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The purpose of this Blog is to pick up where the Atkinson Reporter has left off. "The King is dead, Long live the King!" This Blog is a forum for the discussion of predominantly Atkinson; Officials, People, Ideas, and Events. You may give opinion, fact, or evaluation, but ad hominem personal attacks will not be tolerated, or published. The conversation begun on the Atkinson Reporter MUST be continued!

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

School officials limited when teachers are investigated

From the Eagle Tribune;

School officials limited when teachers are investigated Until charges are filed superintendents say they have few options
By James A. Kimble

When Timberlane School Superintendent Richard La Salle learned one of his longtime teachers was being investigated for child pornography, he was placed in an untenable position, according to area school administrators and lawmakers.

"I'm not familiar with the specific details of the case. But I don't know what I would have done in the same situation," Salem Superintendent Michael Delahanty said. "I might have made the same decision."

La Salle allowed Scott Buatti, 43, of Newton to maintain his job as a middle school teacher and coach until he was indicted by a grand jury a week ago on 10 counts of possession of child pornography.

The decision to keep Buatti on staff for more than a year until he was formally charged drew the ire of many parents.

But area school administrators and state officials say that at times — such as in the Buatti case — there's little that can be done to an employee when school administrators have little to no hard proof that any wrongdoing has been committed.

Federal agents investigating Buatti in February 2008 told La Salle and assistant superintendent Winfried Feneberg that Buatti was under investigation for having child pornography on his home computer. But a forensic exam of Buatti's school computers done by an investigator for the state Department of Education turned up nothing.

Londonderry Superintendent Nathan Greenberg said in those kinds of situations school administrators are dealing with a number of competing issues while they investigate a teacher or staff person's alleged behavior.

"As a superintendent, you can only operate with the facts and issues you have, and you have to respect everyone's rights," Greenberg said. "If you've done an internal investigation and you don't have any evidence to show any wrongdoing, there isn't much you can do. And law enforcement isn't especially going to share the information they have."

Current and former superintendents interviewed said unequivocally that children always come first in their final decisions on whether they remove someone from their job. And even if police don't share information they have while an investigation is underway, they will warn administrators whether they believe someone poses a danger, administrators said.

In New Hampshire, superintendents rely heavily on the school district's lawyer for guidance on what kind of action they can take — whether it's possibly criminal in nature or not, according to Judith Fillion, a director in the state Department of Education, which oversees teacher conduct.

"They generally take the advice of their counsel," she said. "If they call us, we are able to provide general guidance on how to proceed."

Superintendents are legally required to notify the Department of Education when they get a complaint about a teacher's conduct. That triggers a separate internal investigation by the DOE to determine if there is any wrongdoing that merits a teacher losing state certification.

But school administrators are on their own when it comes to making a final decision to place someone on administrative leave. School boards vote whether to fire someone, but the recommendation comes from the superintendent.

It's a superintendent's worst nightmare

Henry LaBranche, the state's longest serving superintendent who retired from Salem in 2004, said nobody is more horrified about allegations of misconduct than superintendents.

"They are the worst days of your career when one of these come to your attention," LaBranche said. "You think, 'My God, what was this individual thinking about when we've entrusted them with these young people and they start making these kinds of choices in their lifestyle.'"

When LaBranche first became a superintendent in 1975, investigating claims of improper conduct were left to the superintendent, without help even from the police.

"When you had one referring to alleged inappropriate sexual contact, you would take your own investigation in-house, then make a referral to the police department," he said. "Over the years, most of us messed that up pretty badly. That's not what we were trained to do."

That eventually prompted both police and the DOE to take a more active role in the process, LaBranche said.

"Now the law has changed, so as soon as you suspect something, you make that call," he said. "You call police, then the state Department of Education and, third, your board of education. Immediately, you have to have those procedures pretty well locked in place. Children are first and your employee is second. If you're going to err, then you're going to err on the side of the children, and take your lumps with the employee."

New Hampshire has a single law on the books that allows school administrators to remove an employee for cause. But just an allegation, regardless of who it comes from, is generally not enough to act, according to school administrators.

Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, represents the district where Buatti teaches.

"If I were a parent, I would be greatly upset," Welch said. "I'm not sure the school administrators do have the tools they need. It's (generally) not a matter of statute. An indictment is not a finding of guilty. ... We run afoul of this innocent until proven guilty. I'm sure the administration kept an eye on the situation, but that probably doesn't satisfy a lot of people."

Administrators do have latitude

Delahanty, the Salem superintendent, said he believes the law gives school administrators enough latitude to act when they have reliable evidence of wrongdoing. He said a couple of years ago, he put an employee on administrative leave who had been accused of using a MySpace account to post inappropriate pictures and possibly tried to solicit students.

In that case, the employee was ultimately fired, Delahanty said. But the law that allowed him to put the employee on administrative leave was enough to remove him from the school and finish the investigation, he said.

"It's really giving (administrators) the authority to take away a person who might be posing a threat of some kind," he said. "But you better have a very good reason for doing that ... and I've almost always waited some advice of counsel."

Delahanty said administrators are sensitive to the fact they are very likely ending someone's career once they are placed on leave, whether it becomes public or not. Delahanty said he had great respect for La Salle as an administrator and wouldn't second guess his decision.

Greenberg said the law does its best to balance both sides of a case once an allegation comes to light.

"It's just like the regular jurisprudence system," he said. "It tries to balance the rights of the state and accused."

Buatti, who is now on administrative leave, was a teacher, soccer, basketball and track coach for 19 years. He is scheduled to be arraigned in Rockingham County Superior Court later this month.


Anonymous said...

"Current and former superintendents interviewed said unequivocally that children always come first in their final decisions on whether they remove someone from their job"

If that is true, then Mr. LaSalle should have at a minimum removed Buatti from his coaching positions, if not put him on Admin Leave.

Unfortunately, the data we have shows that LaSalle instead listened to his lawyer and turned the other cheek. But is that the whole story??

Does this incident relate to the non-public school board meeting that was sealed for 99 years?? If it did and that incident is now public, then the records must be unsealed and the whole truth told. If not: did he consult with the School Board at any other time??

If not, we are still looking at a Superindentant and Asst Superintendant who allowed Buatti to not only remain as a teacher but as an after-hours coach as well. And that in no way is putting the kids 1st.

We need the facts, all of them, to decide if Mr. LaSalle should stay or go. And if the Administration takes any longer to present the whole story, we need to replace them. This does not need to drag on for months.

Atkinson as a whole has backed the SAU administration to the detriment of our kids. I hope Atkinson people have their eyes open a little more here...

Anonymous said...

Another reason to eliminate unions.

Anonymous said...

The whole issue to seal records for 99 years was illegal. If anyone wanted to file with the court, it would not have stood, but they get away with this shit because normal people dont usually get pissed off enough to spend the time and money it takes to force them to act right