CONCORD — The Concord School District will ask a judge on Friday to dismiss a lawsuit seeking a confidential report into how the district handled allegations that a former teacher sexually assaulted a student.
The report “is the quintessential example of an internal personnel practice exempted from New Hampshire‘s Right to Know Law,” an attorney for the district argued in documents filed in Merrimack County Superior Court.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, which is seeking the report’s release on behalf of a Concord parent, argued in response that “the District’s basis for withholding the Report and potentially insulating wrongdoers from public scrutiny omits any consideration of the obvious and compelling public interest in the Report’s disclosure.”
At issue is how the school district responded to allegations of sexual misconduct against a former Concord High School teacher, Primo “Howie” Leung. Public outrage led both the Superintendent Terri Forsten and high school Principal Tom Sica to resign last year.
After his arrest, Leung voluntarily surrendered his teaching license and the state Department of Education revoked his credentials.
The school district hired an independent investigator to look into how allegations of misconduct against Leung dating as far back as 2014 had been handled by school officials. The investigator, a Massachusetts attorney, submitted her report to the Concord School Board in September, but the board has refused to make the report public, its attorney arguing it is exempt from the Right-to-Know law.
Parents have continued to call for the full report’s release, and the ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Dellie Champagne, a Concord parent. “We need access to the report to see who may have betrayed our children,” she told the Union Leader on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony Thursday on two bills that would make it a crime for a school employee in a “position of authority” to have sexual contact with a student of any age.
Gov. Chris Sununu and top Senate Democrats endorsed closing a loophole in existing law that raised the burden of proof to prove sexual assault by a teacher when a teen has reached the age of consent.
“I hope we can all agree that it is never appropriate for a teacher to engage in any sort of romantic or sexual relationship in a primary or secondary education institution and that behavior should always be reported to the (state) Board of Education and local law enforcement,” Sununu said.
“It is our job to ensure New Hampshire schools are safe places to learn and that our students are not subject to inappropriate behavior or sexual assault by the adults placed in a position of authority over them,” said committee chair Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover.
Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, the former committee chairman, raised a question about removing the requirement that there be “coercion” to prove a crime was committed.
But the bills’ supporters, including Sununu, said the person’s authority status by definition involves coercive behavior.
“No child is freely able to give consent in cases where a person has authority over them,” Sununu said in a letter to the committee.
In the motion to dismiss the lawsuit seeking the investigative report on Leung’s case, attorneys for the Concord School District offered to submit the unredacted report to the judge to review “for the purpose of verifying the scope and subject of the report.”
Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU-NH, on Thursday said the district’s “policy of secrecy” is not legally required.
“We continue to be very concerned by the decision of the Concord School District and its School Board to keep its citizens in the dark about how the District handled its investigation of sexual misconduct by a former teacher,” he said. “To be clear, the District and its School Board are choosing secrecy in favor of being transparent with its constituents.”
“We are hopeful that, at the hearing, we will be permitted to proceed with this important case that goes to the heart of why we have a Right to Know law — namely, so the public can hold the government accountable,” Bissonnette said.