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Handling sex scandal in New London schools a test of leadership

May 14, 2019

A leader can never know when or how he or she will be tested.

When Cynthia Ritchie was hired as the New London superintendent of schools one year ago, some of the challenges she would face were clear − completing the conversion to the state’s first all-magnet-schools district, raising academic performance and finding the financial resources to do so.

These were the eyes-wide-open challenges. But it is an unexpected and deeply troubling scandal that now confronts this relatively new leader. The credibility that the superintendent gains or that she loses in meeting this test could weigh heavily on her ability to meet the other challenges.

A school employee, Corriche Gaskin, faces criminal charges of second-degree sexual assault, third-degree possession of child pornography, voyeurism, disseminating voyeuristic material and four counts of risk of injury to a minor. Police claim the alleged criminal actions include a sexual encounter with an eighth-grade female student at the end of the 2016-2017 school year in Gaskin’s office at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.

Also included in documents accompanying the arrest warrants in the case are statements from a teacher and paraprofessional that they had consensual sexual relations with Gaskin at the middle school, highly inappropriate conduct.

Gaskin, 35, reportedly used his cellphone to record these various encounters.

Police have described the situation as an on-going investigation, meaning more revelations could follow.

The matter raises many troubling questions. The challenge facing Ritchie’s administration is to answer them straightforwardly. Only a full accounting can begin to provide reassurance to parents, to stop the spread of rumors that fill the vacuum created by official silence, and repair the damage that has been done to the school system’s reputation at a critical time when it wants to attract students from outside the district.

Unfortunately, when it comes to candor, to addressing what parents and the public are concerned about, Ritchie’s administration embarrassed itself Monday.

First there was an astounding flub in the email sent to news media late in the afternoon and containing Ritchie’s latest statement on the scandal. The subject line read: New London High School Presents CrazyTown.

Was this a bad internal joke that somehow found its way into the email? No, explained Communications and Marketing Manager Tyler Olsen when we called to inquire. He had used an old email announcing a high school theater production and failed to change the subject line. Sloppy.  

As for Ritchie’s statement, it was full of feel-good pabulum that said nothing. Ritchie talked about how folks have “come together to help develop and roll out a district wide response plan” and that schools “will continue to implement a variety of support tools” to “begin the journey of healing.”

What people want to know, superintendent, is what the hell happened?

School officials should fully account for the decision to hire Gaskin and explain who was instrumental in making that decision. Gaskin had a criminal record — a federal conviction for possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute tied to his 2008 arrest in New London. It might be argued his job as a “climate specialist,” dealing with and heading off conflict between students and helping students make smart choices, could have arguably benefited from the street credibility of having learned from his own mistakes.

So far, however, no one is taking responsibility or explaining the reasoning for Gaskin’s hiring.

Was Gaskin protected when talk of potential misconduct surfaced? In the closed and talkative interplay found among adult professionals in a school environment, it is hard to imagine that references to Gaskin’s proclivities did not surface in teacher lounge conversations. Was anything reported? If so, to whom and when? At a meeting Thursday, parents told Ritchie they had heard the rumors.

And what was behind Gaskin’s transfer at the start of this school year to Harbor Elementary School? Was this an attempt to move Gaskin away from his misconduct rather than confront it? Did school administrators not learn from the track record of other organizations that sought to bury a problem by moving a perpetrator, only to see the misconduct transferred with them?

Ritchie deserves credit for holding public forums and taking tough questions, but without answers parents are only left frustrated.

Ritchie’s administration should produce a report, originally to share with the Board of Education but ultimately to be provided to the public, which spells out what happened, who made the decisions that contributed to what happened, and what consequences resulted. In the meantime, don’t patronize the public with ersatz profundity.

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