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Johnson failed to act after headmaster’s arrest

Boston schools leader facing fire for backing, not suspending, educator charged with assault

Rodney Peterson (center), co-headmaster at one of Boston’s exam schools, was charged last year with assaulting his wife, Dee Griffin Peterson (right). He was sentenced to a year of probation. At left, Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson. Rodney Peterson (center), co-headmaster at one of Boston’s exam schools, was charged last year with assaulting his wife, Dee Griffin Peterson (right). He was sentenced to a year of probation. At left, Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson.
By Andrea Estes and James Vaznis
Globe Staff / July 8, 2012
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Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson took no disciplinary action after one of her headmasters was arrested and briefly jailed on a domestic assault charge, and even wrote a glowing letter of support to the judge who sentenced him.

Police faxed a copy of their report to Johnson’s office within hours after Rodney Peterson was arrested on June 17, 2011, for allegedly punching and choking his wife five weeks after she gave birth to their first child. He later admitted to sufficient facts for a jury to find him guilty.

But rather than putting Peterson on administrative leave — a common practice in government when an employee is arrested — records show that she did nothing, not even informing City Hall attorneys of the charges against the co-headmaster at one of Boston’s three exam schools.

Instead, Johnson told Peterson that he could remain on the job at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science in Roxbury as long as the news media didn’t find out, according to someone who was directly briefed by Peterson at the time. Johnson, in an interview, said she did not recall making such assurances to Peterson.

“I don’t recall saying anything like that,” she said. “We clearly have suspended people in the past with or without media attention.”

Now, Johnson’s failure to impose discipline and her letter describing Peterson as “among our most outstanding school leaders” may be coming back to haunt her. Someone leaked the fact that Peterson was on probation for domestic assault to the news media last month in Memphis, where he had been offered another job. Peterson was then forced to withdraw, leaving Johnson to explain why she didn’t tell the Memphis officials — or anyone else outside of her office — about the assault.

“The entire affair is both shocking and disturbing,” said Mary Tamer, a member of the Boston School Committee. “It is the School Department’s duty to hold all adults who work with our children to the highest standards, beginning with our principals. Why was he allowed to remain on the job?”

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said he didn’t want to second-guess Johnson, who makes “thousands of decisions every week. In hindsight, things should have been done differently,” he said.

“When I heard about this, I said uh-uh. You’ve got to deal with it right away. I don’t tolerate that stuff.”

He promised to create a panel that will investigate any future allegations and decide on punishment so that the superintendent or any other department head cannot exercise “personal discretion.”

Johnson, who has led the 56,000-student Boston school system since 2007, defended her handling of the Peterson case, saying she consulted School Department lawyers before deciding what to do. The Boston public schools do not have a formal policy for employees who are arrested outside of school, making each case a judgment call, she said. However, she said she is now formulating a policy.

Johnson credited Peterson for calling her about his arrest, saying that she learned about it from him even though the police had faxed her the arrest report 90 minutes after he was booked. She wouldn’t say whether she took any disciplinary action, citing privacy rules, but several sources with direct knowledge of the case said she took none and there is no indication in payroll records that Peterson was placed on paid or unpaid leave.

Johnson also defended her decision to write a character reference for Peterson. “I made a judgment call based on the facts at the time,” she said. “I stand behind the decision.”

She said she does not think her actions send the wrong message to students.

“I think domestic violence is unacceptable and unfortunate where and whenever it occurs,” she said. “I personally don’t condone any type of violence.”

Though Boston has no explicit policy on how to handle arrested employees, several employee relations experts, educators, and lawyers said it is customary to place the employee on administrative leave until the legal matters can be sorted out.

Naomi Stonberg, a lawyer who represents more than a dozen Massachusetts public school districts, said that in cases involving school leaders she first conducts an investigation to determine whether the alleged conduct would be considered “unbecoming of a headmaster.”

If the arrested employee is viewed as a role model for students, she said, she would recommend the district place the employee on a leave. If he or she later admitted to facts in court, she said, she would recommend some type of discipline — from mandatory participation in an employee assistance program to termination, depending on the case.

Peterson, who resigned as co-headmaster of O’Bryant on June 8 and withdrew from the Memphis job a few days later — leaving him unemployed — did not return calls seeking comment.

However, Peterson’s lawyer called the assault case “very, very sad,” and urged the judge to drop the charges.

