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Bedford Schools Plagued by Culture Problem; New Super Seeks Solutions 

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Fox Lane High School

I had a different column written, and even published briefly online, for just a few minutes on Sunday.

In the piece, I made the mistake of being overly generous to the administrators who gravely mishandled the investigation into incidents of bathroom photos and video being taken of special education students at Fox Lane High School.

My inclination is to try and an extend a reasonable benefit of the doubt, and I’m especially sympathetic to those working in public education.

But thankfully, a reader contacted me pointing out certain flaws in my premise, and I realized a rare rewrite was in order. While I’d never abandon an opinion under undue pressure, it’s also important to accept and act on legitimate criticism.

Although I unambiguously argued in the piece how the right decision was made with last week’s personnel moves, and detailed the significance of the failures, I also emphasized some wrong points, in highlighting the importance of redemption and the problems with cancel culture in education.

Sure, redemption is important. But it’s too soon for that talk.

Prime Time

Before diving deeper, a quick primer:

An incriminating report into last year’s botched investigation of the bathroom incidents was followed by immediate action last week.

Fox Lane High School Principal Dr. Brett Miller being was reassigned to the business office. He’ll either resign from the district no later than June 30 or leave before then if he finds other employment.

Meanwhile, Director of Pupil Personnel Services Dr. Edward Escobar has been placed on leave “for the foreseeable future.”

The 57-page report from Kroll Associates, a Manhattan-based investigative and risk consulting firm retained by the district in June, detailed glaring deficiencies of the school administration’s handling of its investigation, including failure to take any contemporaneous notes and dispensing inaccurate or misleading information to members of the school community.

When you have a prominent and important job, and you seriously mishandle a highly public and sensitive situation, it’s more than reasonable in the public or private sector, at a school district or a newspaper or anywhere else, to expect consequences.

Culture Club

In reading the report, I was struck by a couple of the especially damning conclusions. And both speak to a (rectifiable) culture problem within the district, inside the high school in particular.

The idea that the administrators neglected to take notes in their investigation illustrates not necessarily just laziness or carelessness, although it’s impossible to defend.

To me, it seems incredibly strange and suspect (especially in the litigious world of suburban public school education) that the default mode for multiple officials was to take a casual investigative approach. That’s partially a culture problem.

I spoke to various and unconnected local public school educators over the past few days in the aftermath of the report’s release. And they were all just stunned that note taking wasn’t the immediate reflex of the administrators.

In other school buildings, in other districts, for better and for worse, that just “isn’t a thing,” as one source described it. And no, for those that know me personally, I didn’t just speak to my wife! (She’s a local second-grade teacher and corroborated the view voiced by others.)

Stranger Things

The report also rightly concluded how an administration decision to not communicate findings with the parents of the victims (and a failure to alert the superintendent, their boss) highlighted a strange departure from common sense, let alone best practice, on the part of Miller, Escobar and others.

Without a smoking gun, the administrators seemed to believe the parents of the victims should be temporarily kept at bay, until at least the investigation was finalized.

In fact, even after getting confessions from multiple student perpetrators, administrators believed it was premature to update the parents or the superintendent with that key detail because, in part, the confessions involved prior incidents and not the incident that prompted the probe. (Most other area school districts have clearly-stated parental notification policies; Bedford lacks similar guidelines, as the report points out. But you shouldn’t need a policy to avoid reaching that almost nonsensical or confused judgment around parental notification in this case.)

Let’s face it, this was a situation serious enough for the Westchester County District Attorney’s office to review following a police investigation. The public affairs director confirmed for us that the office consulted with the families involved in the case where the office had jurisdiction; the office did not file criminal charges and closed its investigation. And at the moment it remains unclear, to me anyway, what separate civil legal jeopardy might (or might not) exist for the district, or how the report could impact that potential piece of the puzzle. (But we have calls in on that front, and will report any updates on the notice of claim previously filed by victim families.) 

In an email on Monday, the district attorney’s office also pointed out how because some of the individuals involved in the alleged conduct were under the age of 16, “that alleged conduct falls under the jurisdiction of the County Attorney’s Office and Family Court, not the DA’s Office and the criminal court.”

