hazing

TE School District Served With Another Lawsuit

Lawsuits against TE School District and Conestoga High School administrators are climbing at an alarming rate.

Two weeks ago on May 25, I wrote the headline, “Conestoga High School Hazing Fallout: Football Coach Sues T/E School District Administrators”.  We learned that Thomas Batgos, an assistant Conestoga High School football coach fired by the T/E School District in the aftermath of the alleged hazing and sexual assault had filed a lawsuit against District administrators – Superintendent Dr. Richard Gusick and CHS Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger. The lawsuit cited defamation of character, misrepresentation, fraud, improper termination, etc. and seeks damages of at least $50K in compensation plus punitive damages.

In April, I wrote about Arthur Phillips (age 67), a male instructional aide in the television production studio at Conestoga High School, who was charged with having sex with a 15 year old female student from January to April of this year.  According to the victim, they had sex on more than 10 occasions and that Phillips also groped and sexually assaulted her. Hundreds of sexual text messages were found on both of their cell phones, including a picture that Phillips texted the victim of his genitals. Phillips was charged with statutory sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, corruption of minors and related offenses.

Today we learn from an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, that a federal lawsuit was filed against TE School District by the parents of the girl, seeking at least $75K in damages and calling for the resignation of Conestoga High School Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger.

According to the article, the lawsuit claims that the District was aware of the improper conduct of Phillips and “created an environment that allowed the assaults to occur”.

The Inquirer article states, “According to the suit, Phillips took the girl from the Conestoga campus to buy her meals, took her shopping, and “groomed” her during and after the school day. The lawsuit alleges a teacher and her husband went to dinner on a “double date” with the girl and Phillips and that other teachers knew Phillips was taking the girl off campus during the school day. An aide referred to the girl as “Art’s girlfriend” to several teachers, the suit said.”

How in the world could a teacher go on a double date with Phillips and the 15-year old student?  And the relationship was known by teachers at the high school and the victim is called “Art’s girlfriend”.  How is it possible that this could go on and no one knows?  I just do not understand.

The original article has been updated to include a statement from the District’s solicitor, who claims that the accusations against the school district are false, that no staff (including Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger) knew of the relationship between Phillips and the student until contacted by Tredyffrin Township police.

An interesting point is made in the lawsuit – Phillips wrote hall passes for the girl to miss classes and that between January and mid-April, she missed 20 English classes. Isn’t there some kind of parental notification when a student misses that many classes?  What is the policy?

The parents also claim that there was no review of camera footage at by District employees which would have shown Phillips repeatedly leaving Conestoga High School with the girl. According the lawsuit, the sexual assaults occurred in the high school parking lot, Phillips car and office and in Conestoga’s production studio. Again, I would ask — what is the policy for reviewing camera footage?  School security has been an ongoing focus of the school board, which would presumably include routine review of the cameras.  I would think that if you have a student missing 20 classes during a relatively short time span, and there is an aide who is writing the passes, shouldn’t this cause an internal investigation, which might include a review of the camera footage?  Just asking the question, do not know if there is a process currently in place and it was ignored or if such a process doesn’t exist.

There is also the potential of another lawsuit against TE School District.  Remember the 26-year old Conestoga coach and teacher’s aide Christine Towers who had a sexual relationship with a 16 year old learning disabled student who she tutored.  Towers received a jail time of 11 to 23 months.  Now the parents of that boy are also considering a federal lawsuit against the District.

I have been harping about what I see as public information and transparency problems, most recently as it related to the three contracts due to expire in 3 weeks – TEEA (teachers), TENIG (non-instructional) and Act 93 (administrators). The monthly school board meeting is on Monday, June 12 where the final budget for the 2017-18 school year needs to be approved and the status of the contracts is unknown. The contracts make up 70% of the school district budget but the public has received no updates.

I think the school board’s approach to public information needs to expand to include lawsuits. In two weeks, two lawsuits have been filed against the school district with the potential of a third lawsuit.  My guess is that the school board will make no mention of the lawsuits at the upcoming school board meeting. It’s easier to pretend that it isn’t really happening.

A few weeks ago, the school board reappointed Ken Roos as the District solicitor for another year, July 1 – June 30, 2018 at a rate of $180/hr.   Wouldn’t you love to know what the taxpayers are spending on legal fees to Wisler Pearstine between lawsuits and contract negotiations?  Sadly, that would probably require filing a ‘right-to-know’ through Art McDonnell, and I have a feeling that the request would be denied.

