One person has been convicted. Two people face criminal charges, and another three might be losing their jobs. All this happened after the school district in Stamford fumbled an investigation into allegations that a teacher was having sex with one of her students.
The Stamford Board of Education commissioned Hartford law firm Pullman and Comely to dig into the school district’s handling of this sexual relationship. The firm released its findings in late April, with a 145-page investigative report that revealed numerous administrative errors, and even instances of law-breaking.
In their report, Pullman and Comely noted trouble separating fact from fiction because “of the complexity of the facts and the contradictory statements provided by the key participants in this investigation…”
The issue began with the discovery that a teacher, Danielle Watkins, was having sex with a student and giving him and a second student marijuana. The first student was under the care of the Department of Children and Families and living in a group home, and getting special education services, according to the report.
Once school officials learned about the relationship, the report said, they made attempts to hide the problem. They enlisted a student informant and spoke in code while they monitored the teacher.
According to the report, when Watkins left the school one day, it was relayed to the administration that “the bird has left the cage.”
Even the school district's law firm, Shipman and Goodwin, was cited in the report as having taken missteps, because the firm advised the school not to tell police about the felonious relationship.
Watkins is currently in prison, serving a five-year sentence. Her lawyer, Rob Serafinowicz, said his client is remorseful, but believes her actions have highlighted deeper problems within the district. "It's not even my client in that report that's alleged to have done the most wrong. It's the other administrators," he said.
At least five school employees had heard about the illegal relationship and did nothing for months, the report found.
State law requires possible abuse or neglect to be reported within 12 hours of acquiring the information.
From the report:
“Regardless of their understanding of what their legal obligations were, from February to June 23, 2014, no one at [Stamford High School] confronted Ms. Watkins about the allegations of sexual misconduct or attempted to intervene to protect [the student] from Ms. Watkins. Nor did anyone question [the student] about the allegations or check on his well-being.”
Browse the report below:
Officials Disagree Over Who Knew What
Stamford Police charged high school principal Donna Valentine with failure to report an incident of abuse or neglect within 12 hours of learning of the allegations. Roth Nordin, an assistant principal, faces the same charge.
In a statement sent to WNPR by the district’s communication department, Superintendent Winifred Hamilton maintained that she never knew about the teacher's relationship with the student, which school officials had called a "relationship irregularity" in internal communications.
“As I stated from the beginning, and as this report confirms, this situation was not brought to my attention by staff,” Hamilton said. “I found out about it after the fact.”
According to the report, Valentine told Hamilton about the sexual relationship “on at least two occasions” prior to the incident finally being reported to police, nearly four months after school officials had learned about the relationship.
Stephen Falcone, the district’s human resources director, and Assistant Superintendent Michael Fernandes disagreed with Valentine, and said that Hamilton did not know about the relationship, the report found.
There were other disagreements between people cited in the investigative report. For example, Fernandes disagreed with Shipman and Goodwin Attorney Christopher Tracey over whether Tracey advised Fernandes to place Watkins on paid leave earlier than she was.
Differring Views on Whether to Report
Because the student was in the custody of the Department of Children and Families and living in a group home, state law requires possible abuse incidents to be reported until the student is 21.
The report found that Shipman and Goodwin Attorney Tom Mooney had advised the Stamford school board that they weren’t obliged to call police, because the student was believed to be over 18. However, State’s Attorney David Cohen argued in the report that the school should have reported it, because the student was under 21.
Pullman and Comely, the authors of the report, agreed with Cohen, but the report noted that because the student was in the custody of DCF, police should have been informed within 12 hours.
The student may have been 17 when the relationship started, the report found.
Mooney recused himself from public discussion of the Pullman and Comely report. He declined to comment for this story.
A Deep-Rooted Problem
The report showed that many Stamford teachers feel they are unable to speak up when problems arise. They pointed to a case in 2011 when three assistant principals were reassigned after complaining to the principal about another improper encounter between a female student and a male teacher.
The Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teaches union, drafted a school climate survey to get a handle on how teachers perceive the district’s work environment. Roughly 40 out of 150 teachers responded.
From the report:
“The concern that District administration is not receptive, and is, in fact, hostile to input from teachers and staff is captured in the results of the climate survey distributed to teachers... While the results of this survey should not be viewed as dispositive, and are not statistically validated, they do provide a window into the perception of Central Office by [Stamford High School] teachers. To the extent they are accurate and valid, they suggest a significant challenge for the Superintendent and her cabinet to recapture the confidence and trust of [high school] teachers.”
Legislative Solution Aims to Clarify Reporting Confusion
State Rep. William Tong has introduced legislation that aims to fix some of the confusion over reporting incidents of abuse or neglect.
“An Act to Protect Children in Schools would make sure school officials that break this law are actually punished,” Tong stated on his website. “It would significantly increase the penalty for failure to report and increase the accountability of mandated reporters.”
The bill would make it a felony to not report an incident of child abuse, and it would create an additional felony charge called a “conspiracy for failure to report.”
A joint statement issued by the Stamford delegation to the General Assembly addressed the need for change.
“As a community, we trust that out children will be safe when they go to school and that educators will work to ensure that safety,” the stated. “When that fundamental trust is violated we expect appropriate action to be taken by both administrators and the justice system.”