(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series examining the sudden end to Janice Donahue's teaching career. Superintendent Dr. Anne Wilson, the Sudbury Public Schools Committee, and Principal Annette Doyle have refused comment, citing legal issues.)
Teachers working in the Sudbury Public Schools system should take this news as a warning. Superintendent Dr. Anne Wilson set a precedent in May. No matter your tenure, no matter your success, no matter your reputation, she could end your career and will never tell you why.
To this day, Janice Donahue, the first-grade teacher who had taught for 25 years, was dismissed on May 8, and hasn't been told the reason she was put on administrative leave. In fact, Wilson has refused to address the issue with Donahue in-person, Donahue says.
But after weeks of negotiations between Elizabeth Valerio, the attorney hired by Wilson, and Donahue's lawyer, the beloved teacher and 1999 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year nominee agreed to an undisclosed severance settlement, thus ending her career.
Now, Donahue says it's time to tell the truth.
"I loved my job," Donahue told Sudbury Patch in an exclusive interview at her Southborough home. "It was not my time to retire. I dedicated my life to my family and to teaching children and taking pride in their learning. Often, I was in my classroom at 8 in the evening preparing for the next day. To think that this dedication was not valued breaks my heart."
FRICTION WITH THE PRINCIPAL
Donahue says her relationship with Noyes Principal Annette Doyle was strained, thanks to an issue that began last year.
According to Donahue, Doyle one day asked her to not place a student in a particular class when the first-grade teachers met to arrange the second-grade classes.
Donahue did not place the student. But another teacher did.
"When the initial list (not the final list for placement) was given to the principal for administrative input, the principal placed a letter of reprimand in my personal file," Donahue said, "stating I disobeyed her direct command, claiming I was insubordinate."
Donahue explained several meetings were needed to finalize the list, and that Doyle could have changed the child's placement.
The letter of reprimand shocked Donahue, who said in her 31-year career she never received such a letter.
"The contents of the letter went beyond the issue of where a child was placed for second grade," she said while showing Sudbury Patch the documentation. "Rather, the letter contained verbal assaults on my character, defamatory statements and questioned my competency."
Doyle would go on to tell Donahue, with her union representative present, that she would no longer teach first grade for Sudbury Public Schools.
But Donahue refused to sit and take it; ahw sought permanent removal of the letter by filing a grievance.
"The principal could not substantiate any of the allegations," Donahue said. "The superintendent (Wilson) had the letter removed but allowed the principal to write something called a 'letter of warning' to replace the original."
Prior to that day, Donahue felt she had a good relationship with her administrators. She had spent the past 11 years working for Doyle without incident. And after 31 years without a single issue in terms of performance evaluations, what had changed?
"I have dedicated my life to my family and the vocation of teaching," she said. "For anyone to degrade my life's vocation has been hurtful beyond words."
MAY 4, 2012
The day started out like any other day for Donahue.
At 1:35 p.m., Donahue walked her 21 first-graders to music class. As they entered, three boys rushed into Michael Gorgone's room toward the tiered risers to sit on the corner of the bottom 7-inch bench. According to Donahue, this was a preferred seat among students.
As the boys scurried toward the bench, a short scuffled ensued; something Wilson has said repeatedly in written statements and during SPS Committee meetings had no influence on Donahue's dismissal.
"As I rushed to intervene, one boy pushed another to the floor, as is stated by the students in the interviews held by the principal and assistant principal," Donahue explained while showing Sudbury Patch the documented interviews. "All six students tell essentially the same story about who pushed whom."
Donahue said as further proof, when interviewed by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, the parents of the child who was pushed also stated that "their son does not seem affected by it at all and has moved past it."
But Wilson had not moved past the incident, as she filed a 51A report on May 22 against Donahue. In the report, Wilson stated "the child felt it was the other student who pushed him to the floor."