By all accounts, Conestoga High School graduation last night was wonderful — congratulations to all our 2017 graduates and best wishes for the future!

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Closing the chapter on the alleged football hazing incident at Conestoga High School — Is it finally over?

 

Conestoga High SchoolThe following statement was released this morning from the Chester County District Attorney’s office regarding the Conestoga High School football hazing incident.  As I read the statement, it appears that the three juveniles have received an offense of harassment. According to the statement, the broomstick did not penetrate the victim but rather it was used to poke him in the leg — painting a much different picture.

Coaches lost their jobs and had their reputations tarnished over the alleged football hazing incident. The statement says that the victim and charged juveniles and their families would like to move on their with lives and will be making no further statements but where does this leave the former football coaches, Conestoga football players (and their families) and the students and staff?

Hazing and bullying has no place in our high school but moving on may not be that easy.

CHS hazing

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The saga continues in TE School District — Court rules against TE School District regarding residency of alleged hazing victim

court decisionThe saga continues … Sexting offenses, alleged hazing and residency dispute all involving one TE School District family. Chester County court rules against the TE School District in a stunning decision by Court of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Sommer regarding residency.

(The complete article from today’s Main Line Media News follows my comments).

After reading the article, the first word that comes to mind is “accountability”.  Under whose authority did this situation happen — the hiring of the private investigator (from Cloud Feehery & Richter) at tax payer expense ($12K +) over a specific residency issue?  Does the District pay the private investigator over each claim of non-residency or was it just trying to get this specific student out of the District after sexting offenses? Who made this decision? Was it at the direction of the TE School Board and/or Superintendent? Is the hiring of investigators in residency situations routine in the District?  Does the School Board approve the residency investigations or is decision up to the school administration?

In rendering his decision in this residency case, Judge Sommer stated, “We find that the hearing officer willfully and deliberately disregarded competent portions of (the father’s) testimony and relevant evidence which one of ordinary intelligence could not possibly have avoided in reaching a result, thus making his credibility determination arbitrary and capricious,”  The judge also determined that the alleged victim and his father were denied their right to counsel.

The ruling of Judge Sommer certainly points to incompetence of the private investigator and the TE School District. The judge calls the District’s investigator incompetent and the taxpayers are stuck with the bill.  School Board, where are you?  Were you aware of this specific investigation regarding the residency of the alleged hazing victim and the apparent mishandling of the process? Was this a way to get the student out of the District?  And how does the District Solicitor Ken Roos factor into the residency investigation — was the decision to engage a private investigator in this specific case at his recommendation/advisement?

Who is in charge, where’s the oversight and accountability? I note that the District declined to comment for the article, what about the School Board? Will we receive an explanation?

Court rules in favor of the alleged hazing victim; judge rules student was legal resident of T/E SD

by Adam Farence

Court of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey R. Sommer ruled in favor of the alleged hazing victim with regard to his residency issue with the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, reversing the school board’s original decision to stop funding the alleged victim’s education at Buxmont Academy. Sommer also ruled the victim does not owe over $13,000 to the school district.

According to court documents, Sommer drew his conclusion from two issues. First, he determined the hearing officer from an earlier meeting incorrectly concluded the alleged hazing victim did not meet the federal definition of homeless.

The victim was reportedly kicked out of his previous Devon residence by his great-grandmother after his arrest for sexting-related offenses in October 2015. After he was kicked out, the alleged victim’s father drove him back and forth between his Devon bus stop and his mother’s residence in Chester, Delaware County.

It was during this time period that T/E officials hired a private investigator from Cloud Feehery & Richter to determine if the alleged victim did actually live within the school district boundaries. After several months of surveillance, the private investigator determined the victim did not live there.

The school district spent $12,281.92 on services rendered by Cloud, Feehery & Richter, according to a Right-to-Know request filed by the Daily Local News.

The alleged victim could not claim the Chester residence as his, according to court documents, essentially depriving him the chance to pursue a free education in Delaware County, and Sommer determined the alleged victim met the federal definition of homeless. He also criticized the hearing officer’s original finding.

“We find that the hearing officer willfully and deliberately disregarded competent portions of (the father’s) testimony and relevant evidence which one of ordinary intelligence could not possibly have avoided in reaching a result, thus making his credibility determination arbitrary and capricious,” Sommer wrote.

