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Editorial / Aloof schools' chief owes parents some answers

Published 4:46 pm, Thursday, November 29, 2012
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Parents of middle-school children who were subjected to the alleged threats and sexually inappropriate comments of a school bus driver last month have every right to be both worried and enraged.

And they have a right to some straight answers from a school administration that has been largely smug and defensive -- even dismissive of some concerns.

Westport police last week charged the bus driver, a 44-year-old Norwalk man, with risk of injury to a child, threatening and breach of peace. The charges stem from incidents on a bus en route to Coleytown Middle School the morning of Oct. 18 and on the way home that afternoon.

Parents told of their pre-adolescent and early adolescent children cowering in fear as the driver threatened them and made vulgar, sexual comments. In tears on the ride home, some frightened children got off the bus before their stops to escape the tirade.

What has enraged parents -- and what top administrators a month later have yet to explain -- is how an abusive, irrational driver could still be behind the wheel for the afternoon run after the Coleytown principal had complained to the central office about his behavior that morning.

School Superintendent Elliot Landon was both defensive and dismissive of some concerns when parents of students on the bus spoke at an Oct. 22 school board meeting.

When one parent said school Transportation Director Sandra Evangelista had failed to return two of his phone calls, Landon arrogantly implied the parent was lying.

"I think the charge that she doesn't respond to phone calls is totally without substance," Landon said. "In fact, it's an exaggeration of the truth. And I think that's very, very unfortunate that such a comment could be made."

But the parent had not made a general accusation "that she doesn't respond to phone calls." He said she had not responded to two specific calls he made to her.

By labeling the very specific claim "totally without substance" because it didn't fit his perception of a general pattern, Landon himself may have exaggerated the truth.

And in the superintendent's own words, that would be "very, very unfortunate." Unless Evangelista swears she returned the calls, Landon owes the parent an apology.

(The parent in question, Jarett Liotta, is a freelance writer who has contributed to the Westport News. The author of this editorial has never met him nor spoken with him; his assignments have been handled by another editor.)

When police filed criminal charges against the driver on Nov. 20, Landon's lone comment was at the same time self-congratulatory, aloof and dismissive of larger issues.

"In reviewing the charges," he said, "I was pleased to see that the police investigation came to the same conclusions my investigation disclosed -- that there was no physical inappropriate sexual behavior involved with this incident."

So the superintendent can claim his investigative skills match the cops' on a matter that never was in question in the first place -- no child or parent ever said anything physical happened.

By failing to even acknowledge what the police investigation did determine -- that crimes were committed against children Landon is supposed to protect -- the superintendent's aloofness seems to imply that assault is no big deal as long as there's no battery.

In his welcoming address to teachers when the school year began in August, Landon waxed poetic about the joy of spending six days on the road with his 13-year-old grandson last summer -- going to ball games, communing with nature and visiting historic sites. The boy was the same age as some kids on that Coleytown bus last month.

Yet at least publicly, the superintendent seems unwilling or incapable of empathizing with victimized children or their parents.

Landon is Westport's highest-paid municipal employee, with an annual salary of nearly $300,000. For that price, should a little empathy be part of the job description?

That's a question for the Board of Education, which has remained oddly silent throughout this episode.

Landon has said he will file a complete report on the incident. It should be painstakingly thorough, hold individuals accountable for actions or inactions and include what remedies, if any, are needed to prevent a similar incident.

The school board should demand that it does.