"Since the superintendent herself supported the students and my recollection of the events, I cannot comprehend why the superintendent and principal did not reinstate me immediately after the interviews were completed," Donahue said. "Instead, they chose to continue down a path where witnesses' statements did not support the administration's allegations which ultimately led to my dismissal.
"Why would the administration choose to put those students through such an ordeal, only to ignore the statements they ultimately gave? I just cannot understand it."
Donahue said one parent even wrote an affidavit and had it notarized stating her son had been involved but that it was a child-on-child incident.
"I helped the fallen boy up and made sure that everyone was safe and ready for music class," she added.
Meanwhile, Gorgone was on the opposite side of the room, refusing to get involved.
"This was 30 seconds in a first-grade teacher's day. My back was to the music teacher. Never once did he ask me or the children about the situation," Donahue said. "No child cried or complained and no one went to the school nurse because no one was hurt. If the music teacher had been concerned, he did not show it, never speaking to the children or seeing to their welfare, neither that day nor over the weekend that followed."
After she restored the peace, Donahue went back to her classroom to prepare for Monday's school day. Those same boys played soccer together later in the day during recess, worked on a math project and listened to a story. The incident in the music room was forgotten by all.
Or so it seemed.
"Imagine my shock and surprise when I was called into the principal's office to be put on administrative leave because the music teacher had reported the incident to the principal the following week," Donahue said, "and that I was being accused of having pushed one of the boys in the scuffle."
Did she have a chance to explain her side of the story? Donahue says no. After meeting with Doyle on May 8 at Noyes for about 10 minutes, she hadn't been told what the problem was and was not prepared for "the verbal assault that followed."
"She said I was going to be put on administrative leave and she would conduct an investigation," Donahue said. "According to the written testimony of the students interviewed about it, conducted May 7 and 9, I should have been told to return to the classroom and that all was well because their statements backed up mine. Instead, I was subjected to a constant barrage of misinformation and suggestions that I resign by the superintendent's very aggressive lawyer."
Wilson, to this day, hasn't met with Donahue to discuss the incident ... Valerio led the meeting.
"The superintendent never met with me to discuss the incident," Donahue said. "People who don't even know me (the superintendent and the SPS Committee) were comfortable having my good name dragged through the mud without any attempt to interact with me or hear what actually happened. One would think after 31 years of teaching, the school committee or the superintendent would have given me that courtesy."
THREATS OF MORE 51A REPORTS
The news of the 51A filed to DCF (Department of Children and Families) came as a surprise to Donahue. One of her sons who lives in California read the news on Sudbury Patch and immediately called her.
"It was filed 15 days after I was put on administrative leave and the day before what I thought was going to be a meeting with the superintendent," Donahue said, showing Sudbury Patch the document. "I went to the Department of Children and Families to get a copy of the 51A which was filed by the superintendent herself."
According to masslegislature.gov, a mandated reporter has 48 hours to file a written report with the department detailing the suspected abuse or neglect. Also, whoever knowingly and willfully files a frivolous report of child abuse or neglect under this section shall be punished by:
- A fine of not more than $2,000 for the first offense
- Imprisonment in a house of correction for not more than six months and a fine of not more than $2,000 for the second offense
- Imprisonment in a house of correction for not more than 2 1/2 years and a fine of not more than $2,000 for the third and subsequent offenses.
Donahue said the DCF staff member said the accusation was "screened" just three days after being called in by Wilson.
According to masslegalhelp.org, a 51A report will be "screened out" if the actions that are being reported are not considered "abuse" or "neglect" as defined by law or if the abuser is not a caretaker of the child. The report may also be screened out if the family already has an open case with DCF, or if the report is old or "frivolous."
During the meeting on May 23 with Valerio, Donahue said she was told through her union lawyer that Wilson and Valerio threatened to "create" more 51A reports if she didn't comply with their demands to resign immediately.
