PROVIDENCE — Schools Superintendent Harrison Peters on Monday apologized for hiring an administrator charged with assault for allegedly forcibly massaging a teenage boy’s foot in a Warwick gym in April.
In a letter to state senators, Peters said he had worked with Olayinka Alege for more than three years in Florida before deciding to hire him in Providence after becoming superintendent in 2020.
“I thought I knew him,” Peters said in the letter, submitted to members of the Senate Committee on Rules, Government Ethics, and Oversight.
“But I was wrong,” he wrote. “My hiring of Dr. Alege as a network superintendent for Providence Public Schools was an error in judgment. I want to sincerely apologize for any pain or worry this incident has caused students.”
During a Monday committee hearing, Peters told senators that when he worked with Alege in Florida, he had not been aware of news reports from 2009 that Alege had been accused of squeezing the toes of multiple boys — a practice referred to as “toe popping” — as an unusual form of punishment.
But after becoming Providence’s superintendent, Peters did a Google search, he said, saw those articles, and questioned Alege about the toe popping before hiring him.
“When he told me that he had meant no harm and that, in hindsight, he understood that his behavior was inappropriate and would never be repeated, I made a decision to believe him — a decision I felt was supported by the facts,” he wrote.
The facts, he said, were that no charges were filed over the “toe popping,” no parents complained, and a human resources team that investigated endorsed his later promotions.
So Peters went ahead and hired Alege, and he did not tell the hiring committee or the state education commissioner about the “toe popping” incidents. He said he now he realizes hiring Alege was a mistake, and he believes in accountability.
“That’s something that was drilled into me during my time serving in the United States Navy, and it’s a lesson I’ve brought to every job I’ve held since,” he wrote. “No one is above accountability — and that includes me.”
But Peters has said that he “feels strongly about not resigning.”
Instead, he said, the school district plans to strengthen its hiring practices by, for example, “contracting with a firm to conduct deeper background research consisting of a thorough review of all candidate information, including from social media and the press.”
Also, he said that the district plans to “convene a blue ribbon panel of local human resources and education experts, as well as members of the community, to submit recommendations.”
But some residents say such a panel won’t cut it. The Senate committee received letters saying that accountability means firing Peters.
Kerilynn Viccione said she was “horrified” as a parent and a teacher to learn of Alege’s alleged actions, and just as distressed to learn Peters had ignored the “red flag” that was waving in Florida.
Viccione called for removing both Peters and state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green from their positions.
“Why are we not holding the leaders accountable for these dangerous actions?” she asked. “There is no room for more chances — nor should there have been any in the first place!”
During the hearing, Infante-Green said she did not learn of the Florida incidents until after Alege was hired. “I apologize,” she said, explaining she had trusted that the hiring process was being done correctly. “Moving forward, I will be part of the process for higher-level hires.”
Robyn Noble wrote to the Senate committee, saying the issue is simple: “Mr. Peters hired a friend — a friend he cared more about than the children.”
And now, she said, “There is a young person in Warwick who has to live with the actions of some creepy guy he met in a gym because Harrison Peters asked that man to come here.”
Noble, a Providence resident for 30 years whose children went to city schools, urged senators “not to give Mr. Peters a pass,” saying, “The opportunity for change turns into an opportunity for friends, a network of people from Hillsborough County, brought up by Mr. Peters in the true spirit of ‘I know a guy.’ When will it ever end?”
Eileen Nugent wrote to the senators, saying, “I feel a trust has been broken. Mr. Peters and Ms. Infante-Green were entrusted to protect our children.” Yet they both missed “huge red flags,” he said, calling for the termination of their employment.
Senator Meghan E. Kallman, a Pawtucket Democrat, said nonconsensual touching amounts to “grooming behavior.” She asked Peters if he had records indicating Alege had previous examples of nonconsensual touching with students and if Alege’s job as a district-level administrator working with middle- and high-school principals in Providence was designed to avoid student contact as a result.
Peters said he has no records indicating such past behavior by Alege, and he confirmed that Alege’s position does not involve contact with students.
Alege was arrested May 10 and pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge on May 13. He has resigned from his job overseeing middle- and high-school principals in Providence. He was never charged in connection with the Florida incidents.
Senator Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat, asked how many other “blind spots” there are in hiring school administrators and in the turnaround of the Providence public school system, which has been taken over by the state.
“How many other red flags are we missing when we can’t even get hiring at the highest levels of this turnaround correct?” Mack asked. “What do you say to the parents who have lost trust in this process?”
Peters noted that a Johns Hopkins report detailed how Providence has a “broken” public school district. The turnaround has had “tons of success,” he said, but it still “has a long way to go.”
He said the district has hired a number of executives beyond Alege. He acknowledged that the district “didn’t get it right” with Alege, but he said “we fixed it” by calling for his resignation.
Peters said he realizes he can’t turn around the troubled school district without trust. “After the events of this week, we have work to do to rebuild trust with our community so we can continue to make the changes our students deserve,” he wrote. “I know that.”
Senate minority whip Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, said, “It seems to me it was the public’s trust that was betrayed. I ask that Dr. Peters resign here and now.”
The committee chairman, Senator Louis P. DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat, concluded the nearly four-hour hearing, saying, “I’m not certain how we move forward from here. But clearly, doing nothing is not an option.”