School incident calls for better privacy, right-to-know balance

  • Fisher Hill School

Published: 11/9/2018 9:02:39 AM

Sometimes trying to do the right thing too vigorously can make things worse — even for the very people you are trying to protect.

That seems to have been the case recently as the Orange School Committee and its superintendent gingerly reported news about something bad and mysterious that happened at Fisher Hill School. At least we think the matter is bad, but the school officials have released so little real information to the public there is no way to tell. Maybe it’s not as bad as we can imagine. And there’s the rub. In the absence of more concrete information, we are left imagining — possibly the worst.

As a newspaper, we always tend to lean toward disclosure, transparency and openness in government. This is especially true when it comes to our schoolchildren, the most vulnerable and important among us.

What do we know? That the school’s principal, Maureen Donelan, isn’t at work following a letter from the superintendent to the parents about a report of “staff misconduct,” and asserting that the “well-being and safety of all of our students is a top priority of the district. We have no tolerance for behavior that places children at risk.” OK. Now I’m worried.

While this letter was no doubt meant to reassure parents and to please lawyers, it probably only set off alarms at kitchen tables across the town.

So, something bad happened, presumably to a student, presumably at the school. Reporters, told nothing more than contained in the letter, did learn the state Department of Children and Families and the school officials were investigating something at the school.

We’ve heard the rumors and we are loathe to repeat or report rumors. Half the time they are spot on. Half the time they are dead wrong.

According to Superintendent Tari Thomas, no details of the alleged incident are being released because this is a “highly confidential” personnel matter. It’s also a highly worrisome matter to parents.

Thomas declined to answer questions this week, saying, “As I have said before, matters of personnel are highly confidential. Staff can be out for a myriad of reasons, and the district is required to provide coverage for them. I am unable to divulge the names of anyone who is absent nor why.”

It seems almost ludicrous that Thomas or School Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Conrod can’t at least tell their parents, taxpayers and constituents whether or not their principal is on administrative leave in connection with an investigation of some sort of complaint.

Yes, the law does allow certain protections for people and public figures accused of bad behavior until those complaints are vetted, and there’s good cause to shield people’s reputations from frivolous or malicious false or erroneous accusations.

But in the case of Donelan, there’s no reason to withhold her status. Doing so would probably dispel some of the sense of mystery.

We can think of two or three times in past years when a police chief of a town has been placed on leave following credible or incredible complaints. In every case the public was told about the action, so people at least knew who was in charge and just enough about the status of their civic leader to tamp down the rumor mongering.

In this case there needs to have been better balance between privacy of a principal, who is a public official after all, and the public’s right to know.

In our experience, saying a bit more than happened in this case, can lighten the cloud of mystery over the head of the person on leave.

Conrod confirmed earlier this week that Donelan is not currently at the school and that another administrator is in charge, and we appreciate that much openness, even if it required reporters tugging to get the information.

Even the state Department of Children and Families, which seeks to keep children safe from abuse and neglect and is usually very reticent, confirmed to reporters that it is investigating allegations at Fisher Hill.

Thomas’s elaborate letter asserting the school is all about keeping students safe may sound reassuring, but what parents will really want to know when the dust settles, is what did or didn’t happen, how might it affect their children and what are we going to do about it, if necessary.

We hope the school officials can make up for the undue mystery and speculation and cloud cast over the entire staff, but especially Donelan, by clearing the air as soon as possible.

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