"I plan to report this abuse of the system to other government agents and agencies," she said, adding she has already placed a call to the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. "This does nothing to help children and families who are truly in need of their services, but is rather an abuse of the very system created to keep out children safe from harm by caregivers.
"I have to think that when the superintendent first met with her lawyer, they discussed what to do that would make this an actual case and pursued this course to frighten me. They had nothing else."
CONFLICT OF INTEREST?
Donahue said Sudbury Education Association Union President Robert Mealey appeared to have "other priorities" while representing her.
The teachers' union was, and still is as of mid-August, in the middle in contract negotiations. And Mealey, a Framingham resident, was also contemplating applying to have his son attend SPS.
Only the superintendent could grant the acceptance of his child. Both Wilson and Mealey were present at all the Donahue negotiations, he said.
"This had to be an awkward situation for him," Donahue said. "That may be why the union president signed a letter that went out to the entire school community."
Donahue said the letter was from Wilson and implied that Donahue had done something wrong.
"The union president's intent may not have been to imply that I had done something wrong ... but that was the effect," she said. "It was extremely painful to me."
Mealey has denied a conflict of interest.
"We didn’t apply until the last week of school in June," Mealey said. (My wife and I) talked about it for years. It's not like I’m special. We decided after a meeting with Framingham Public Schools to pull out on June 12, which was long after the hearings and other stuff with it. I don’t think it was a conflict of interest."
One former SPS teacher disagreed.
"No question in my mind that’s shady," said Cynthia Denessen, who taught eighth-grade English at and fifth grade at Noyes before retiring early in 2006. "I thought so little was being done by the union. I thought he was working against her. He was trying to get a contract for the teachers. So anything to keep good rapport with the superintendent."
Donahue said she believes Mealey did not do enough to help her.
"I feel this was a runaway train that spun out of control and the union president did not try to stop it," she said. "I have never had a meeting with the superintendent or the school committee. I was given (a Massachusetts Teachers' Association) attorney. It was the duty of the union to facilitate these meetings for administration to hear both sides so that they could come to an understanding and make proper accommodations. The union president called me a few times, accompanied me to two meetings and sent emails, but I never felt completely supported."
"In my opinion, I think Bob was trying to keep good relations with the superintendent and sacrifice Janice," Denessen said. "Then to find out there was another ulterior motive to put his child in Sudbury schools ... he’s a nice person, but he's looking out for himself. Someone should not be (union) president if he can’t look out for the people he's been asked to support."
Mealey’s son has since been granted a place in a Sudbury classroom, Donahue said.
To add further insult, she was forced to clean out her classroom. Something she said was very humiliating.
"Parents and other teachers tried to help me put my things into boxes," Donahue said. "The assistant principal (Kristin Moffat) barred them from entering the room and told them that they couldn't come into the room to help. Still, the union did nothing except put a couple of sticky notes on some books.
"I felt humiliated, confused, hurt and devastated by the manner in which I was forced to leave Room 15 after being in the same room for 25 years. I asked for and was denied an opportunity to say goodbye to the children."
Donahue was also told she couldn't have contact with her own students, even after DCF sent a letter to Wilson on May 25 informing her the 51A had been screened out.
"I do not understand what basis they had to keep me from the children and the children from me as many had exhibited emotional and behavioral issues as a result of my abrupt removal from their lives," she said. "It was not just me and my family that were negatively impacted but the children of my classroom and my families. It continues to break my heart when I think about the effect this has had on all of them."
Even a request for a final walk-through of Room 15 at the end of the year was denied. Donahue was still missing a few items and wanted them returned. Despite that request, she was again denied. Instead, 31 years of books and teaching materials she had collected during her illustrious career were packed in boxes by the maintenance department and shipped to her Southborough home. They've been piled in her garage since that day.
(For part 2 of this story, check back with Sudbury Patch on Tuesday.)
(CORRECTION: A gag order was never issued by a judge. It was issued by Annette Doyle.)