Karen Close, the parent of one of the victimized students, said at last week’s emotional board meeting that Fox Lane’s administrative team seemed more focused on hiding the truth than on taking proper action.

“My goal is the same as it’s always been, I want no other family ever to have to endure this pain,” Close said while fighting back tears.

Your heart breaks for Close and the other impacted families.

Rights Fights

Advocates for the victims also stress how accountability in this case didn’t come without a fight and ample public pressure.

Returning to Kroll, just think about two of the most devastating lines of the report:

“Miller was in possession of evidence the students had taken compromising photos and video of special education students in the boys bathroom and circulated them to others, although not definitively on March 11th,” Kroll stated. “As a result, Miller should not have been making statements to key consistencies after March 21st that the administration had no evidence misconduct had occurred in the boys bathroom.”

Former Bedford Board of Education member Pam Harney, an outspoken critic of the district, and an advocate and friend of victims’ families, said how action was only taken because “the parents obtained evidence on their own and were able to force the board…”

It really is hard to imagine any of this reckoning occurring absent the public pressure.

“Many, many parents in BCSD have been aware for years – decades even – that the district as a whole tends to look upon parents as a nuisance to be kept at arm’s length,” said Harney, who was among a contingent of parents who pushed hard for accountability. “There is a long history of bullying and other issues being swept under the rug, ignored, etc. What was outlined in the Kroll report doesn’t just happen by accident; it’s the result of years of mishandling investigations of all kinds.”

While it’s tempting to want to set all the politics aside, we live in the world we live in, and can’t be naive to its realities. Granted, it’s incredibly important to resist unreasonable public pressure to make any wrongheaded decisions. But it’s just as important, of course, for policymakers in a democratic setting to consider public sentiment when taxpayers do indeed have the facts on their side.

A high school principal operates best and most effectively for students when he or she enjoys the confidence and support of the community. In the aftermath of Kroll, way too much confidence (on the merits) has been vanquished.

Keeping secrets from victims’ parents just can’t and shouldn’t be defended.

Silver Lining

I do think there’s a very significant silver lining in all this, and it comes in the person of Dr. Rob Glass, Bedford’s new superintendent this year.

Glass’s messaging to the school community seems to emphasize the importance of addressing cultural problems within the district. He sends that message amidst a mood at the high school where some authority figures appear to just sort of shrug their shoulders at bad behavior, according to accounts of the school culture described by several sources. (As a district parent myself, it’s also important to stress how many fantastic teachers and programs populate the building.)

Even a small (not so small) gesture Glass made when he first started with Bedford told me something. The new schools’ chief made a point of telling Examiner Editor-in-Chief Martin Wilbur to call him directly when issues arise, providing an outlet and game plan for open communication.

In today’s world of canned comments and school boards sometimes speaking as one contrived voice with media outlets, Glass’s offer to Martin was no minor thing, as other area superintendents sometimes refuse to even take phone calls.

Importantly, in a message to the school community last week, Glass noted how the special education teachers involved in the outset of the incident performed beautifully, taking all the right steps. Don’t take my word for it; you should read the Kroll report yourself, if you haven’t already.

Devilish Details 

Glass detailed for the community three key steps already taken to address systemic problems:

  • Upcoming training of all administrators on investigative protocols, note taking and documentation by the district’s legal firm on Feb. 1.
  • An incomplete district policy is being revised to include a one-day notification provision to families. The revised policy may be addressed by the Board of Education this Wednesday.
  • While fixing the culture can be vaguer and more amorphous in nature, the district will aim to objectively benchmark efforts to tackle the very real issue.

“The road to success ahead is about being reliable, accountable and rebuilding trust all around,” Glass stated in his Dec. 16 letter. “Rebuilding trust will not happen by accident. It will require commitment, structures, dialogue and engagement. As painful as this moment is, it is our opportunity. We must look forward as we learn from the past, asking what we can do individually and collectively to chart a new course.”

While thoroughly investigating past mistakes can be a gut-wrenching process, it’s the best way to learn and become better.

That learning and betterment process, under Glass’s leadership, is hopefully underway in Bedford.


An earlier version of this column did not include a clear enough explanation of the actions and role of the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office. We regret the error.

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