Communication Breakdown

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.

Condon’s complete report is below.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.