Amity Regional School District board member resigns over sex assault policy
WOODBRIDGE >> Amity Regional High School Board of Education member Tracey Russo has resigned over a new policy that she says potentially allows for a “verbal warning” as a response if a student commits sexual assault, an outcome the district and the police chief said would never happen.
Russo, an attorney of 20 years who lives in Orange, speaks of victims in a detailed resignation letter.
“For those who have been assaulted or know someone who has gone through this experience, consider raising your voice not in opposition to our BOE, but in support of the victims who are on their journey to recovery,” she wrote.
Russo says in the letter that she wrote in detail “so that it may become part of the public record and, most importantly, serve as a reminder to victims of sexual assault that they are not alone.”
“For those young women and men reading this letter, let me state plainly, this happened to me almost thirty (30) years ago and, even though the details of the incident will always be with me, they long ago ceased to define me,” she wrote.
The letter has a gracious tone, praises the district, administrators, staff and thanks the voters who elected her.
Russo originally agreed to speak with the Register, but later could not be reached for comment.
Two weeks ago, as required by the legislature, the Amity Board of Education approved a contract with the Woodbridge Police Department for a graduated response model for various situations that could arise at the school, and one of those states that a “verbal warning” is potentially appropriate punishment in response to sexual assault, Russo said in the letter.
Russo states in the letter that she does not believe the board “agrees that a verbal warning is an appropriate response to sexual assault,” but because the Memorandum of Understanding as drafted between the board and Police Department can lead to that conclusion in the way it is drafted, “I must resign from the board because I would find it difficult if not impossible to disentangle this decision which I cannot support from my overarching obligation to support the BOE.”
The letter of resignation, dated May 9, is addressed to Superintendent of Schools Charles Dumais and Board Chairman William Blake.
In response to a reporter’s inquiry, Dumais wrote in an email to the Register, “The district most certainly does not believe that a verbal warning is an appropriate response to sexual assault.”
Declining to elaborate in future emails through non-response, Dumais wrote: “The chart lists grouped sample offenses that should be addressed by the administration in conjunction with the School Resource Officer (SRO), as well as grouped sample responses. The sample responses are not singularly aligned to a particular offense.”
Dumais did not answer follow-up emails seeking clarification.
According to the chart adopted by the board, and provided by Russo, criminal acts/any legal violations, are listed as alcohol and drug possession, illegal substances, inappropriate violent behavior, breach of peace, weapons possession, robbery, assault, sexual assault and arson.
In the box next to that, under potential interventions, are: verbal warning, arrest, conference with student and parent, referral to emergency mobile psychiatric services, referral to juvenile review board, referral to court.
The Connecticut legislature has required boards of education to set forth a graduated response model of discipline.
However, Woodbridge Chief of Police Frank Cappiello said in an email that a verbal warning would not be a potential response to a sexual assault.
“Included in this Memorandum of Understanding is a Graduated Response Chart for teachers, administrators, and police which lists several types of ‘potential interventions’ for various offenses including criminal acts, legal violations, and school related code of conduct violations,” Cappiello said. “The offenses listed in the chart are in no way aligned to any specific or mandated form of intervention. Our law enforcement response to and the investigation of any criminal activity, as well as any associated form of intervention, enforcement, or arrest is based upon and in correlation with the seriousness of the incident and the severity of the crime. Any implication that a person or student who committed a sexual assault would receive a verbal warning is totally inaccurate and a misinterpretation of the wording of the document.”
Russo’s letter states, “On March 18, 2014, the Connecticut General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Research surveyed school districts in an effort to identify those that had entered into an MOU regarding the district’s use of Student Resource Officers who are employees of local police departments.” That is the case at Amity.
Russo says in the letter, “Of particular importance to me, the MOU identifies ‘sexual assault’ as a Student Behavior for which the ‘Police (usually in conjunction with school administrator)’ may determine that a ‘verbal warning’ is the appropriate intervention/response.”
Her letter continues, “To fully appreciate the significance of the approved language, I would be remiss if I did not state in plain language what we are talking about. The Connecticut General Statutes provide that a person commits sexual assault when he or she:
“Uses or threatens to use force to engage in sexual intercourse;
“Engages in sexual intercourse with someone under age 13 and who is more than two years younger;
“Engages in sexual intercourse with someone mentally incapable of consenting;
“Uses force or threat of force against a victim or third person to compel the victim to submit to sexual contact; and
“When a person has sexual contact with someone who is under age 15, mentally incompetent, physically helpless, under age 18 and under his care of supervision, with someone without consent, a school student and the actor works at the school.”
Russo goes on to say that for those who may dismiss her concerns because of mandatory reporting laws to protect victims, “respectfully, that misses the point and ignores what happened less than 15 miles away at Choate Rosemary Hall. It was not until 2010 when the school finally reported incidents of reported sexual assault over decades to authorities; common sense and mandatory reporting laws failed the Choate students.”
Russo said “the reality” is that with the wording of the agreement, the outcome of “verbal warning” for sexual assault is a possibility, and she cited other cases, including, “in June 2016, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky imposed a 6-month jail sentence on Brock Turner after concluding that ‘a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him’ and that the judge did not think he would be ‘a danger to others.’ in August 2016, David Becker of Massachusetts, a high school athlete, was sentenced to two years’ probation after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting two women who were asleep on a bed after drinking at a party.” Russo also noted former University of Colorado student Austin Wilkerson, who was convicted of raping a female student in 2014 and was sentenced to two years on work or school release instead of a 4- to 12-year prison sentence.
Russo wrote that she believes schools will continue to protect students and report abuse or suspected abuse as required by the law, then continues, “That being said, what makes no sense to me is why we would approve a document that adopts the idea that, under certain circumstances, a ‘verbal warning’ may be an appropriate intervention/response in the context of a sexual assault.”
She ends the letter by writing, “Most importantly, I want to thank the residents of Orange who trusted me to represent them. This job has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.” She was a board member for six years.