MIDDLETOWN — An independent investigation into claims of harassment and a hostile work environment within the district supports certain claims of misconduct by three of the district’s four senior administrators — including sexual harassment, unprofessional and retaliatory behavior and failure to effectively enforce COVID-19 protocols.
The findings were summarized in a statement released on Monday by the Board of Education, who affirmed that the investigators “substantiated separate and distinct instances of misconduct” in line with some of the complaints that were made.
“Although not always definitive, the findings of fact highlight areas of deficiency in the administration and operation of the school district which are generally consistent with many of the allegations presented to the Board in the fall of 2021,” the statement read. “In light of this information, the Board will take corrective action, as appropriate.”
Communications Director Jessie Lavorgna declined to comment further on the investigation findings or what actions the board would take in response.
The investigation was prompted by 22 anonymous complaints submitted to the Board of Education at the start of the school year. In October, the Middletown Federation of Teachers, the paraeducator’s union and the local AFSCME and UPSEU, which represent district staff, released a joint statement asking city officials to investigate allegations of a hostile work environment in the district and harassment by senior school administrators.
In response, the Board of Education contracted the firm Thompson Hine to perform an independent investigation. According to a statement from the Board, the firm interviewed more than 90 people, including three of the individuals under investigation — Chief of Administration Christine Bourne, Chief of School Operations Marco Gaylord and Acting Superintendent Alberto Vazquez-Matos. Former Superintendent Michael Conner did not consent to an interview.
According to the statement, the firm also went through “thousands of pages” of documents such as text messages, emails, notes and photographs that individuals submitted through an open portal allowing people to send information to the firm.
The investigators found that Conner likely made unwelcome “romantic sexual statements and advances” toward another administrator. However, the investigation dismissed claims that Conner was racially discriminatory in his hiring decisions or that he engaged in racial or gender-based harassment.
Conner, was granted leave by the board under the Family and Medical Leave Act in October, based on what a spokesperson said was advice from his physicians. In March, he resigned after receiving in the mail what he referred to on Twitter as a “hate crime ‘packet’.” In a letter written to Board of Education Chair Deborah Cain, he said that he needed to prioritize his family.
The investigators did not find any evidence that Conner himself was discriminated against. However, they noted posts on social media that were “overtly race-based” as well as comments people made during interviews that showed “discomfort or insensitivity about race issues.”
The investigators affirmed a number of complaints made against Christine Bourne, the district’s chief of administration, including that she “more likely than not” manipulated personnel matters, was slow to address certain payroll issues, and was unprofessional when interacting with employees and a former supervisor. They also confirmed that Bourne “engaged in nepotism and retaliatory behavior toward several individuals.”
Investigators did not substantiate complaints about unprofessional behavior and insensitive comments from Chief of School Operations Marco Gaylord. However, the firm did find that Gaylord poorly enforced and communicated about COVID-19 protocols and did not involve “key health services personnel” when making decisions related to the pandemic.
Bourne and Gaylord were both placed on paid administrative leave in January.
The investigators also found that Conner and other administrators likely accepted a paid dinner in violation of a board policy that prohibits administrators from accepting gifts of more than $50.
The investigators did not substantiate any allegations made against Vazquez-Matos.
The Board said in the statement that it planned on “working collaboratively to strengthen its commitment to improving the climate of the Middletown Public Schools.”
The coalition of unions praised the members who took part in the investigation and said they looked forward to making changes within the district.
“The summary confirms our long-standing concerns about toxic working conditions within the Middletown public school system. We are proud of our front-line union members who showed great courage in coming forward to participate in the investigation,” the coalition said in a statement on Monday. “Our union coalition intends to work with both the Board of Education and city leaders to prevent a repeat of the systemic problems that prompted the investigation. The Middletown school community – most of all our students – deserves no less.”