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DEDHAM

Special task fuels firestorm at school

Home assignment left classroom void

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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A group of Dedham Middle School teachers wants School Superintendent June Doe to explain why she pulled a special-education teacher from a classroom in December and January and sent her to a student's home for several hours every morning.

That left between eight and 13 special-needs students in the care of a retired teacher or a noncertified teacher's assistant, the group said. At times, the students were integrated into a regular classroom.

Daniel Megan, cochairman of the Faculty Council, is one of 28 teachers who signed a Feb. 27 letter to Doe and the School Committee after news of the issue spread on the blog MyDedham.org last month. A series of anonymous postings said Doe authorized special treatment for a School Committee member's child.

The Faculty Council wants the superintendent to tell the affected parents what happened and offer compensatory services. The group plans to meet this week to discuss possible legal action, said Megan, which could include a class-action complaint to the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

In an interview Wednesday, Doe would not say why she reassigned the teacher but denied that she gave special treatment to anyone.

She declined to identify the child's family, which she said the rumor mill has already done.

Megan is the grievance chairman of the Dedham teachers union, which is working on a contract. He said his decision to go public on the special-education teacher takes precedence over such tasks as negotiating cost-of-living increases.

"I'm confident we will eventually sign a contract," he said. "But this is bigger than that. This is wrong."

A former special-education teacher, Megan now teaches history. He and his wife, Kathleen Sugrue Megan, who coordinates the district's special-education alternative high school, have a 3-year-old with special needs.

Late last year, colleagues noticed that a teacher was missing every morning but never named on the e-mailed absentee list.

And then "it came to the attention of the Faculty Council in late January that the special-ed teacher was directed to leave the building to provide in-home services to a student," Megan said. "It was brought to my attention that the directive came directly from Superintendent June Doe."

After reading blog postings and a School Committee letter to the local newspaper citing confidentiality, residents began asking teachers questions they couldn't answer, Megan said. So staffers asked officials.

There was no reply from the School Committee. Then Doe sent letters to each of the 28 teachers who signed the Feb. 27 letter and emphasized her disappointment that confidentiality was breached.

"When we wrote to the superintendent, we didn't want confidential information," he said. "We asked if teachers were reassigned and did the parents know. Now we believe coercion is being used to try and stop our process."

"This is about students and services that are promised," he said. "And if a parent doesn't know about the change in service, it borders on the unethical."

Everyone agrees students must be protected, Megan said. "That's why I'm not comfortable sharing where the teacher went. But it struck me as a highly unusual move to take a teacher from the school midday."

He said that many staffers are outraged but afraid to take a stand. "There is a sense of fear that if you ask questions or disagree with the superintendent's interpretation, there will be retribution," he said.

"Our students and teachers deserve transparency," Megan said. "I live here, and I love Dedham. And I'm not going to fear being able to make my mortgage payment by keeping quiet."

In the interview, Doe said she has the highest respect for teachers but not for the local blog, which she said "provides a forum for people to make the most reckless and outrageous allegations."

Doe said that any time a teacher is absent, coverage is provided by substitutes, experienced trained aides, or other specialists. "Plans were left and services were going on," she said. "We always try to make the best decisions."

Tracy Driscoll, chairwoman of the School Committee, said a tough situation has been worsened by the teachers' contract negotiations, the upcoming election for School Committee seats, and the local blog, which she called "Star Magazine without bylines."

She said the committee was not aware of the teacher's reassignment because it "would not be notified on a day-to-day basis. We wouldn't be here to banter back and forth to see if it's a good idea."

During the period when the teacher was reassigned, Doe signed a three-year contract extension at $156,646 annually.

The contract was negotiated by Driscoll, who said, "We put our trust in the superintendent and staff."

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.

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