Act 93

Conestoga High School Student Sexual Assault Case: Federal Lawsuit Filed — Lawsuit in Separate Case Pending

This is a follow-up post to my last post “TE School District served with another lawsuit” dated June 8. After posting the previous article, I was emailed a copy of the federal lawsuit and  press release from Ross Feller Casey, the Philadelphia law firm who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the parents of the 15-year-old victim in the case.

In the Ross Feller Casey press release, it states that the law firm, “filed a federal lawsuit against the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District and the principal of Conestoga High School alleging administrators and teachers at the High School created and tolerated a culture that emboldened Arthur Phillips, a 67-year old instructional aide, to repeatedly sexually abuse a female student.”

Among other things, the federal lawsuit alleges that “Phillips, an instructional aide in the television production studio at Conestoga since 2006, engaged in a classic yet disturbing pattern of sexual grooming and assault against a student starting when she was only 15 years old.”

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan has criminally charged Arthur Phillips with over 100 counts, including 10 felony charges of statutory sexual assault and 10 felony charges of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. According to the lawsuit, the sexual assaults were daily between January and mid-April of this year and allegedly “took place in various locations at Conestoga High School, including the school’s TV studio, Phillips’ office, Conestoga’s parking lot and in Phillips’ automobile”.

According to Pennsylvania state law, “Statutory sexual assault becomes a first-degree felony offense in cases when the accused is 11 years, or older, than the minor. If convicted of this charge, a person could face a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Additionally, he or she may be fined up to $25,000.” The minor in this case is a 15-year old female and the accused is a 67-year old male, 52 years her senior.  And remember, the ten counts of statutory sexual assault is only one of the criminal charges against Phillips – if convicted, this man is going to prison for a very, very long time.

The lawsuit is against TE School District and Conestoga Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger, but numerous other CHS teachers and administrators are identified in the 36-page lawsuit.  The lawsuit is a public document but because 14 different CHS teachers or administrators (in addition to Meisinger) are identified by name, I will not upload it to Community Matters. To be clear, the only T/E School District administrator being sued in this lawsuit is Meisinger.

I have read the lawsuit several times. It contains many graphic and sexually explicit details that do not need to be repeated here. As the mother of a daughter, I cannot imagine the horror of this situation for the girl and her family.

What is remarkable is the level of detail contained in the lawsuit of places that Phillips took the student during school hours and after school including Berwyn Pizza, Handel’s Ice Cream and restaurants such as Estia (Radnor), Christopher’s in Wayne and City Works Eatery and Pour House (King of Prussia). Phillips and the student went to multiple Wawa convenience stores in the area including Malvern, Paoli, King of Prussia, Audubon and Norristown. Additionally, Phillips took her on shopping trips to the King of Prussia Mall and ice skating in Dilworth Park outside of City Hall in Philadelphia, and to the IFly Indoor Skydiving Center and to Valley Forge Casino.  Phillips gave the student numerous items, including gift cards.

My guess is there would be security cameras, date and time stamped credit card processing receipts, etc. from most of these locations. According to the lawsuit, “many of Phillips contacts with Plaintiff are documented on Conestoga’s video monitoring system, including those cameras used to observe school entrances and exits and around the bus drop-off/pickup location.”  The lawsuit claims that the school district “failed to review the camera footage and failed to intervene in the outwardly inappropriate and illegal behavior of Phillips” which therefore constitutes a “systematic violation of school district policies”.

To celebrate her birthday, Phillips and the student ‘double-dated’ with a Conestoga teacher and her husband at Paladar Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar in King of Prussia. According to the lawsuit, “numerous district officials and teachers were aware of Phillips’ inappropriate relationship with the girl but failed to take steps to investigate or halt the conduct”.  Further, the lawsuit alleges that Phillips’ office was decorated with homemade signs that included the girl’s initials, her first name and the word “love”.

The lawsuit alleges that Phillips continually wrote ‘hall passes’ for the student to miss class when school district policy only permits a teacher (not an aide) to write these passes.  It is alleged that “none of the teachers who received these ‘hall passes’ filled out by Phillips took any action to investigate, manage, question or stop said absences or tardiness”.  Between January and mid-April of this year, the student missed over 20 English classes yet the teacher (allegedly) never discussed the absences with the parents.

Ross Feller Casey is also representing the parent of the 17-year old male CHS student who was sexually abused by another Conestoga staff member, 26-year-old teacher’s aide Christine Towers. Towers was convicted earlier this year and is currently serving time for the crime. The law firm is investigating a separate federal lawsuit against TE School District in that case. In both the Towers case and the Phillips case, the parents of the two abused students are calling for the resignation of the Conestoga principal.

In the Ross Feller Casey press release, attorney Matt Casey stated, “The heartbroken parents I represent, and their children, are demanding accountability on the part of the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, something that has yet to be achieved despite repeated, shocking instances of sexual abuse at Conestoga High School. The already-known facts lay bare a school district custom of deliberately turning a blind eye to criminal acts in its midst.”  To support this claim, the lawsuit includes the middle school sexting scandal, the football hazing incident and the teacher’s aide who sexually abused the male student case prior to this latest criminal investigation – all occurring in the last couple of years.

