CONCORD — A peaceful but spirited protest of parents and education advocates greeted the city school board Tuesday night, raising the profile of their grassroots campaign to oust the school superintendent and high school principal for their handling of sexual assault cases.
Then the school board heard nearly two hours of public comment from parents and students nearly all calling on the elected board to clean house of its current leadership.
“We’re looking for basic accountability to keeping the students and the staff in the Concord School District safe, and Superintendent Terri Forsten and Principal Tom Sica have failed on all counts,” said Darlene Gildersleeve of Hopkinton, a lead organizer of CSD (Concord School District) Advocates for Change.
During its monthly meeting at the Mill Brook School, the board formally received the petition that’s attracted 2,800 signatures.
Forsten last month said the Concord School District has revised its policies and continues to review its practices in light of the April arrest of special education teacher Primo “Howie” Leung on sexual assault charges involving a student.
Since then, Sica has taken a voluntary leave, the district has paid $20,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a student who was suspended after raising concerns about Leung, the school board has launched an independent investigation into Leung-related issues, and this group called for Forsten’s resignation.
Annika Ingersoll a student at Concord High School, said there are many other sex assault cases beyond the celebrated one.
“Unfortunately, it is not the only case," Ingersoll said. “To a teen reporting anything to anyone is an extreme step...The events on the recent past do reflect on us but they don’t define us."
Jennifer King of Concord said she just moved to Concord and enrolled her son in Concord High School this fall because it had a good reputation.
"I was appalled to read what I have read this past spring; extremely disappointed," King said.
Concord parent and photographer Dan Habib said the independent report on this matter must be released to public.
"I haven’t heard anybody to say we are going to release this report except for whatever highly confidential material we cannot put out," Habib said. "You have to release this report in the most transparent way possible or we will not move past this.”
Maureen O’Brien-Adams said local police and security staff have told her Concord High has both a sex assault and drug problem.
"I have been told parents have no idea what goes on in that school,” O'Brien-Adams said.
School Board President Jennifer Patterson said she expects that independent probe to be privately presented to the board later this month.
She said the board would not discuss the topic Tuesday as it was not on its agenda.
“When we receive it the board will review the report, we will examine what information we can share with the public,” she said. “That review will look at the laws governing confidentiality of personnel actions.
“We do understand there is a strong public interest. We will do what we can within the contours of the confidentiality laws to help the public understand if there are any policy actions that need to be made.”
Forsten angered parents further last month when she attacked “unfairly labeled” media coverage of the Leung events.
She then sent up a follow-up letter to the community apologizing for the language and insisting she did not mean to diminish the students and their experiences.
Several speaking at Tuesday night's meeting said Forsten's earlier letter moved them to sign the petition and give testimonyu.
Outside the school Tuesday evening, lifelong Concord resident Janet Sprague held a sign that read, “Believe, support and empower students and our community.
“I have seen many issues in the schools not having been handled properly and swept under the rug,” Sprague said.
“Over the years I have seen many administrations and I believe this one to be the worst I have ever seen.”
Parent Julie Peterson said Forsten has too much power over the elected board.
“There needs to be a separation between the board and the superintendent; they are the boss, not her,” Peterson said.
The petition drive started after parents read media reports about a family’s lawsuit against the district over the suspension of their daughter in 2013.
The girl was 14 at the time and went to Sica, then her principal at Rundlett Middle School, with concerns about Leung, the fired teacher facing criminal charges for the sexual assault of a student. Sica suspended the girl for “spreading malicious slander and gossip” about Leung when he was a teacher at Rundlett, according to the girl’s family.
Leung was arrested in April and placed on administrative leave until he was fired June 30. He is accused of inappropriately touching and sexually assaulting a Concord student during the summers of 2015 and 2016 at a Fessenden summer ELL program in Newton, Mass. Investigators allege Leung transported teenage girls from New Hampshire to the summer camp, where he sexually assaulted one of them.