Sommer also pointed out the hearing officer was employed by the school district. “It takes no great leap of faith to recognize that the hearing officer is being paid by TESD, their ‘adversary,”” he wrote.

Second, Sommer determined the alleged victim and his father were denied their right to counsel.

According to court documents, the victim’s father was notified of the Jan. 20 non-residency hearing with the hearing officer only a few days prior. Sommer also wrote that the school district did not notify the father’s attorney even though they had been told in writing to do so.

Originally, the family was represented by William McLaughlin Jr., before he passed away in late March. For the remainder of the case, the family was represented by a new lawyer, Robert DiOrio. “…TESD not only did not notify Attorney McLaughlin of this hearing but made the pre-hearing notice period so short as to effectively cut Attorney McLaughlin out of the process,” court records state.

At the Jan. 20 non-residency hearing, the victim’s father did say he chose to come without counsel and knew he had the right to proceed with counsel if he wanted, but according to court documents, the circumstances surrounding the hearing undermined due process.

“We are very pleased with Judge Sommer’s well-reasoned decision,” wrote DiOrio.

School district officials declined to comment.

“We do not discuss individual student matters and therefore do not intend to comment on this specific case,” wrote district Solicitor Ken Roos. “However, the district remains committed to enforcing its policy of only permitting district residents, including anyone properly qualifying as homeless, to attend district schools.”

The alleged hazing victim’s father received a bill late January for over $13,000, after the school district originally determined he and his son reportedly lived outside the district’s boundaries. The father reported the alleged sodomy to school district officials about a week later in early February, and Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan announced assault related charges against three Conestoga High School football players on March 4. Over the course of a few days, news of the charges and the alleged sodomy spread across the nation.

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Timing is Everything: Conestoga High School reporters on alleged sodomy charges & victim’s residency dispute

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In today’s Spoke, Conestoga High School’s newspaper is the article, “Sodomy allegation followed victim’s residency dispute with TESD” by Andy Backstrom, former Co-Editor-in-Chief (2015-16) and Caleigh Sturgeon, Manager Web Editor. Backstrom is a 2016 graduate of CHS and will be attending Boston College in the fall and Sturgeon is a CHS senior.

Backstrom and Sturgeon review the facts surrounding the hazing investigation and alleged sodomy of a freshman football player by three senior varsity football players. The alleged victim was previously involved in a middle school sexting incident, but reportedly there was no connection. One development has centered on whether the victim is a “legal” resident of the T/E School District or was he living in Delaware County.

There has been no update from the District Attorney’s office regarding the case against the three Conestoga football players. Because the accused are juveniles (or where at the time of the alleged crime), the information is protected from the public. Since the case does not appear to have advanced in the court system, where does that leave these three former Conestoga football players?

After reading Backstrom and Sturgeon article below, the timing and connection between the alleged victim’s sexting incident, residency questions and claims of sodomy certainly make the situation suspicious. What really did happen? Aside from the criminal case and whether he was actually a ‘victim’, the freshman football player was also a pawn in his father’s hand.

Read the article — what do you think?

Sodomy allegation followed victim’s residency dispute with TESD

By Andy Backstrom, Former Co-Editor-in-Chief (2015-16), and Caleigh Sturgeon, Managing Web Editor

The Spoke collected the information included in the story below from public records searched by The Spoke at the Chester County Court of Common Pleas, articles published elsewhere and statements issued by Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan.

While there appears to be no news about the sodomy charges against the three varsity football players at Conestoga High School filed in March, or the hazing investigation, more facts are available than have been widely reported. There is no official conclusion in the case, but documents recorded in another case raised questions, concerning the cloud formed over the Conestoga community.

Many months before the commencement of the hazing investigation, the Tredyffrin Easttown School District (TESD) held an expulsion hearing for Conestoga’s lone freshman varsity football player on Nov. 10, 2015. The previous week (Nov. 3), Tredyffrin Easttown Police announced charges against three students in TESD for “cyber bullying” teenage girls, as the students were found sharing sexually explicit images in the spring of 2015. The freshman was among the students charged.

Yet, the freshman was not expelled.

Instead, TESD made a deal to pay for him to attend Buxmont Academy, a private school for troubled youth that charges almost twice the cost of attending Conestoga. A condition of the deal was that the student reside in the district. The student and his father agreed. But, almost immediately, TESD acted on suspicions that the freshman actually lived in Delaware County.