“This is a man who is very involved with his school, the students, and the families of the kids at the school. He takes his work very, very seriously,” Robert Lewin said at an August hearing. “With respect to the offense itself, it’s like a lot of arguments. They start over something small and then mushroom out of control . . . as a result, a spark turned into a flame and now we’re here.’’

Peterson’s humbling departure marked a rapid fall from grace for someone who had been a rising star in the Boston school system. At 35, Peterson had a beautiful wife, a baby, and a newly created job as co-headmaster of O’Bryant, one of the most prestigious schools in the city. His wife, Dee Griffin Peterson, had a successful career as an anchorwoman for a Memphis TV station, but she said on a local blog that she gave it all up for “God, marriage, and family.”

But, beneath the surface, all was not well at the Peterson home. In less than a year of marriage, Griffin Peterson had already left him once because of what she called his “very bad temper.” Finally, on June 17, the tensions boiled over in a disagreement about housekeeping in their Dorchester loft apartment.

A neighbor called police after hearing Griffin Peterson through the wall of her living room, screaming “You’re holding me against my will” several times and “You punched me in the stomach.”

Griffin Peterson told police the couple had argued about cleaning up their home for a visit by his mother and son from another relationship, and the dispute turned physical. He pushed her into a corner of the kitchen, holding her so she couldn’t move.

Peterson punched the refrigerator, leaving indentations, she told police.

The charges against Peterson came at a delicate moment when an administrative leave would have been particularly disruptive. He was about to start his new job at the 1,300-student O’Bryant because the school he had been leading, the small Odyssey High School in South Boston, was closing because of poor academic performance.

Despite the problems at Odyssey, Johnson remained high on Peterson, who had worked in Memphis while Johnson was the superintendent, though she said the two did not know each other personally. Even after the assault, Johnson signed his three-year, $126,000 a year contract and sent him to a special training school for principals looking to become superintendents.

On Aug. 18, three months after the assault, Peterson, 35, admitted that the facts in the police report were true. Dorchester District Judge Kenneth Desmond gave Peterson a year’s probation and ordered him into a batterers’ program. Before Desmond imposed the sentence, however, he read a letter handed him by Peterson’s defense lawyer.

“[Peterson] truly cares about students and families and is among our most outstanding school leaders,” wrote Johnson, adding that he “listens to and respects others . . . We are fortunate to have him.”

At the hearing, Peterson’s wife asked the judge to drop the charges against him. She hoped the couple could reconcile and put the episode behind them. But Desmond refused to drop the charge, saying he hoped the batterers’ program would make Peterson “a better person.”

“You are a very accomplished man, Mr. Peterson. But to whom much is given, much is expected,” the judge said. “You should know better. You’re held to a higher standard.”

Last month, Peterson asked the judge to end his probation early. This time his wife, now separated from Peterson, was not so forgiving, noting that she had frequently felt the “agony and despair” of a crime victim since the assault.

“After 17 years as a journalist, I embarked upon a new life in Boston out of love, trust and belief in my spouse. Months later, hands that were supposed to protect me were wrapped around my neck,” wrote Griffin Peterson in a letter to the judge. “A man who once promised his eternal love held me against my will while cursing and chastising for what seemed like an eternity.”

Peterson never expressed genuine remorse, she wrote, and did not see his child for a year after the assault. Now, she said, Peterson is involved with another woman and is seeking a divorce. Desmond didn’t end Peterson’s probation, but said he would no longer have to report to a probation officer every week.

By early June of this year, Peterson was well on his way to building a new life in Memphis, having accepted a job as principal of the Westside Middle School.

When Tennessee school officials called Johnson for a reference, she didn’t mention the assault, though she said in an interview that she had encouraged Peterson to disclose the information to potential employers.

“I think my reference was similar to the letter I wrote,” Johnson said. “It reflected the work experience he had here in Boston. I could not comment on issues outside the School Department.”

But when a Memphis TV reporter, who knew Peterson’s estranged wife, reported that Peterson was on probation for assault and battery, the Westside Middle School officials had second thoughts and Peterson withdrew his application. He is now looking for work, and a School Department spokesman said that if he applied for another job in Boston, he might return.

“The superintendent believes he has great potential as a school leader, so she wouldn’t rule it out,” said Boston school spokesman Matthew Wilder.

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com. James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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