Union: Providence students are making false abuse accusations against teachers

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence Teachers Union is asking the city’s school department to change the way it handles allegations of abuse against students in order to prevent its members from being placed on administrative leave without reasonable cause.

In a letter to Superintendent Chris Maher, the union claimed students have been “emboldened to make allegations at a whim knowing that the teacher will be removed from the building with no questions asked,” and some are “taunting teachers with threats” that they will contact the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families with abuse claims.

“The Providence Teachers Union demands a policy that affords deference on both sides when there is no certainty to the allegation,” the letter states. “There should be a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.”

The letter was signed by union President Maribeth Calabro, her entire executive board and the union’s representative at every school in the district on Nov. 17, a day after the school department confirmed that at least 50 teachers or other employees had been placed on leave since the beginning of the school year as a result of multiple misconduct allegations. The majority of the employees have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

The district has said it has seen a spike in employees being placed on leave because it has been relying on new guidance from DCYF which recommends school districts report any alleged misconduct between employees and students so it can be investigated by DCYF prior to a school department investigation. In the past, the district would conduct its own investigations before turning information over to DCYF.

The change in policy came after a physical education teacher at Harry Kizirian Elementary School was arrested for allegedly molesting several children. The school’s principal was also charged with failing to report the allegations to DCYF within 24 hours, a misdemeanor. Both individuals have pleaded not guilty.

In its letter, the union claimed 34 teachers had been placed on leave since the start of the school year, but many of the allegations were “proven unfounded” and some of incidents “were determined by the district to be false allegations made by students against teachers.”

In one example, the union claims, a veteran teacher with an “unblemished record” was placed on leave after a student claimed he grabbed her arm. The union claims the teacher was actually removing a Chromebook from the student after he caught her accessing pornography on the device.

“The result is a climate where teachers are increasingly afraid to assert their authority and discipline students given the trepidation of an allegation being lodged against them,” the letter states.

Reached Monday, Maher stressed that “the two things I value most are the wellbeing of our students and our teachers.” He declined to comment directly on the allegation that students have falsely accused teachers of abuse, but said the district will take disciplinary action against anyone making untruthful claims.

The union has asked the school department to investigate student allegations to determine whether there is “compelling evidence” to forward the allegations to DCYF. But the district maintains the current law isn’t clear about how claims should be handled.

“We share the Providence Teachers Union’s concern about determining ‘reasonable cause’ for suspecting child abuse,” Laura Hart, a spokesperson for the school department, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, until a clear definition is codified into Rhode Island law, the school district must maintain a state of vigilance or risk violating DCYF reporting laws as they currently are written.”

Kerri White, a spokesperson for DCYF, said the agency understands “that this has been difficult for everyone involved.”

“DCYF’s mandate, consistent with Rhode Island state law, is to take reports of alleged abuse/neglect of children and to investigate those claims to ensure child safety,” White said in a prepared statement. “DCYF cannot set school policy, but we will continue to help in any way we are able.”

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook