Providence Teachers Union asks for ’emergency meeting’ with mayor, school leaders on abuse incidents

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The president of the Providence Teachers Union has asked Mayor Jorge Elorza, Superintendent Chris Maher and School Board President Nicholas Hemond to attend an “emergency meeting” Monday morning to discuss why so many school employees have been placed on administrative leave this year.

More than 50 teachers or other district employees have been placed on paid leave since the beginning of the school year while the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families investigated incidents involving alleged abuse or misconduct against students. Nearly all of them have been cleared of any wrongdoing.

District officials have blamed the spike in paid leaves on new guidance given by DCYF recommending that all abuse cases be forwarded to the agency prior to the school department conducting its own investigation into the allegations. In the past, the district would conduct its own probe before referring cases to DCYF or the police.

But union president Maribeth Calabro said she has spoken to her colleagues from districts around the state and none of them have seen similar spikes in employees being forced off the job this year. She said Monday’s meeting will focus on what she sees as false or fabricated allegations by students as well as the district’s current leave policy.

“We are at a critical point,” Calabro told Eyewitness News. “Teachers are desperate for help, support and I need to provide a venue to make that happen. The meeting with the mayor hopefully will get us much-needed relief.”

“This is devastating – please know that,” she added. “We do not, cannot and will not ever condone abuse of any kind toward children. This is beyond that.”

Calabro requested the meeting with city leaders on the same day two more employees were placed on administrative leave. A spokesperson for the district confirmed a teacher and guidance counselor at Nathan Bishop Middle School were put on leave, but declined to comment further. The district maintains that leave should not be considered a disciplinary action.

Calabro said she doesn’t believe the employees at Nathan Bishop have done anything wrong, but declined to provide details on the matter.

Rhode Island law requires anyone with knowledge of alleged sexual abuse of a child to contact DCYF within 24 hours. Three adults, including an elementary school principal in Providence, have been charged with a misdemeanor for failing to report allegations this year.

Providence has been under heightened scrutiny when it comes to DCYF reporting since a physical education teacher at Harry Kizirian Elementary School was arrested in June for allegedly molesting several children. The district acknowledged that multiple officials failed to contact DCYF after the allegations were made.

But teachers say a change in the way the district handles abuse allegations is what has led to the spike in employees being placed on leave. They claim the district’s decision to immediately refer cases to DCYF and place employees on leave has left them feeling powerless.

The union sent a letter to Maher last month claiming that students have been “emboldened to make allegations at a whim knowing that the teacher will be removed from the building with no questions asked.” The union also accused students of “taunting teachers with threats” that they will contact DCYF with abuse claims.

Calabro said Maher has already agreed to attend the meeting. Elorza was holding a political fundraiser Friday evening and didn’t respond to a request for comment. Hemond also did not respond to a request for comment.

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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