In March of 2018, I was enjoying happy hour at one of my favorite spots, Sorella’s Restaurant in downtown Hartford. I was seated next to a six-seat table, five of which were taken by Hartford Public School employees, all working in the Office of Talent Management (OTM), conventionally known as Human Resources. These HPS employees were a bit timid by my presence, knowing that I’ve been a lifelong advocate for children’s’ rights. I wasn’t familiar with any of their faces, but they seemed to have identified me quite well.
Clearly, I remember them sharing with other HPS staff seated nearby, from a different department, that they were forbidden to be there by their boss, Natasha Durrant Banks. She informed them that if they socialize outside of work hours and she found out, that they’d be immediately fired. So, they were a bit afraid that she would find out. Hearing this made me very concerned, insofar as the HPS was clearly not the FBI, CIA or a secret order. Rather, the HPS is and always has been a public entity whose express purpose is to educate Hartford’s children and support the teachers and principals in performing their respective tasks efficiently.
I saw a fear in these young women’s eyes that resembled the fear that I saw in old movies of slaves who had disappointed their slave masters, fearful of being lynched, sold, or beaten to death. For nearly one decade, I had heard horrific stories about the malicious leadership of Mrs. Durant Banks and how she solely ran the HPS the way she wanted to, without any accountability. More than fifty stories that I’ve heard, they were shared with me confidentially from teachers, principals and non-certified staff. Originally, I began writing this blog on April 8, 2019, while I was traveling to Santa Barbara De Samana, Dominican Republic.
As much as I wanted to finish the second part of this two-part series, my writing had been halted because of the extreme fear and resistance of the people who spoke with me confidentially from the HPS staff. The fear was based on the fact that if the news of the labor crimes committed by Mrs. Durrant Banks were to go viral, they’d be immediately fired, their names would be smeared by the superintendent, and the probability of them securing comparable employment would be slim. I understood their dilemma. The very idea that an employee is unable to report crimes or illegal indiscretions, harassment or even harm against children because of fear of being terminated violates the whistleblower laws in Connecticut and in many cases the federal “Whistleblower Protection Act, 1989.”
There have been several accounts of sexual harassment claims presented to (OTM), whereas the informants were told that if they publicized these crimes they would be fired. One such example happened to an employee, a secretary at Sports and Medical Sciences Academy. She reported the sexual misconduct of Eduardo “Eddie” Genao with adult staff and also underaged students and she was fired for doing so. In another incident, I’ve personally taken a statement from a staff member in the district, who was forced to resign or sign a letter of termination, whereas both Natasha Durrant Banks and former assistant Superintendent of Performance Management, Peter Dart allegedly forced her to remain in the building against her will.
She was told that she would not be permitted to leave until she signed this document against her free will, this occurred at Martin Luther King School. The investigative report given by the Office of the Child Advocate regarding the compliance of Hartford Pubic Schools with State Laws that are related to “Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse and Neglect” was commissioned by Mayor Luke Bronin, on April of 2016. Since then, there has been an unprecedented amount of recent abuses against children in the Hartford Public School district that were reported to the (OTM) all of which have been covered up.
They refused to report these incidences to the Department of Families and Services, which they were mandated to do. Instead they conducted their own internal investigations, which was in direct violation of the law and proper protocol in dealing with such matters. There has also been several incidences of cases of abuse against teachers and staff from students, particularly at Hartford Public High School, all reported to (OTM) all of which were and continues to be covered up. In response to the Office of Child Advocate report, the present Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodrigues, spearheaded a campaign of which I personally warned her against.
Her campaign encouraged children in the district to report anything they thought was abusive. She named her campaign, “If you see something, say something.” From the beginning, I knew that her idea would be disastrous. Having reared five children myself, two of whom were educated in the Hartford Public School system, I understood why young children should not be forced into saying something about things that they may not have seen at all. As a parent, I am very aware that children should be able to come forth and share information about any impropriety that they have witnessed or personally experienced without recourse.
However, I also know that children who are disgruntled with the system in general, their teachers, or who may not feel good about their school may be more apt to report fabrications, many of which could ruin the reputation of good and honest teachers and faculty members in the HPS district. That is exactly what happened. Again, I personally heard children confess, after her campaign was launched that they purposely told lies on various teachers whom they didn’t care for, because they had a personal vendetta against them, knowing that the superintendent would wholeheartedly support their stance.
The aftermath of her decision resulted in more than 100 personnel being put on paid administrative leave. Not only did this devastate the financial integrity in the school district, it also left hundreds of children without quality teachers. Furthermore, it also became the petri dish for several lawsuits against the district, all of which could have been averted by wise counsel. It has been reported that the HPS district was already in a financial crisis, the city of Hartford was in a deficit as well, contemplating bankruptcy. Yet this gross misappropriation costed the district approximately $584,984.00 monthly to cover the cost of the teachers’ salaries on paid administrative leave, plus the additional cost of nearly $220,000.00 monthly to cover the wages for the substitute teachers that replaced them for more than four months on average.
Long after this present administration is gone, this fiasco will arguably be the greatest misappropriation of finances that Hartford residents will continue to pay for in perpetuity. As a result of these unchecked areas, our children continue to suffer greatly as after school programs and athletic programs are recurrently cut and teaching vacancies still go unfilled in basic academic areas, such as, mathematics, science and foreign languages.
With regards to the HPS district, the prevailing narrative in the city of Hartford has been “we don’t have enough money”. Many politicians and residents have long said that the school district has been flat-funded for years. While that may be true in principal, the real truth of the matter is not that the district is flat-funded but that the funding has gone to the wrong places, most commonly in the pockets of law firms, such as, Shipman & Goodwin, for multitudinous lawsuits that were a direct cause of the Superintendent and the Office of Talent Management’s incompetence. The HPS frivolously spends literally millions of dollars on legal fees all of which goes unchecked.
With regards to the hundred certified teachers in the district, The Office of Talent Management mismanaged their time by having to deal with a hundred claims that the students reported. Whereas, more than ninety percent of these allegations were found to be totally false or unsubstantial. The job of (OTM) is to recruit and retain highly qualified educators for the benefit of the students, ensuring that they receive a quality education. Instead, under the supervision of Natasha Durrant Banks, the (OTM) department has become a bastion of abuse of authority against educators and staff.
While Torres-Rodrigues’ campaign encouraged children to see something and say something, the staff who were committed to educating these children were not given the same mandate, leaving them vulnerable to retaliation, humiliation and termination for speaking their truth. I can only imagine how extremely hard and painful it can be for quality staff to work under such undue pressure. Yet, it is difficult to imagine that one person or department has been given full authority to break employment laws, cover and protect inefficiencies and failures of the school district to educate Hartford’s children and sadly, to cover Mrs. Durrant Banks incompetence to effectively run the human resource division.
The data concerning students’ performances is a public record and substantiates every claim that I’ve made in this blog. With that, I am moving toward a full State and Federal investigation into the procedures and practices of the multiple allegations against Natasha Durrant Banks and the Office of Talent Management. All reports to the State and Federal investigative division will be completely confidential and any such retaliation from Mrs. Durrant Banks will be duly noted.
The children are our highest priority, supporting our teachers and principals in their work is on par with that as well. We owe it to Hartford residents and our children to hold all people responsible for their actions, especially when our taxes pay them to do so.
Dr. Aaron Lewis
Manchester Center, Vermont
November 11, 2019
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