Superintendent Banned From Sandwich Schools
By: Alex Scofield
After meeting in a private session on Tuesday night, four members of the Sandwich School Committee issued a directive banning schools Superintendent Mary Ellen Johnson from school facilities for the two remaining months in her tenure, following an investigation that concluded Dr. Johnson harassed and bullied an administrative office secretary.
Dr. Johnson and her attorney Paul L. Nevins responded to the directive on Wednesday, on the eve of town elections, at a press conference in the Sandwich High School library. Mr. Nevins handed out copies of the investigative report, and three rounds of back-and-forth correspondence between himself and Joseph A. Emerson Jr., attorney for the school committee.
Dr. Johnson said that she was informed of the directive by school committee Chairman Sharron L. Marshall on Tuesday night.
Mr. Nevins said that three committee members—Shaun P. Cahill, Barbara A. Susko and Andrea M. Killion—did not attend the Tuesday meeting, which left a quorum of Ms. Marshall, Nancy A. Crossman, Marie Kangas and Jessica A. Linehan at the meeting.
“I have been banned from school property, effective immediately, and …I am to work remotely,” Dr. Johnson said. She also said that she was permitted on school grounds only between the hours of 4 PM and 7 PM.
After Mr. Nevins provided his summary of the investigation into the harassment allegations against his client, Dr. Johnson described her goals and accomplishments over her three years as superintendent.
“Thank you for always supporting me and the work we’ve done here in the district,” Dr. Johnson said.
At 6:58 PM, Dr. Johnson left the room, and more than 40 people gave her a standing ovation, the second one she received Wednesday evening.
Tuesday’s executive session school committee meeting was the third one the school committee had scheduled to discuss attorney Laurence J. Donoghue’s report concluding that Dr. Johnson violated the Sandwich Public Schools sexual harassment, bullying and hazing policy. According to the investigative report, harassment allegations against Dr. Johnson were raised by Joan D. Caulkins, an administrative office secretary for Sandwich schools, who also serves as secretary for the school committee.
“I find that Dr. Johnson’s conduct...meets the Policy’s definition of ‘harassment’ and ‘bullying,’ and therefore that she violated this Policy,” Mr. Donoghue said in the investigative summary.
“It was a preordained conclusion,” Mr. Nevins said Wednesday of Mr. Donoghue’s report.
Ordinarily, said Town Manager George H. Dunham, the school system handles its own harassment and bullying claims—with the superintendent as the investigating official. Because the claim was against the superintendent, Mr. Dunham said, “Obviously, that can’t happen.”
The claim, then, was handled through municipal channels.
“We got a complaint, and we would be remiss if we didn’t follow up,” Mr. Dunham said.
Mr. Dunham said that harassment claims are rare, and estimated they are no more than one in a typical year. The town will look into any claim, and determine whether it is something that can be handled “in-house.” Within town government, Mr. Dunham said, he can handle the cases, as can Human Resources Director Marie L. Buckner, and the town’s labor counsel. Ms. Buckner is certified by the state to investigate such claims, Mr. Dunham said.
In a particularly complex case, however, Sandwich hires outside legal counsel to investigate, Mr. Dunham said. In this case, Sandwich hired attorney Mr. Donoghue of Morgan, Brown and Joy to investigate. Sandwich has used Morgan, Brown and Joy to investigate before, Mr. Dunham said.
“They have more experience and background in it…They have a great reputation,” Mr. Dunham said.
The Town of Sandwich footed the legal expenses, Mr. Dunham said, with the expectation that the cost would ultimately be covered by the school system.
Mr. Emerson said he would not comment on the reasoning behind the directive, because it was issued during executive session.
It was Dr. Johnson, he said, who “chose to make [the directive] public and characterize it the way she has.”
Mr. Donoghue’s report recommended “significant discipline” against Dr. Johnson, leaving the form of discipline for the school committee to decide. Significant discipline would seem appropriate, Mr. Donoghue wrote, “given both the importance of the Policy to the school community and the fact that the Superintendent should be one who enforces, rather than violates, the Policy.”
Mr. Emerson pointed out that Dr. Johnson was not placed on administrative leave without pay while an investigation was ongoing into her conduct.
He added that Dr. Johnson has received her full salary, and she remains the school system’s superintendent.
“She is the superintendent, 100 percent,” Mr. Emerson said.
But Dr. Johnson and her lawyer wondered how she could be expected to perform her job from home.
Dr. Johnson was scheduled to attend a professional development meeting in the near future, for example. “I wasn’t sure how to attend that remotely,” Dr. Johnson said.
The Town of Sandwich has offered Dr. Johnson use of the lower room of the Human Resources Building, which can accommodate an individual worker or a group of about 15 people, Mr. Dunham said.
“She needs to be able to do her work,” Mr. Dunham said.
Mr. Nevins said he intended to speak to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, and to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on the issue.
“Our goal here is not to have a blizzard of litigation,” Mr. Nevins said. “There are rational solutions.”
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