Providence school chief will personally review abuse cases before placing employees on leave

School Board President Nicholas Hemond (left) and Superintendent Chris Maher (right) talk to reporters. (Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The superintendent of Providence schools said Monday he will begin personally reviewing every case of alleged abuse by district employees against students to determine whether the incidents warrant placing the workers on administrative leave.

Superintendent Chris Maher made the announcement after attending an “emergency meeting” called in City Hall by Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro. Mayor Jorge Elorza and School Board President Nicholas Hemond also attended the meeting.

“What we need to do is look at each [incident] on a case-by-case basis and make a determination if there was something that was a minor infraction that would not require administrative leave,” Maher told reporters. “Not all discipline has to be related to leave.”

Laura Hart, a spokesperson for the school department, said Monday 72 employees have been placed on administrative leave since the beginning of the year. Of those employees, Hart said 36 were teachers, 22 were support staff, nine were substitutes and five were administrators, but most of them have returned to work. She said 16 workers remain out on leave.

District officials have seen a spike in paid leaves because of new guidance given by the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families that recommends 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.

Maher said he still plans to refer all cases to DCYF, but he will review each incident to determine whether the employee deserves to be placed on leave. He stressed that leave is not considered a disciplinary action.

But Calabro has said many of the incidents that have led to employees being placed on leave have been based on false or fabricated allegations by students. She claimed Monday that between 25% and 50% of cases involving teachers being forced out of the classroom were based on inaccurate claims.

After Monday’s meeting, Calabro said she is “cautiously optimistic” the superintendent’s review of cases will result in fewer incidents of employees being placed on leave. But she stressed that her members are reluctant to take actions they normally would take for fear of being reported to DCYF.

”If you walk over to a student or you try to break up a fight, they’ll be like, ‘DCYF, you can’t touch me,’” Calabro said. “It’s creating this culture of fear, and what that leads to is people being afraid for their position, for their livelihood.”

None of the 72 employees placed on leave since the beginning of the school year have been charged with a crime, but officials say they believe the increase in leaves is connected to a relatively new state law that requires all incidents involving child abuse to be reported to DCYF within 24 hours of the claims.

Before the school year started, a principal at Harry Kizirian Elementary School was charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly failing to report abuse allegations. A teacher at the school was arrested in June for allegedly molesting several children. Both individuals have pleaded not guilty.

While the law does not dictate how districts should handle abuse allegations, DCYF officials have said they want to investigate all cases prior to school department investigations. Providence officials have interpreted that guidance to mean that all school employees should be placed on leave pending the results of the DCYF investigation.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Elorza said seeing a school principal arraigned in District Court has had a “chilling impact on everyone.” He said it might be necessary for state lawmakers to make changes to the state law to further define what cases need to be reported to DCYF.

“We have to look at protocols, we have to look at the law and we have to work together,” Elorza said.

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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