CONCORD — A petition calling for the removal of Concord School Superintendent Terri Forsten had more than 1,700 signatures on Monday as public outrage continued to build over the district’s handling of complaints against a now-fired teacher who is charged with sexual assault of a minor.
CSD Advocates for Change, the group behind the petition, cited an eroding trust in administrators and growing frustration with the district’s response to multiple complaints from students and parents.
“This is really a last-ditch effort for a change in leadership and a total change in culture,” said Darlene Gildersleeve, a founding member of the group and one of the petition’s authors.
The petition calls for members of the Concord School Board to issue a no-confidence vote against Forsten when the board meets next Tuesday.
It was posted on change.org Friday with a goal of 2,500 signatures. By Monday afternoon, more than 1,700 people had signed.
Gildersleeve said she wasn’t surprised by how quickly the petition gained support and expected it to keep coming. She said the group’s frustration with Forsten reached a critical point Friday when a letter from Forsten to staff mentioned a “continual dribble” of articles in the local newspaper and social media posts that she said “have negatively impacted some of the community’s viewpoint of our schools and work.”
The district, Forsten wrote, has “chosen to put energy into moving forward.”
Gildersleeve said it was frustrating to see Forsten’s wording, which the petition called “tone deaf.” She said Forsten and the administration have created a culture where students, parents and teachers are frightened to come forward for fear of retaliation.
“There’s a blatant disregard for transparency and open communication with families,” Gildersleeve said. “She’s discouraging two-way conversations not only with students and families, but also with teachers. The teachers are feeling really suppressed.”
Forsten and members of the school board did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment Monday.
Gildersleeve said CSD Advocates for Change started earlier this year with a group of concerned parents who had read about a family’s lawsuit against the district over the suspension of their daughter in 2014.
The girl was 14 at the time and went to her middle school principal with concerns about Primo “Howie” Leung, the fired teacher facing criminal charges for the sexual assault of a student. The principal suspended the female student for “spreading malicious slander and gossip” about Leung when he was a teacher at Rundlett Middle School, according to the girl’s family.
The district agreed in June to a $15,000 settlement with the girl’s family. The middle school principal, Tom Sica, went on to become principal of Concord High School before agreeing to take a leave of absence earlier this summer.
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. Investigators allege Leung transported teenage girls from New Hampshire to the summer camp, where he sexually assaulted one of them.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, the Concord School Board said it will seek an independent investigation into the Leung matter. Gildersleeve said the investigation is expected to wrap up soon, but does not want the School Board to wait any longer to take action against Forsten.
The petition also questioned why Leung was allowed to continue teaching while under criminal investigation and accused district officials of failing to follow state regulations requiring the events to be reported to police and the state Division for Children, Youth and Families.
Amanda Grady Sexton, an at-large member of the Concord City Council, said the district’s response has been troubling for parents and students. Grady Sexton, who is also director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the district and administrators have not properly accepted responsibility for their own mistakes, which led to a breakdown in public trust.
“The community is looking to the School Board and Administration for leadership and answers, not silence,” Sexton said. “It’s shocking to see a letter that asks the dedicated staff in the Concord School District to ‘move forward’ before the school board and administration has evaluated the past and taken responsibility for the egregious harm inflicted upon students.”
Sexton, who has signed the petition, said she has also received many calls, e-mails and messages from parents and Concord schools alumni voicing fear and concern about the district’s actions.
Lyn Schollett, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, also expressed her frustration with the district’s responses.
“We stand with parents who want to prevent future assaults and make sure that schools respond appropriately to abuse and violence,” she said in a statement. “We are deeply concerned that the school has minimized this series of events in its letter by focusing on the ‘dribble’ of media coverage rather than being truly accountable for the series of crimes happening on their watch.”