New London — State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan suggests that the New London School District have clear protocols in place regarding staff interactions with students, documentation of those interactions and close supervision of employees who frequently meet alone with students.
The recommendation was one of several made as part of a status update of an investigation of the district by the Office of the Child Advocate. The probe was prompted by the arrest of three former school employees earlier this year: two on sexual assault charges and another for failing to fulfill her role as a mandated reporter.
The investigation is not yet completed and the status update provided by Eagan to Mayor Michael Passero does not yet represent any findings from the investigation.
But the circumstances of the arrests and Eagan’s initial review resurrects questions about the hiring, training and oversight of employees in the school, especially those who are not certified or performing temporary work in the district.
Corriche Gaskin, formerly a noncertified school employee working with troubled students and their families, is at the center of the scandal and facing multiple felony charges related to the alleged sexual assault of two middle school students and for showing cellphone videos of himself having sex to others.
Gaskin, 35, was hired by the district as a paraprofessional in 2014 despite his federal drug conviction and was promoted, based in part on recommendations from fellow school employees, to his role working one-on-one with students at the middle school.
“It is vital to ensure that District practices regarding the recruitment, hiring and retention of employees who will work one to one with students, particularly vulnerable students with disabilities, are comprehensive, consistent with state and federal law requirements regarding necessary qualifications and background checking, and regularly audited for quality assurance purposes,” Eagan wrote in the seven-page letter to Passero.
Also arrested was 25-year-old Jevon Elmore, a former New London middle school paraprofessional and track coach charged with having an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old high school student. Elmore, Gaskin and former middle school teacher Melissa Rodriguez, charged with failure to report a suspected incident of child abuse or neglect, all have pleaded not guilty in their criminal cases.
Eagan notes the similarities in the New London allegations to a Hartford School District investigation by her office that “led to profound and urgent concerns regarding the school district’s historical lack of compliance with state laws designed to ensure adequate protection and safety for children, including laws regarding mandated reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect …”
Passero and Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein had lobbied Eagan’s office for the review, even as the district scrambled to address the concerns with a human resources audit, changes to a host of administrative positions and creation of the new Department of Climate and Culture, among other actions.
Milstein, who prior to her job in New London served as the state child advocate, said it was clear from Eagan’s review that the issues of sexual abuse or harassment is not simply a New London issue. Eagan noted in her letter that the concerns arise in all “child serving systems and programs.”
“It is essential that communities appreciate that child sexual abuse is both more prevalent and less likely to be reported than people may realize,” Eagan wrote, noting that a nationwide survey of eighth- to eleventh-graders conducted in 2004 revealed that nearly 7 percent of students reported having been the recipient of physical sexual contact from an adult in their school.
Based on the review by her office, Eagan created a list of areas for potential oversight in New London: sexual abuse prevention policies and positive school climate, ensuring adequate hiring practices, ensuring background checks are completed and ensuring a working framework for compliance with state-mandated reporter laws.
Milstein said that, based on the areas highlighted by Eagan, there are things that need attention to ensure a safe and supportive environment for students and their families in New London.
“This letter to me highlights the need for a multi-tiered, comprehensive abuse prevention framework that includes sort of connecting the dots … an effective and meaningful training curriculum that goes beyond mandating reporting,” Milstein said.
Milstein said Eagan also makes clear background checks are not enough.
“We’re hearing a lot about background checks. Let’s just say someone stole a loaf of bread when they were 18 and had no issues related to child abuse in their background. That’s Part A. Part B is what are their qualifications to work with children, (regardless) of the criminal background, especially the most vulnerable students,” Milstein said.
The arrests in New London had raised questions from community members about how certain people attained their positions in the district, inferring that some employees were hired or protected based on who they knew in the district.
Passero expects Eagan’s letter should be useful for school Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie to use as a blueprint to compare to the initiatives already underway to address the situation in the district.
“Is there any of this they haven’t thought of or focused on?” Passero said.
Ritchie has provided Eagan’s office with a comprehensive list of new and continuing initiatives that include an updated incident and complaint reporting link on the district website and development of a phone app that will allow students 24-hour anonymous reporting opportunities.
The district also has expanded staff professional development, is at the beginning stages of a restructuring of the human resources department and created a new anonymous bullying reporting form.
“We, as a district, have continued to forge ahead, implementing several new actions and accomplishing many goals in line with our District’s Improvement Plan,” said Ritchie, who is in her first year leading the district.
Ritchie said she looked forward to meeting with staff from the Office of the Child Advocate “to gather their insight and be able to discuss our district initiatives.”
Eagan, in her letter, said she anticipates more records to be submitted by the district, including the human resources audit, and expects meetings with district administrators in the coming weeks.