Bureaucracy left teacher accused of sex misconduct in schools

A teacher reported for looking at pornography on a school computer in January remained assigned to schools until late March, racking up additional complaints that he was loitering in girls’ bathrooms during that time.

During the period when the teacher, Daniel Meagher, was collecting allegations, city officials were demanding more power to fire teachers who misbehave.

Yet the extended timeline between the first allegation against Meagher and his removal from the classroom suggests that the city does not always use the power it already has to shield students from school workers suspected of illicit behavior — and that the Department of Education sometimes does not even know when teachers are accused of misconduct.

According to a report released today by Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon, Meagher behaved inappropriately at three different schools: Bedford Academy High School, P.S. 17, and P.S. 19. A city teacher since 2000, Meagher was assigned to multiple schools as a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent positions who rotate to new schools each week.

Bedford Academy’s principal called Condon’s office in mid-January after students said they saw Meagher looking at pornography in the school library and other school officials realized Meagher had also been searching online for sexually explicit content about children, according to the report. Investigators quickly began looking into the allegations, seizing Meagher’s computer six days after hearing from the school principal.

But it was not until March 30, more than two months later, that the Department of Education assigned Meagher to a central office position to keep him away from students, according to the report. That month, the principals of P.S. 17 and P.S. 19 each reported that Meagher had been spotted repeatedly in girls’ bathrooms.

The Department of Education removed Meagher from schools as soon as it learned of the allegations, according to Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman. But a spokeswoman from Condon’s office said the department was aware of the allegations from the very beginning, since a department employee — the principal — lodged them.

The disagreement sheds light on the dysfunctional relationship between the two separate bodies that investigate allegations of misconduct in schools. The Department of Education has an internal investigations unit, the Office of Special Investigations, which handles many allegations. Condon’s office is not part of the department but is assigned to scrutinize allegations made about its employees, and unlike OSI it releases some of its findings publicly.

Principals and other administrators are supposed to use a department computer system to report suspicions or allegations of misconduct. Then the department triages the allegations, sending some back for the principals to handle, picking up some cases itself, and sending some to Condon’s office.

“The minute I make that report – I am a mandated reporter — I immediately put it into the system. The DOE should be on it,” said a Queens principal who said he had lodged allegations in the past that had not yielded perceptible responses.

But if a principal goes directly to Condon’s office, the education department does not always find out, Feinberg said.

“We are not always notified about investigations,” she said. “When we were told about this one, we reassigned the teacher.”

Condon’s spokeswoman, Laurel Wright-Hinkson, said SCI decides on a case-by-case basis whether to reach out to the department while an investigation is ongoing.

“SCI is not involved in the reassignment of DOE employees,” she said in an email. “However, occasionally during the course of an investigation, SCI uncovers some information we feel may be detrimental to the welfare of the students or staff. In that situation, SCI will notify the DOE of the findings and may suggest the removal of the subject.”

In April, Meagher was assigned to an office belonging to one of the networks that support schools. There, multiple staff members reported him for exposing himself and behaving in other inappropriate ways, according to Condon’s report. The department is now moving to fire Meagher.

Meagher’s offenses took place at the same time as a spate of high-profile abuse cases emerged from city schools, prompting Chancellor Dennis Walcott to call for a new state law to give him more power to fire teachers found to have misbehaved.

Today, Walcott issued a statement condemning Meagher’s behavior. “Behavior like this is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it in our schools,” Walcott said. “This is an example of why it is imperative for new legislation that would give me the final determination on substantiated sexual misconduct cases.”

But while the legislation Walcott sought would allow him to fire Meagher even if Meagher’s discipline trial does not end with that ruling, it would not actually have had any impact on whether he was are removed from the classroom while under investigation. The department already has the latitude to reassign any teacher suspected of wrongdoing.

“We have the power — it’s just a matter of doing it quickly and effectively,” said the Queens principal.