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Letting process play out

  • Orange Superintendent Tari Thomas released a statement Tuesday outlining the district's investigatory process as it relates to Fisher Hill, as well as addressing media coverage of issues at the school. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • Orange Superintendent Tari Thomas released a statement Tuesday outlining the district's investigatory process as it relates to Fisher Hill, as well as addressing media coverage of issues at the school. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • —STAFF FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 08, 2019

ORANGE — Fisher Hill Elementary School’s principal, and several other staff members, have been on paid leave since the beginning of October.

But while Principal Maureen Donelan has been cleared of allegations of neglect and abuse by the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families, she — and other staffers— have not yet returned to work.

Tuesday, Orange Superintendent Tari Thomas released a statement regarding the district’s policies on complaints and investigations, as well as clarifying why there have been no details released about any alleged incidences.

“Overseeing personnel matters is one of the essential duties of a superintendent of schools. Any allegations that an employee has violated a law, regulation, ethical rule, professional code of conduct or any rule or policy of the school is taken seriously and results in an investigative process,” Thomas said.

“Each investigation has reporting obligations and privacy rights and, as of late, complaints made at the Fisher Hill School have been the scrutiny of various news media and social outlets,” she added. “As an ardent keeper of confidentiality for both students and staff alike, it has been painful to watch the recent events and so-called facts shared throughout the community that have had little, if any, vetting by the central office.”

According to Thomas, her office received seven formal complaints “alleging mistreatment of students, educational discrimination and threat of safety by Fisher Hill staff in seven separate instances affecting five children in total” between Oct. 3  and Dec. 3, 2018. Four complaints came from employees, two from parents and one from an “outside provider.”

Thomas said that, while such cases are infrequent, established protocol must be followed for each complaint. This includes a district administrator assessing if there is an “imminent risk of harm to others”; a staff member frequently being placed on paid administrative leave, which does not imply guilt; notification of union representatives and notification of DCF if physical abuse or neglect is alleged.

“A DCF finding is not necessarily required for remedial interventions by the school as the District’s thresholds are governed by various policies and procedures that are often higher than those of DCF,” Thomas said.

According to Thomas, an internal investigation is always conducted into complaints, regardless of DCF involvement. All investigations are eventually determined to be unfounded, founded or “the investigator has been unable to substantiate or rule out the complaint and therefore it cannot be resolved.”

While DCF’s investigation into Donelan and others has completed, finding no wrongdoing, the district’s investigation has not, and Thomas said she is still bound by strict confidentiality rules. It will be her prerogative to return employees on paid administrative leave to work, decide whether there should be a “directive, reprimand, growth plan or even a reassignment” for that employee, or dismiss the employee, Thomas said.

“Seven cases in the span of eight weeks demands incredible precision throughout the investigative process with legal counsel consultation every step of the way,” Thomas said. “One case takes hours and hours of time to process. Seven cases tie up the administration for weeks at a time.”

Thomas also said communication is a challenge during investigations, because open meeting laws, confidentiality and personnel policies must all be followed. At the same time, Thomas said, “since public comment (newspaper, social media, television, forums) is not bound by confidentiality and the District is, the dialogue can look and sound one-sided.”

Thomas said “one of the most difficult tasks” during an investigation is managing media relations.

“Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, Instagram and even our local news/media outlet often become platforms where baseless accusations run confusedly and aimlessly amok,” she said.

The information reported in the Recorder regarding Fisher Hill in the last few months has primarily come from public Orange School Committee meetings, as well as statements from Thomas, Donelan, DCF and School Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Conrod. The Recorder does not print information from anonymous sources. Thomas could not be reached Tuesday for comment, and has not characterized any specific information printed in the Recorder as being inaccurate.

In the midst of these absences, Fisher Hill has struggled with student behavior problems.

Teachers and parents have described an atmosphere of out-of-control students that have become violent with teachers and classrooms, prompting classroom evacuations to other areas of the school in order to get children away from the potentially dangerous students. Teachers have described the evacuations as frequent — one teacher reported her class has been evacuated 30 times this year.

While school officials have not connected the staffers’ absences to the behavioral problems, the absences have been brought up during public meetings about curbing out-of-control behavior.

A majority of Fisher Hill’s staff signed a letter supporting Donelan as principal, and — at a Jan. 3 brainstorming session looking for strategies to improve student behavior — a letter from Fisher Hill staff was submitted to the School Committee asking specifically for Donelan and others to be brought back into the school as a solution to the behavioral problems.

“The law is clear about how to handle complaints and the District has acted in accordance with it,” Thomas said. “While this is a difficult time for everyone involved, I ask that we respect the privacy rights of our families and employees and not speculate on the outcomes of these investigations. The primary focus of the Orange Public Schools will continue to be educating our students in a safe, comfortable and positive environment.”

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.