Tuesday, November 30, 2021

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Public Grapples with Veteran Teachers’ Allegations About Clinton Schools

Beloved, longtime Clinton teacher Jack Reynolds was found dead on the Pattaconk Recreation Area on Sept. 28. An Oct. 16 story published by the Connecticut Examiner reported that he had been placed on administrative leave the previous day—and reported on allegations by Clinton school teachers that the Clinton Public Schools has systematically harassed older teachers for several years. The fallout in this small community has been significant.

The article “After Tragedy, Clinton Teachers Claim Age Discrimination, Hostile Work Environment” by Julia Werth described a school administration that has forced older teachers out of their jobs, according to nine veteran Clinton Public Schools teachers who spoke to the Examiner.

According to the Examiner, Reynolds was put on administrative leave by Superintendent of Schools Maryann O’Donnell after he allegedly “struck a student on the forehead with [his] hand.” The Examiner cites a letter it said O’Donnell sent to Reynolds that O’Donnell was placing him on leave pending a Sept. 28 pre-disciplinary hearing at which he might face “serious disciplinary action.”

The revelation about Reynolds being put on administrative leave and allegedly hitting a student was a shock to many in the community. Clinton Police Chief Vincent DeMaio confirmed to the Harbor News that “There was a complaint made to the department by the parent of a juvenile who was a student of Mr. Reynolds.”

Citing interviews with multiple former teachers and FOIA requests, the Examiner article painted a picture of a toxic work environment at Clinton Public School (CPS) where older teachers were made to feel unwelcome, possibly as an excuse to force out the old teachers in favor of younger teachers hired at smaller salaries.

The management of the education and town budget is an annual battle in Clinton that inspires impassioned and sometimes heated debate in town. CPS, like all surrounding districts, employs a salary step system that means a veteran teacher will likely earn about double the salary of an entry-level teacher.

The administration wasn’t the only target singled out by the teachers who spoke to the Examiner. They also said some former teachers did not feel the teacher’s union in Clinton adequately represented them in disputes with the administration. One former teacher was quoted as saying that she thought that Gloria Dimon, the legal representative for Clinton from the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), had too close of a relationship with the administration and former superintendent Jack Cross.

O’Donnell Response

On Oct. 20 O’Donnell responded to questions from the Harbor News in response to the Examiner article.

“Notwithstanding the recent media narrative, the parents of our students, our teachers, and the entire public school community know that our strength as a system lies in the positive relationships among administrators, teachers, staff, students, and the families that we serve,” O’Donnell said.

Asked about the relationship between the administration and the teachers and the allegations that older teachers are pushed out to save money, O’Donnell responded, “The hallmark of our schools is our supportive community of staff, students, and administrators that is based on mutual respect, collaboration, and care for one another.

“We hire quality educators based on a rigorous selection process with an emphasis on job qualifications and skills to ensure that our students have capable and caring educators. In our schools, we value the talent and passion that our outstanding educators bring to their work, and provide support to all teachers in developing their instructional practice, regardless of their experience,” O’Donnell added.

Asked about the allegations in the article surrounding Reynold’s death, O’Donnell said, “Our focus is on the needs of the district and the grieving family, friends, and colleagues of Jack Reynolds. At this point in time, I will not comment further on personnel or confidential matters.

“The death of Jack Reynolds, a teacher who gave 24 years of dedicated service to the children and families of this community, is tragic and the district and community are mourning the loss of a valued colleague and teacher,” she continued.

A Show of Support

On Oct. 18 the Board of Education (BOE) had a regularly scheduled meeting that drew a heavy crowd. The Examiner article was not discussed by the board during the meeting and O’Donnell declined to a make a statement to the Harbor News that night immediately after the meeting.

However, some speakers during the visitor’s portion of the meeting did address the article and were highly critical of it. In attendance of the meeting was a large crowd of people who wore red shirts that with the CEA logo on it in support of the union.

Michael Meizies, the president of the association, read a lengthy statement to the BOE that said in part, “The CT Examiner had thrown salt in out wound using the tragedy to pry into Jack’s life and harass us for comments and confidential information about Jack and other teachers. This is nothing more than an attempt to exploit a traumatic situation. We are here tonight, all wearing red, in a how of unity, support, and strength. Because when one of us is attacked, all of us feel the pain.”

Later Meizies also said, “The Examiner also attacked one of our union representatives who has spent countless houses working with the Education Association of Clinton advocating for safety and resources for our students for better working conditions for our educators, and representing teachers when personnel or administrative issues arise. Both EAC and CEA always pursue justice and ensure due process for each member we represent.”

Meizies told the Harbor News after the meeting that the show of solidarity at the meeting was organized by several people and meant to show support of the union.

Abby Roccapriore said she was speaking as the vice president of the PTA and as an employee of the CPS. Roccapriore read a statement that the PTA had put out over the weekend that read, “The board of the Clinton PTA is incredibly disappointed with the recent article in the CT Examiner. This reporter sensationalized the passing of one of our beloved teachers, and for no clear reason tied it into an article about dated teacher grievances with a previous administration,” the statement said.

“As the PTA, we can share that to date no Clinton teacher has ever come to us to bring to our attention anything that was discussed in the article. The article is one-sided, especially since administration is legally not allowed to comment on individual cases due to privacy. While we don’t always agree, we have a very collaborative relationship with Maryann O’Donnell and [Assistant Superintendent of Schools] Marco Famiglietti. We highly respect them and the way they have led Clinton Public Schools,” the statement continued.

Community Concerns and Examiner Response

After the article was published, Clinton citizens weighed in both on social media and in private conversation. Many expressed shocks at the allegations, with some saying they had heard similar tales of teachers being pushed out of school systems around the state.

Some have pushed back and argued that the claims in the article were being overblown and that it was unfair of the Examiner to link the concerns of former teachers with years old complaints to the death of Reynolds. Others were upset at the timing of the article and accused the Examiner of using Reynolds’s tragic passing as a sensationalist starting point. Furthermore, some people were upset because, they said, the CPS administrators are not able to tell their side of the story due to the nature of the allegations.

In an effort to shed light on some of the allegations raised by the article, the Harbor News attempted to contact several people who have connections to the school system. Citing confidentiality concerns, those contacted also declined to speak on the record.

On Oct. 19 Gregory Stroud, the Examiner’s editor in chief, responded to criticisms of the first article in a follow up editorial “Regarding Clinton Schools—CT Examiner Responds.” In his note, Stroud pushed back on the claims from that the Examiner harassed CPS employees about Reynolds’s passing and added that Reynolds was not even a primary focus of the questions asked.

“The death of Jack Reynolds spurred a number of people to reach out to CT Examiner for help—not just past and present teachers, but also present town officials. As far we could tell this outreach was largely individual, organic, and unrelated to partisan concerns,” Stroud stated in part.

In closing, Stroud took aim at the administration and its failure to comment on any of the revelations.

“The reality is that when faced with damning claims by a remarkable number of teachers in Clinton public schools, unexpectedly, neither Dimon nor O’Donnell could offer any rebuttal.”

“It’s that failure to respond—and this subsequent public campaign of intimidation based on outright falsehoods—which convinces us that there is something deeply wrong in Clinton. We stand by our reporting.”

Eric O’Connell covers news for Clinton for Zip06. Email Eric at e.oconnell@shorepublishing.com.

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