools.
"I was shaking," said Chavonna Thomas, 28, the mother of a 9-year-old girl who the district indicated may have been a victim.
"It was so disturbing to open a letter like this that I didn't know what I was going to do, but I was afraid of what I was going to do," she said, describing her outrage.
Georgeanna Coffman, 38, the mother of an 8-year-old boy with behavioral problems who the district indicated may have been a victim, also expressed anger at the district's handling of the matter.
"They give you as little as they have to," she said.
"All I know is that a teacher has been implicated with my son for some kind of abuse, and that's it."
Coffman and Thomas have each filed a notice of claim against the district, a precursor to a lawsuit, and maintain that their efforts to extract a more thorough explanation have hit dead ends in a school system that they say is more sympathetic to protocol than parents.
But their situation also highlights the ethical dilemma school districts face when confronted with an allegation of child abuse and forced to balance their obligations to the law, families and the accused.
For instance, the mothers said the school principal, Anne McAndrew, refused to give them the full name of their children's male teacher, who is alleged to be the perpetrator and whom they knew only by surname. The principal, they said, claimed she was forbidden by personnel privacy regulations to speak about the situation.
McAndrew did not return the Democrat and Chronicle's phone calls seeking comment. A school receptionist referred inquiries to the district's communications office.
Neither mother knows for certain who first accused the teacher. The mothers believe it was a teaching assistant, but others say a student lodged a complaint.
Fueling the parents' frustration is the fact that they were notified of the alleged abuse more than two months after the district received a complaint and pulled their children's teacher from the classroom — an apparent violation of state education law, which requires parents to be alerted promptly. Nor were the parents even told that their children had a new teacher.
Dennis O'Hara, an education lawyer from Syracuse who is unaffiliated with either case, said parent complaints about intractable bureaucracies are common in alleged child abuse situations as districts carefully navigate the gray area.
"It's more of an art than a science," O'Hara said.
"The conservative approach, if you are concerned about an action brought by the employee or someone on the employee's behalf, would be to do what this district did," he said.
"The alternative approach, if your focus is more on the parent and the child, would be to share information to the extent you feel it is appropriate to help the child and the parent get over the incident."
Parents in the dark
The School 43 issue arises at a time when Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard is attempting to shed the district's image as an institution both imperious and impervious to parents. He also wants to expedite internal investigations into employee misconduct that often linger for several months. Brizard has spent two weekends in recent months meeting with local parent groups with an eye toward creating a districtwide parent advisory council. He has also said he wants to hire a full-time investigator to lead internal probes. Thus far, no one has been named to such a post.
School district officials conceded in interviews that the parent notification process in the School 43 case was mishandled, and that a district official should have spoken to the parents in person prior to their receipt of the letter.
They also acknowledged that the law and protocol for ongoing internal investigations have prevented the district from divulging details to parents. The education law states that only investigators, the superintendent and law enforcement officials are privy to reports associated with the inquiry.
"We're following procedures that have to take place to ensure that the results of our investigation are not compromised," said district spokesman Tom Petronio.
"It's an allegation; nothing is proven. The individual has the right to confidentiality, and we're bound to that by law."
Petronio added that, until the investigation is concluded, "we can't say definitively what did or did not occur. I'm sure it's frustrating for parents that they can't gain more information, but we want to make sure that nothing is jeopardized as we pursue the investigation."
Thomas and Coffman, who say they do not know each other and did not know the other had filed a notice of claim, have gleaned what information they could from their children.
At the same time, the mothers admit they are wary of the malleable memories of their children without official supporting evidence from the district.
The day after receiving the letter, Thomas recalled, she met with the principal, McAndrew, who told her that school officials had taken statements from Thomas' daughter and other children. McAndrew allowed Thomas to briefly view her daughter's statement, Thomas said, but rejected her request for a copy.
Thomas also recalled a phone conversation with the district's chief of staff, Kim Dyce-Faucette, who signed the letter. Thomas said Dyce-Faucette assured her that the alleged abuse was not sexual, and then, when Thomas began asking more pointed questions, referred her to a district lawyer. The conversation with the lawyer, Thomas said, went nowhere.
With only the last name of the teacher to go on, Thomas said, she set about calling all 16 listings of that name in the phone book in search of the man alleged to have harmed her daughter. She did not find him.
"The way they've been treating this situation as so blasé is sickening to me," said Thomas. "You don't tell someone their child was abused in a letter. You don't send a person a letter like that and then have them chase people all around town to ask them questions that they don't have the authority to answer."
Dyce-Faucette confirmed the nature of her conversation with Thomas and said she never intended to dismiss Thomas by transferring her, but rather to put Thomas in touch with the most appropriate district official to handle her questions.
"Our hands are tied," Dyce-Faucette said. "Definitely, it was never the intent to push the mom off, and that understandably could be what she may have felt. But the fact of the matter is that I didn't want to share anything that I wasn't supposed to share, but I didn't want to step around her questions either."
Dyce-Faucette later added: "How do you strike the balance between understanding that the parents are frustrated and want to know, but also make sure that we go by the book so that whatever transpires at a later date the issue is not thrown out or a problem arises because of a technicality?"
Joseph Fein, a Long Island lawyer who deals with special-education issues, said that while the law prohibits school districts from sharing written material related to investigations of employees, reports can be obtained through a court-ordered subpoena.
The law does not preclude a district from revealing ancillary information about the alleged perpetrator, such as work history and rsum. But whether one does so willingly, Fein said, depends greatly on whether the district believes such a move could end up making it vulnerable to a costly lawsuit.
"Does it sound like parents are purposely being kept in the dark? To an extent, yes," Fein said. "There is no question that when it comes to school districts, they are always looking at things from a financial standpoint of: What will the cost be to our books to reveal this information?"
Also at a loss for information is the accused teacher, who since February has been reassigned to the former School 37 on Congress Avenue that is now used as a professional development and research facility.
No formal disciplinary charges have been brought against him, and he and his lawyer said in separate interviews that district investigators have yet to speak to him.
Encountered outside the Congress Avenue schoolhouse, the teacher, whose identity the Democrat and Chronicle is withholding because no charges have been brought against him, declined to comment on the allegation on his lawyer's advice.
His lawyer, Joseph S. Damelio, said the teacher is "100 percent innocent" of the accusation and questioned the strength of the district's case.
"Don't you think that after seven months, if they had some compelling evidence, that they would have done something by now?" Damelio asked. "He hasn't even received a letter."
Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski echoed those concerns. He cast the investigation as taking "an inordinately long time" and said that the union's requests to resolve the matter have fallen on deaf ears.
The children at the heart of the potential lawsuits still attend School 43. Thomas said she kept her daughter enrolled there because she believes "there are still good people there." Coffman said she has been trying unsuccessfully to transfer her son.
Both women are now in a Catch-22: The law requires filers of notices of claim to state their cases at a preliminary hearing — yet the specifics of their cases remain unclear. While both mothers are confident their children were harmed, they are not sure to what extent.
"The lawyer I was working with told me I have to conduct my own investigation to find out what went on," said Coffman, who no longer has legal representation.
"How am I supposed to do that when the district won't tell me anything?"