This story was first published in the New Haven Independent.
For seven months, an elementary-school principal was under investigation for allegedly failing to report a teacher’s abuse of a kindergartener and for bullying staff members who eventually went to his superiors.
After all that time, the school district now refuses to say what it found.
This January, the principal, Daniel Bonet Ojeda of John C. Daniels School of International Communication, was quietly pulled off his job without any explanation, frustrating parents who say they’ve repeatedly been kept out of decision-making about the Congress Avenue magnet school.
City lawyers are still withholding almost all the records about that principal’s alleged misconduct — a denial that First Amendment lawyers say allows schools to cover up bad behavior possibly in violation of the state’s open-records law.
Elia Alexiades, the Board of Education’s new in-house attorney, said that all but three pages of records are exempt from disclosure under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act because they’re either legal advice or unfinished drafts.
The board did release those three pages to the Independent.
Even that small selection of records shows that the school district already had evidence of Bonet’s misbehavior.
The records state that about two months before he was placed on administrative leave, Bonet said, “I like smoking, I like drinking, and I like sex,” during a meeting with his leadership team, multiple employees told his direct supervisor, Iline Tracey, who has since taken over as superintendent. The records also confirm that the principal was accused of violating state mandates for reporting child abuse and of harassing staff at the school.
Alexiades said that an outside law firm, Shipman & Goodwin, conducted the investigation into Bonet, allowing the board to keep the rest of the files hidden from the public.
Bonet returned to work in mid-August, at the start of this school year.
After a 5-1 vote (with opposition from Ed Joyner, an elected school board member, and Lihame Arouna, a non-voting student representative who previously went to Daniels), Bonet was transferred to Hillhouse High School as an assistant principal.
Now working on establishing a “newcomer center” with three bilingual teachers, he is being paid the same year-round salary, though most other assistant principals work on a 10-month schedule.
At the time, then-Superintendent Carol Birks said that Hillhouse needed a Spanish-speaking administrator for its growing population of English learners. She wouldn’t say whether he was transferred involuntarily.
“This was a result of an investigation,” Birks said. “This is the outcome, and I am not at liberty to get into more details.”
Birks did not return a phone call seeking comment on Wednesday night.
In an interview this week, Bonet said he’d never seen the three pages of records that the district released to the Independent. He said he would stop by Central Office to look for them in his personnel file.
He said his rights have been “violated,” because he said a reporter knew more about the investigation than he did. He said that might be evidence of racial discrimination.
“Maybe they think, because I’m Latino, I don’t know my rights,” Bonet said. “I’m worried really that you have more information.”
He called the investigation “a big misunderstanding.” He said he doesn’t think he did anything wrong because he still has a job in the district.
“Nothing was found, nothing was discovered, I didn’t do anything wrong,” Bonet said. “I’m still working for the city.”
Parents at the school say they still want to know what happened. Sylvester Lee Salcedo, the school’s PTO president, said he wasn’t surprised that the district had put up “an information stonewall.”
“These matters should be open to a review by the public, or at least by a responsible, non-political, nonpartisan body to offer a report to the public, while guarding any sensitive personal info,” Salcedo said.
The “Outside Counsel” Dodge
Because the records are being withheld, it’s unclear what the outside investigators dug up, whether it was all just “gossip” as Bonet had said.
Tracey said she has never read the closing report, and she wasn’t sure whether she would.
“I didn’t want to get tied up with those things,” Tracey said. “Whatever they did with that, I’m moving on, from the point I took over. I really, to be honest with you, have my mind and energy on a lot more things.”
Legal experts said that the school district might be able to withhold Shipman & Goodwin’s final report, but they said they didn’t see the public interest in doing so. They said the school district could voluntarily waive its attorney-client privilege.
(In the past, New Haven has voluntarily released the closing reports written by law firms, as it did when Berchem Moses concluded that a school board member’s son “provoked” a fight with a high-school freshman.)
Adam Marshall, a staff attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that it’s true an outside law firm’s report can be “shielded” from release, even though a similar report would be a public record if human resources had drafted it.
“It does seem somewhat perverse that, simply by hiring an outside firm, that a government entity could circumvent the intent of the legislature for [all records of personal misconduct] to be public,” he said.
Marshall said that some states, like Indiana and California, order governments to release certain misconduct records when there’s proven wrongdoing. It’s essentially “an exception to the exemption,” he said.
“Records reflecting government employee misconduct — or even the investigations into it — are the types of records where the public interest is at its height, really,” Marshall said. “The public needs to be able to verify what happened and if the government is taking appropriate remedial steps, if any are necessary.”
Even if the final report on Bonet remains off-limits, the school district should have produced all other records about Bonet’s alleged misconduct that were made before the law firm got involved, said Dan Barrett, the legal director of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter.
“I’m guessing there’s a pile of stuff out there not generated by the law firm, all kinds of employment records: tips, notes, emails,” Barrett said. “Some other employees at one point contacted their employer and said, ‘I think this guy is failing in his duties.’ Surely that’s written down in some way, so why aren’t they producing it?”
“Just because you package those up and send them to a law firm, it doesn’t make them privileged,” he added. “Otherwise, that’s what every person would do with every piece of damaging information.”
The Independent is planning to file a complaint to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.