Based on returned mail from the student’s given home address, TESD hired private investigator Michael J. Leyden, who conducted surveillance of the student during the last three months of 2015. On Jan. 12, 2016 TESD wrote both the student and his father that the investigation determined that they had not been residents of the school district since March 5, 2015.

On Jan. 28, after a hearing, a TESD hearing officer, A. Kyle Berman, found that the student was not a district resident and that the father had made false statements about the student’s residence.

“The testimony of Parent is not at all credible relating in any way to the place that he and Student reside,” Berman wrote.

TESD demanded that the father reimburse the district both for the days the student attended Conestoga as a non-resident and the days he attended Buxmont as an alternative to expulsion.  The assessment includes March 5, 2015 – Nov. 13, 2015, the student’s last day at Conestoga, at the rate of $70.12 per day, as well as Nov. 16, 2015 – Jan. 22, 2016, when TESD stopped paying for student’s alternative tuition, due to violation of a “Waiver of Expulsion” agreement, at a rate of $136.02 per day. TESD presented the father with a bill for $13,442.92.

In addition, Director of Assessment and Accountability, Mark Cataldi, threatened that failure to pay the balance within 30 days would result in criminal investigation.

“The District will seek prosecution to the fullest extent of the law, including fines and imprisonment for theft of educational services from the District and providing false information to the District regarding your residency,” Cataldi wrote.

Within the next week, by Feb. 5, the father reported to TESD that his son was sodomized by three varsity football seniors back on October 15, 2015 with a broomstick. TESD notified the District Attorney, prompting the hazing investigation at Conestoga.

The father’s report places the hazing incident less than a month both before the student was charged for his role in the “sexting scandal” and his expulsion hearing.

On February 17, the father and the student sued TESD to halt the district’s efforts to collect the $13,442.92. A Chester County Judge was due to hear their case on March 4, but, on March 1, TESD agreed to postpone the hearing and suspend its collection campaign temporarily. Three days later (March 4), Hogan made national news announcing sodomy charges based on the account of the student and his father.

Hogan told The Philadelphia Inquirer that, “no evidence suggested” that the hazing case is connected to the earlier sexting case but did not dispute that the victim in one was the accused in the other.

Hogan did not respond to The Spoke’s request for comment on today’s story.

A final court decision on the freshman’s residence and the debt to TESD is expected this summer. However, there is no telling when the three, now, former seniors, who graduated from Conestoga on June 7, will learn their fate. A juvenile matter, their case is not public unless Hogan decides to announce its outcome.

Until May of this year, Pennsylvania’s anti-hazing law was limited to colleges and university.  New legislation was approved by PA Gov. Wlf in May that expanded the state’s anti-hazing law to include public and private middle and high schools, making it a third-degree misdemeanor when a student is forced to take part in abuse or humiliating conduct for initiation into a team or group. Schools are required to post anti-hazing policies online and provide copies to all athletic coaches.

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Police investigating ritual hazing involving Conestoga High School football team

FootballHearing reports on the news about Tredyffrin Township police and Chester County detectives investigating alleged hazing at Conestoga High School involving the school’s football team.

According to the report, teams of detectives are interviewing as many as 60 or 70 students about an alleged assault during hazing where one student was seriously injured.  The investigation is interviewing current football players and going back two years.

The report said that the investigation centers on ritual hazing by football players which occurred on the same day each week. Apparently some of the students were aware of the hazing going on and would deliberately avoided the high school gym at certain times.

The news report makes it sound like this was a routine weekly hazing … how is that no one knew what was going on? Where were the coaches, teachers, administrators?

All of this attention paid to fencing our schools for safety reasons but what about the safety of our children inside the schools?

Although at this point, the focus is on ‘alleged’ hazing, it’s hard to believe that Chester County DA Tom Hogan would have teams of detectives investigating if there wasn’t significant reason. According to the TE School District’s website, the District is not conducting their own investigation. From an administration standpoint, I would think that the District would want to conduct their own internal investigation and find out ‘who knew what and when’.

The following appears on the TE School District website:

Police Investigation into Alleged Hazing

We have been advised by Chester County law enforcement officials of a police investigation related to alleged hazing by Conestoga High School current and/or former football players. The District places the highest priority on student safety and, to that end, is cooperating in any way it can with law enforcement officials. As this is not currently a school district investigation, we are not in a position to answer any questions or provide more information at this time. However, if you or your child has any information pertinent to this matter, please contact the Chester County District Attorney’s Office or the Tredyffrin Township Police Department.

 

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