Principal's arrest latest in challenges faced by Westport schools this year

WESTPORT — The recent arrest of Coleytown Middle School Principal Kris Szabo is the latest in a slew of challenges the district has faced this year.

Abrupt changes at the administrative level, allegations brought against staff and talks of redistricting all come as the district heads into what could be a difficult budget season.

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In late January, Kings Highway Elementary School Principal Mary Lou DiBella and four other Kings educators were placed on paid administrative leave while the district reviewed unspecified allegations.

Although details of the allegations were never revealed, WestportNow reported on Feb 5. they stemmed from a complaint filed with the state regarding an incident in which a 6-year-old special needs student was restrained, according to a parent reportedly familiar with the matter.

The five staff members returned in March upon completion of the investigation, but no explanation was given.

“In circumstances such as these, the school community often has more questions than we are legally permitted to answer due to confidentiality rules imposed by federal and state laws,” Assistant Superintendent Anthony Buono wrote to parents at the time.

In the same month, a survey showed widespread discontent, distrust and concern among Westport school administrators.

The Westport Intermediate Administrators Association union sent the survey to its members, which include about 40 Westport principals, assistant principals, department heads and senior administrators from across the town’s eight schools.

On March 8, the WIAA sent the survey results to the Board of Education and, about a week later on March 14, then-schools chief Colleen Palmer announced her resignation. Though the resignation only took effect in August, Palmer did not return to the district, citing a family medical emergency.

The Board of Education unanimously approved her separation agreement in April, and chose former Westport special education coorindator David Abbey to helm the schools as interim superintendent in May.

Palmer’s resignation came only three years after she began as Westport’s schools superintendent and a week after James D’Amico, who has served as principal of Staples High School since 2016, suddenly announced he would be leaving to be principal of New Fairfield High School — his alma mater.

Stafford Thomas Jr. was named as his replacement in June.

While administrators came and went, the district’s staff were also the subject of serious allegations.

In late December 2018, Staples soccer coach David Sharpe resigned after being charged with exposing himself to a juvenile in Fairfield. More charges followed after a similar incident was reported in Norwalk in January. He was granted a special psychiatric probation program.

Under special psychiatric probation program, Sharpe did not plead guilty to the charges pending against him of public indecency and second-degree breach of peace but was placed on two years’ probation. If he commits no other crimes during that probation, the charges against him will be dismissed.

Paul Telep, a maintenance worker at Staples, turned himself in to police in May on stalking charges for allegedly recording a female Staples student with his work phone in the cafeteria. Telep pleaded guilty in October after his third-degree stalking charges were reduced to a disorderly conduct charge.

In September, members of the Staples community expressed their disappointment when the town’s Department of Human Services fired Ed Milton, a student outreach counselor. Details of Milton’s firing were never revealed, but WestportNow reported on Sept. 23 his leave came after an alleged incident where he lost his temper with a student who was being disruptive.

And just last week, Coleytown Middle School Principal Kris Szabo was placed on administrative leave, following her arrest for allegedly slapping a man during a parking dispute in Southbury.

In an email to parents on Dec. 4, Bedford Middle School Principal Adam Rosen said Szabo was placed on leave pending a review of the incident. Szabo was arrested on Nov. 27 for slapping a man during an argument in a parking lot on Main Street South in Southbury, police said.

According to police, Szabo, 49, struck a 71-year-old man multiple times after he verbally confronted her for parking in a “no parking” area. Szabo was arrested and charged with second-degree breach of peace. She was released on a $500 bond and is scheduled to appear in state Superior Court in Waterbury on Dec. 11.

As the district handled personnel issues inside the schools, it also faced the major hurdle of closing one of its two middle schools.

Mold concerns at Coleytown forced the school to close in September 2018 and students to share Bedford while renovations are completed. The Representative Town Meeting approved a $1 million appropriation for portable classrooms to accomodate the influx of students.

Additionally, the Coleytown Middle School Building Committee was established to ensure the reopening and renovation of CMS, and in June, the committee set forth a $32 million plan to have it reopened by the 2020-2021 school year.

But the closure also triggered talks of rebalancing the student populations to address the declining enrollment and parity between the town’s middle schools. The conversations led to a number of redistricting options with one — namely the Saugatuck Elementary split-feeder option — sparking criticisms from the school community.

Months of discussion, however, have apparently fallen flat, with the education board indicating at its Dec. 4 meeting that it should hold off on redistricting for at least two years.

The BOE will discuss a motion to implement this plan on Monday prior to a public comment period. An official vote is scheduled for Dec. 16.

With JE Consulting now hired to spearhead a nationwide superintendent search, new leadership will soon guide the district after a tumultuous period for the town’s schools. How that will affect staff, parents and students has yet to be seen, but it is clear more changes and challenges are on the horizon for Westport schools., includes previous reporting by Sophie Vaughan