Can Hartford Overcome Trust Issues and Fix Its “Avoid and Protect” Culture

“The first step is admitting you have a problem … so here it is, in black and white, for all to see that we have an issue.”  With these words, Hartford Board of Education Member Karen Taylor accepted the findings of last month’s stunning State report on child abuse and neglect in our schools and acknowledged the role (and failure) of the Board and other Hartford leaders to address such tragedies.  This acceptance comes with a promise from the Board, acting superintendent, mayor, and others, that such horrors will never happen again.  But are spoken promises enough to overcome significant trust issues?

 

No.  Hartford has responded to crises in times past, but the responses rarely have led to aligned collective action or otherwise sustainable solutions.  We have been here many times before; this is why so many Hartford residents have trust issues with State, City, and other education leaders.

 

Deep trust issues bedevil Hartford.  Many are justified, particularly cynicism about the prospect of lasting change.  It has taken the Sheff v. O’Neill lawsuit to belatedly (and still not fully) address racial isolation.  The gross and unconstitutional funding inequities found in the CCJEF v. Rell lawsuit are widely acknowledged, but the jury (or, rather, the CT Supreme Court as well as the General Assembly) are still out on both the final verdict and obvious corrective actions.

 

How many lawsuits will it take to truly transform Hartford’s “Avoid and Protect” culture, as indicted by the recent State Office of Child Advocate (OCA) report?  Are class-action lawsuits really the best way, or do we just need public servants inclined (and well trained) to protect our children?

 

 

Are Lawsuits the Best Way to Ensure Safety in Hartford Schools?

 

Some think another lawsuit is precisely what is needed to keep the pressure on Hartford education leaders so they will deliver on the promise to protect our children, rather than relying upon the adults whose past neglect and unlawful actions has done kids harm.  Any reader of the case studies presented in the OCA report would have to conclude that, notwithstanding the anti-bullying campaigns in schools, some of the worst bullies are misguided, adult staff members.

 

The Hartford Courant reports that Gwen Samuel, head of the Connecticut Parents Union, and Hartford Rep. Minnie Gonzalez hosted a community event and press conference at the State Legislature this week, where they advised the parent leaders to collect stories of abuse and to spread the word to other families.

 

Testimony, from impacted students and families, certainly would help lay the foundation to justify and support a class-action lawsuit, citing a reality, in which, according to Samuel in the Courant, “We have far too many people who are willing to look the other way and not tell what’s happening” … let alone act to prevent it from happening again.  As shared on Education Connecticut, for those children and families who have been negatively impacted, Samuel lamented, “None of them say how they’re going to make your children whole.”

 

Is Gwen Samuel right?  Do current Hartford education leaders need an outside, independent third-party mechanism – like yet another lawsuit and court decision after another generation goes by – to truly do right by our kids?  Or will the HPS Corrective Action Plan do enough or go far enough to address the problems in the system, remedy past harms, and prevent future ones?  We believe a lawsuit is not only justified; it already would have been filed in the suburbs in any cases like these.

 

 

The Bottom Line

 

Acting Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez is asking for our trust and to her credit, she is putting action behind her words, hosting multiple community forums in partnership with parent organizations and quickly rolling out a robust action plan with aligned implementation strategies.

 

The HPS Plan is a good start … to a much longer process, but it should not be the only strategy for changing culture at the Hartford Public Schools (and within the entire system, which includes the State Department of Children and Families (DCF), which also dropped the ball in connection with the incidents detailed in the OCA report).

 

As noted by Gwen Samuel, District and City leaders must find ways to make harmed children and families whole, and must truly change the culture so that the cycle of systemic failure stops.   A lawsuit may be needed to accomplish that.

 

While we all wish we didn’t have to focus so much on the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – physiological and safety – and instead talk about student self-actualization, this is where Hartford is right now.

 

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Education Matters! is a bi-weekly e-newsletter of Achieve Hartford! providing insight, analysis and information to support school improvement in Hartford. We believe strong schools lead to a strong city.