Parents demanded closer scrutiny of teachers and more aggressive investigations of complaints about school staff last week after the second arrest of a Newton teacher in 18 months on child pornography charges.
During a public meeting at F.A. Day Middle School on Tuesday, parents expressed concern that administrators were missing red flags in teacher behavior that could tip them off to underlying, possibly dangerous issues. Some called for more student education on appropriate boundaries, and said children should be warned that pedophiles could be anywhere.
“I worry, and I don’t want to be the alarmist in the room, that we’re doing our kids a disservice by not really being realistic about how prevalent a problem it is,” Newton parent Jessica Smith said at the meeting. “I’m starting to have real questions about the prevalence of the issue of child pornography.”
But administrators say they are doing everything in their power to keep children safe, and question what more they could have done to screen sixth-grade math teacher Steven Chan — a man with no criminal record and no history of major complaints — before police arrested him.
“I don’t know what else we could have done, and that’s the hard part of all of this,” said Superintendent David Fleishman in an interview Wednesday. “Teachers didn’t see anything; in this case, his own family probably didn’t see anything.”
Chan, 57, who in addition to teaching math at Day was the high school’s gymnastics coach, pleaded not guilty in Newton District Court on Aug. 30 to charges of possession and distribution of child pornography. He is accused of downloading thousands of explicit images, some of girls as young as 4, onto his home computers, though prosecutors say there is no indication that any of the children pictured are from Newton. A woman who answered the phone at Chan’s home declined to comment.
Fleishman said Chan resigned Friday.
Chan’s arrest comes after that of David Ettlinger, a former teacher at the Underwood Elementary School in Newton who was sentenced early this year to 45 years in prison for his role in an online child pornography ring. Ettlinger was arrested in January 2012, and after his arrest, some parents came forward saying they had complained about his behavior in the past, and that administrators should have been on guard.
Newton resident Lynne LeBlanc, whose son was in one of Chan’s classes, said news of his arrest did not make her question the district’s hiring processes, but did make her question how the complaint process works. She knows parents who had complained about Ettlinger, and were shocked to find that their complaints never made it into his record, she said.
“What I think it indicates is that there needs to be a way to track complaints. And it makes me wonder whether complaints are being lodged permanently,” said LeBlanc. “I think that’s the issue. And so my question would be, is [Chan’s] record clean because there have been no complaints, or is his record clean because there were complaints, but they weren’t in his permanent file?”
But many who know Chan said there were simply no warning signs.
“That was just a shock over here — real nice guy, down to earth, never gave problems to the kids,” said Marcello Mastroianni, who picked up his daughter from Day on Tuesday.
“Most of the kids liked him,” said Mastroianni’s daughter, who had been in Chan’s class. “He was kind of the favorite teacher in the sixth grade.”
Newton Police Chief Howard Mintz said Tuesday that he checked police logs to see whether officers had ever been called to Chan’s Waltham Street home, where Chan lives with his wife and two sons, and found only calls about disturbances on the street unrelated to the family. Fleishman said Chan’s personnel file contains no complaints even remotely relevant to the charges he faces.
Fleishman said that after Ettlinger’s arrest, the district reviewed its complaint investigation process and made the steps clearer to parents. Since Chan’s arrest, no one has come forward to say that a complaint against him went uninvestigated, the superintendent added.
“This is a reminder that we have to take complaints very seriously,” Fleishman said of Chan’s arrest. “That being said, we also have to be careful that we don’t have witch hunts . . . There’s that fine line in terms of judgment. We want that girl who’s in middle school to stay after school with a teacher to get extra help.”
Newton teachers undergo criminal background checks every three years, Fleishman said, and this year the district will begin having their fingerprints run through a federal database to check for out-of-state crimes. Hiring includes a thorough background check — administrators call all previous bosses, interview candidates extensively, and check their social media accounts, and Google them.
All complaints, no matter how small, that are lodged against a teacher are investigated, Fleishman said, and any complaint found to be serious or that shows a pattern of problem behaviors is entered into the teacher’s permanent file.
Fleishman said his great fear is that Chan’s arrest will erode trust in Newton’s teachers, the vast majority of whom are good people who work hard and respect their students.
“We want educators to have strong relationships with students,” he said. “I think this really puts everybody on edge. We don’t want people to become more distant.”
Fleishman said psychological testing is becoming more common in some industries, but he has concerns about its reliability and whether it would violate the privacy of teachers.
“We think the best way to measure how adults work with children is really extensive background checking,” he said. “Certainly, do we make mistakes? Yes. But when we do, we try to make good judgments quickly and try to move people out.”
Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, said that the district’s hiring policies are rigorous, and that the addition of the federal fingerprint database is a good one. He attends disciplinary hearings, he said, and has always found administrators to be thorough.
“I would hate to go to a place where the presumption is that parents need to be suspicious of their teachers,” he said. “My own experience of working with the teachers of Newton is that this is an absolutely fabulous faculty.”
Zilles said he understands the fear that parents have; he, too, has children. But, he said, he is concerned that the fear could turn to scapegoating.
“Here we have somebody that colleagues of 23 years had no suspicion. How did this happen? It’s shocking,” he said. “I worry that in our sense of inability to explain this, we feel like we’ve got to have someone to blame.”
Fleishman has vowed to review all district policies to see whether there is anything administrators missed on Chan. But so far, he said, despite a thorough review of Chan’s record and many conversations with his former and current supervisors and colleagues, they have come up with nothing.
“Sometimes,” he said, “we just don’t understand what people do.”