FITCHBURG, Mass. -- DCF confirmed it cited 24 public school staffers for abusing and neglecting students – just since the beginning of the year alone.
But Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen discovered even when the state Department of Children and Families investigates and finds that an educator has abused a child, that’s often not enough to pull a teacher’s license.
One of those cases involved Jayda Wright’s 7-year-old son.
Wright said her son – who 25 Investigates is not identifying because he’s a victim of abuse – came home from school last year with stories about his special education teacher at Reingold Elementary School in Fitchburg.
“He told me that someone had him face down on the ground and was putting their knee in his back,” said Wright.
“Do you think your son was scared?” Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen asked Wright.
“Oh, definitely, definitely,” said Wright. “He was even scared to tell me about what was happening because he thought that he would get in trouble.”
But months later it was the teacher who was in trouble with DCF.
Fitchburg teacher cited for abuse
In a letter dated July 7, 2017 – previously kept secret from the public and obtained by 25 Investigates – DCF said its investigation found that teacher Lori Nogueira had physically abused Wright’s son.
Fitchburg Superintendent of Schools André Ravenelle said he never told other parents at the school about the DCF finding because he had already put Nogueira on paid administrative leave.
Meanwhile, Nogueira still has her teacher license to work with preschoolers with special needs and students with and without disabilities from kindergarten to third grade.
And 25 Investigates has learned there’s been no move to take away Nogueira’s licenses.
Ravenelle told 25 Investigates a DCF finding of abuse isn’t enough for the state to revoke a teacher’s license.
“There can be errors,” Ravenelle said. “And you want to make sure, before you take action, that you've really turned over all the stones.”
But that process can take a long time and the state’s education department doesn’t always push to take away a teacher’s license.
Years for investigations and still no answers
As of the end of the July, the state’s education department has 28 open DCF abuse cases and 27 open DCF neglect cases against public school staffers going back as far as 2012.
Since 2012, state education investigators have only closed 13 cases where DCF confirmed a teacher or school staffer abused a student. But the state couldn’t tell 25 Investigates how many of those cases ended with taking away a teacher’s license.
“If DCF supports a case, there's something really wrong,” said victim advocate Wendy Murphy.
Murphy said the system allows teachers who abuse kids to move to new districts or even new states, keeping their past a secret from parents and any potential employers.
“That trail doesn’t follow the teacher. It’s confidential,” said Murphy. “Parents in the new school have no way of knowing.”
A week after 25 Investigates started asking questions for this story, the state’s acting education commissioner, Jeff Wulfson, issued a memo to the state’s school board, mapping out the complicated legal process to take away a license from a teacher accused of misconduct.
In the memo, the commissioner noted, “The vast majority of disputed educator license matters are resolved through settlement.”
But those settlements are another secret process that can put teachers back in the classroom if they agree to attend training or treatment.
Wulfson said he takes allegations of misconduct very seriously but also defended the secretive process that determines whether teachers cited for abuse belong in the classroom.
“Teachers who have educator licenses have constitutional due process rights, so we want to do a thorough investigation. We want to respect those rights,” said Wulfson.
When asked if teachers’ rights come at the expense of students, Wulfson said, “We don't believe that any student is in danger.”
“This system is not designed to protect children. End of discussion,” said Murphy.
Murphy, who is also a lawyer, said criminal charges are often the only public way to hold abusive teachers accountable, but she told 25 Investigates that rarely happens.
A spokesman for the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office said there was “not enough evidence” to file charges against Nogueira in the case involving Jayda Wright’s son.
25 Investigates reached out to Nogueira and her lawyer, who said Nogueira has no comment.
For now, it’s impossible to know if she’s fighting to get back into the classroom because all appeals are secret.
And if you want to know whether a teacher is under investigation, none of that information is public.
Parents can only check whether a teacher is currently licensed online here.
© 2017 Cox Media Group.