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The school board meeting is tomorrow, Monday, June 12, 7:30 PM at Conestoga High School and includes the adoption of the 2017-18 final budget. The meeting agenda continues to list the teachers’ contract (TEEA), the non-instructional contract (TENIG) and Act 93 Agreement (administrators) as ‘TBD’ in the proposed final budget. The contracts constitute 70% of the District budget yet the budget includes no contingencies.  However, it is noted that on page 293 of the agenda, we see that the school board will take a vote on giving administrators a 1.7% increase to their 2016-17 base salary plus a one-time bonus of 1% to be paid in June 2018.

Since the last regular meeting of the school board, there have been two lawsuits filed against the District … the agenda makes no mention of either.

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Three T/E School District Contracts Due to Expire in 30 Days … What is the Status on the Teachers (TEEA) Contract, Non-Instructional Group (TENIG) Contract and Act 93 (Administrators) Agreement?

The TESD Finance Committee meeting agenda for Wednesday, May 31, 6:30 PM is available here.

The school board is on the countdown to the approval of the 2017-18 budget on Monday, June 12 but there’s a major open issue as indicated in the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting. Actually, there are three unknowns or ‘TBD’ as stated on the draft budget as shown below:

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For the first time that I am aware, the school board is faced with the contracts of the District teachers (TEEA), the non-instructional group (TENIG) and Act 93 (administrators) all expiring on the same date — on June 30, 2017. In years past, the contracts terms were staggered. To my knowledge, there has been no update from the school board regarding any one of these three contracts that expire in a month.

In years past, the threat of outsourcing of some of TENIG’s employees was considered by the school board (as a budget savings).  In tight budget times, the District’s custodians, secretaries, maintenance workers and kitchen workers all became a target for outsourcing during budget negotiations.  Don’t get me wrong — I’m no fan of outsourcing.  (We don’t need to look any further than the school board’s decision to outsource the aides and paras and ask how that has worked out.)

In the current TENIG contract (July 1, 2014 – June 30, 2017), the custodians received a 2% salary reduction and additionally had to give back 1 week of their vacation.  (The rationale was that the District had to hire subs when the custodians are on vacation).  The other members of TENIG (security, kitchen, maintenance, and cafeteria) received a 4% salary reduction in the new contract but their vacation benefit remains intact.  Since the current TENIG contract required salary reductions, it does not seem plausible that these T/E workers would not receive an increase in the new contract (at least the new contract should bring the TENIG employees back to their June 30, 2014 salary level). The public doesn’t know the answer.

The current TEEA contract (July 1, 2014 – June 30, 2017) was ratified in February 2014, months in advance of its June 30, 2014 expiration date. The contract protected the jobs of the District teachers and included a ‘no furloughs or demotions’ clause through June 2017.  The teachers received salary increases based on their step movement in the matrix.  The contract included a Distance E-Learning Pilot Program that ran the length of the contract, expiring on June 30, 2017.  If you recall, TEEA previously filed a suit (and won) against the District over their implementation of distance learning so it was somewhat surprising to see its inclusion in the contract. Are we confident that the new TEEA contract will honor the ‘no furlough or demolition’ clause contained in the current contract?  The public doesn’t know the answer.

The third TESD contract due to expire in a month is the Act 93 Agreement — the District’s administrator compensation plan. The current Act 93 Agreement (January 29, 2013 – June 30, 2017) included a one-time bonus for service in the previous two and one-years and a one-time bonus of 1% of the individual’s salary award each June.

At the time the Act 93 contract was signed, there was discussion that the lowest paid groups – the TENIG workers – were taking a salary decrease whereas the administrators’ salaries were increasing.  So with the teachers, administrators and the non-instructional workers with contracts expiring in a month, it’s going to be interesting to see if fairness will prevail. Will the administrators continue to receive an annual bonus? The public doesn’t know the answer.

For me, the problem is that there’s been no update whatsoever in the contract negotiation process and the final budget is to be approved in a couple of weeks on Monday, June 12.

Although the draft budget includes a maximum tax increase of 3.4%, it indicates a $1.6 million deficit. The plan is to make up the deficit with a transfer from the District’s fund balance. Plus, we do not know the impact of the teachers, administrator and TENIG contracts on the budget. As indicated in the graphic above, the three contracts are ‘TBD’.

I re-read an old Community Matters post on this topic from April 2012, ‘Seeking Transparency in TESD Teacher Contract Negotiations’  which had a follow-up post on May 17, 2012, ‘TE Teachers Turn on Transparency Lights in Contract Negotiations’. In re-reading these posts and the many comments, what was striking was the need for regular updates to the public by the Board. The lack of information and/or misinformation during the contract negotiations aggravated an already difficult situation. In the CM post of May 17, 2012, I wrote,

” … making the teacher contract negotiation process transparent for the public would help the community understand how our children will be taught and how our tax dollars will be invested.  The relationship between teachers and school administrators is an important element in what shapes this school district.  There is no better way to understand this relationship than to observe the contract negotiation process. …”

Harping on the lack of transparency and public information by the school board does not seem to work – except maybe in an election year! (School board directors Doug Carlson, Virginia Lastner and Scott Dorsey are up for re-election although Scott has no opposing candidate.) No doubt the school board would lament that they cannot provide updates during the contract negotiating process as its explanation for keeping the public in the dark.

The final approval on the TESD 2017-18 budget looms in two weeks, Monday, June 12. When will the school board provide the public with the three contracts? When will the final budget (with the missing ‘TBD’ contract information) be made available to the public?  Perhaps some of these answers will be available at the Finance Meeting on Wednesday night.

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