MIDDLETOWN — CT Examiner obtained copies of 15 anonymous complaints against top school officials that offer details not included in the executive summary released on Monday of a recently concluded investigation requested by the Board of Education.
Over 35 single-spaced pages, the complainants allege that top district administrators engaged in bullying, gross sexual harassment, nepotism and patterns of unprofessional conduct dating to 2018 that allegedly prompted the departure of over a dozen female employees. The findings of the investigation supported at least some of these claims.
Some complaints also claimed that former Superintendent Michael Conner manipulated student achievement data, and maintained inappropriate professional and financial relationships with outside contractors, an accusation that was not included or supported in the publicly-released summary.
In a call with CT Examiner, Phillip Thompson, a lawyer representing Conner, said that Conner categorically denied allegations of wrongdoing.
The fifteen anonymous complaint letters date to fall 2021.
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. The board released a summary statement of the investigation results on Monday.
One complaint by a senior administrator alleged repeated sexual advances by Conner, among other allegations, dating to 2018, that she claimed were shared with Human Resources and the district’s Title IX Coordinator. She wrote in the complaint that she was afraid to take legal action against the superintendent out of fear for her career.
She also described meetings in which Conner allegedly yelled at female staff about “matters that were not in their control.” A number of other complainants also recounted being present in meetings in which they or other district employees were yelled at. One described being “publicly embarrassed and belittled by Dr. Conner in front of many of my colleagues.”
Another school official, who said she witnessed bullying and intimidation from Conner, described the emotional toll that his alleged behavior had on other administrators.
“I saw principals fall apart and cry as he degraded, bullied and ridiculed them in their face,” she wrote.
Another complainant who worked for the district for over 10 years wrote that Conner’s behavior led to the attrition of multiple female district employees with long tenure in the district.
“We left our sick time, high salaries, our community and the students that we have dedicated ourselves to for so long, due to self preservation. My mental health while working there the last couple of years was truly challenged,” she wrote.
The summary of the Thompson Hine report found that Conner “more likely than not” made unwelcome “romantic sexual statements and advances” toward an administrator. It also found that Conner likely raised his voice at certain employees “on at least three occasions,” but that these were isolated incidents.
Conner declined to be interviewed as part of the investigation. In an open letter published Monday on the Middletown Eye, he explained that he was told he would not be allowed to provide witnesses or to respond to specific allegations made against him.
But Conner wrote in the letter that he was “unequivocally and completely innocent of the alleged accusations.”
According to Conner, the Board of Education and the investigators had received — and ignored — information that he felt would prove that the allegations were “intentionally fabricated as part of a plan to remove me from the Office of the Superintendent.”
He also said that investigators had found no evidence for many of the claims that were made.
“Of the most serious allegations, the summary report uses the term ‘more likely than not.’ This is not a definitive charge, but another character-damaging insinuation based on a one-sided, anonymous, and I repeat, false accusation,” Conner wrote in response to allegations of sexual harrassment.
Thompson, Conner’s attorney, told CT Examiner that the investigators had “pretty much exonerated” Conner and that the allegations were “not substantiated.” He added that the allegations came forward at a time when employees were transitioning from being under the city oversight to under oversight of the Board of Education, a move which the union and many of the employees, he said, were against.
“I would care to say that most of the allegations were made by White individuals who all seem to have a problem with Black people when they’re in charge or when they’re leading something,” said Thompson.
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 described on Twitter as a “hate crime ‘packet’.”
Two complainants also alleged that Conner had manipulated student achievement data meant to be shown to the Board of Education. Thompson called that charge “totally and completely false.”
The summary report did not address any accusations of manipulated achievement data. However, it did find that Conner and other administrators “more likely than not” accepted a paid dinner in violation of a board policy that prohibits administrators from accepting gifts of more than $50.
Some complainants claimed that top school administrators maintained inappropriate professional and financial relationships with outside educational contractors who may have benefited from favorable achievement data.
In his letter, Conner said the district “made significant quantitative and programmatic educational and equity progress” during his time at Middletown.
Complainants also alleged that Christine Bourne, the school’s chief of administration, gave “preferential treatment” to family and friends, and that she spoke “disparagingly” about school employees.
Two complainants recounted situations in which Bourne allegedly attempted to intervene to secure a position or increased pay for members of her family who worked in the district. The complainants also claimed that Bourne engaged in “retaliatory” behavior.
“How to avoid [Bourne’s] wrath and retribution was openly discussed among secretarial, administrative and central office staff,” wrote one of the complainants.
Investigators also supported claims made against Bourne, concluding 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 supported claims that Bourne “engaged in nepotism and retaliatory behavior toward several individuals.”
A call made to Christine Bourne from CT Examiner was not returned by the time of publication. Bourne has been on administrative leave since January.