Great Valley School District officials, parents and GVSD legal counsel met for more than three-and-a-half hours Thursday night to address the recent allegations involving school district employee Matthew Lewis. State Rep. Duane Milne also attended the meeting and spoke briefly.
Lewis, a member of the district's technology staff, was recently charged with indecent assault, corruption of minors and other offenses against children in 2006 and 2007 at a Boy Scouts camp.
Superintendent Alan Lonoconus, school board President David Barratt and district legal counsel Guy Donatelli fielded questions and comments from concerned, angry and vocal parents regarding school district policies and the safety of district students. Donatelli said he is a child advocate lawyer who regularly works in this area of law.
"We have made all the decisions, from day one, with the best information we had at the time," Barratt said.
Because Lewis's case is ongoing, district officials were limited in what they could say so as not to compromise the school district's future options or Lewis's trial. School officials did, however, express their regret at how the situation had unfolded.
"As a fellow community member and the parent of a 13-year-old and 11-year-old boy, I know that no other kind of issue or allegation draws more emotion than the one we've gathered here to discuss," Barratt said. "At the same time, I say with confidence to you that I never—at any time—felt that I put my children, or your children, in harm's way through the decisions we made in this matter."
Here's the chronology of events, according to Superintendent Lonoconus.
End of July: The school district was visited by state police and Willistown police on July 28, and the district was told that police were investigating charges against Lewis for improper conduct with two Boy Scouts at the Horseshoe Boy Scout camp in Nottingham, Pa. At that time, police requested possession of Lewis' laptop and iPad, but district counsel told district officials that a search warrant should be presented by the police prior to surrendering the materials. The police never presented a search warrant to the district, so the materials were not turned over. However, Lewis's computer was confiscated and secured by the district. The school board was notified of the allegations against Lewis after the police visit.
Early August: Lewis was reassigned to duties at the district office, and was no longer allowed to have unsupervised access to the elementary schools. If he needed to assist with work at a school, he was accompanied by another member of technology staff. Lewis also met with an employee at the district office (later identified as Director of Business Affairs Charles Linderman) at least once a week to review his job responsibilities and protocols. District officials also inspected Lewis's laptop and email account for any inappropriate content or history, but nothing suspicious was found.
Mid-August: District officials obtained the solicitor's written advice outlining the district's options, considering that at the time Lewis was only under investigation, not arrested or convicted. The district asked specifically if Lewis could be placed on administrative leave. Counsel advised not to place Lewis on administrative leave, and the district followed that advice.
End of August/September: School opened. The solicitor was told by the District Attorney's office that no decision had been made as to whether charges would be brought against Lewis. The solicitor re-evaluated the facts of which they were aware at the time, and told officials that the district had a lack of authority to continue Lewis's reassignment to the district office.
Early October: Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare reported to the school district that the investigation against Lewis was "unfounded." With no charges filed and no reason to believe charges would be filed imminently, Lewis was reinstated to his original job duties on Oct. 3.
Mid-October to December: Lewis worked in Sugartown, General Wayne, K.D. Markley and Charlestown elementary schools. He continued to meet regularly with an administrator and kept detailed time sheets of his activities. Lewis was not permitted in the computer labs alone. He was told not to use student bathrooms and was not involved in after-school sports this year. By December, the district had still received no news that the investigation had progressed, and Lewis continued in his duties.
Mid-December: The District Attorney's office told the school district solicitor that filing of affidavits of probable cause was anticipated. Once district counsel confirmed that the affidavits had been filed, the district was advised to place Lewis on administrative leave. On Dec. 16, the district removed Lewis from service, recovered his district-owned keys, technology and ID. According to Lonoconus, "This was the first time we knew the extent and detail of charges filed against the employee."
Lewis surrendered himself at Magisterial District Court 15-3-05 the morning of Monday, Dec. 19.
Questions and Answers
The following information is paraphrased from the at-times contentious exchanges between parents and district officials.
Why was Lewis allowed to continue to work in the school when the district knew he was under investigation? Lewis had violated no district policies or rules. Merely being investigated is not enough reason to fire an employee, and the conduct for which Lewis was being investigated was not on school property and outside the school district's jurisdiction, especially since at the time, no charges had been filed against him.
Who made the decision to let Lewis back into the schools? It was a joint decision on the part of the school board, administration and counsel.
Who, in the schools, knew about the investigation? Lonoconus said Sugartown Principal Karen Schneck and General Wayne Principal Bonnie Citron were informed at the beginning of the year, because Lewis was initially assigned to those two elementary schools. After Lewis was reinstated Oct. 3, he began working in all four district elementary schools, but the principals of K.D. Markley and Charlestown Elementary were not informed of the investigation, which Lonoconus called "an oversight." No teachers and aides in any school were informed, Lonoconus said.
Why weren't teachers informed? There didn't seem to be a clear-cut answer given to this question. Lonoconus indicated that principals were instructed not to inform the teachers. At times, he seemed poised to elaborate, but was interrupted by outbursts from the crowd. Donatelli said he was not involved in the decision and had not given legal advice on the issue.
Did Lewis have unsupervised access to district students? Maybe. After being reinstated Oct. 3, Lewis continued to meet regularly with an administrator and kept detailed time sheets of his activities. "We know with a high level of confidence where [Lewis] was and what he was doing during this time period on a day-to-day basis," Lonoconus said. Lewis was not permitted in the computer labs alone. Lewis was told not to use the student bathrooms, though according to some parents who spoke at the meeting, their children had often seen Lewis in the children's bathrooms.
What precautions were put in place for student safety? School officials said Lewis was monitored, but for security purposes, the school district would not give details of the measures that were taken.
Does the district know of any other district employee currently under investigation? No.
What district policies exist regarding personnel discipline issues? Policies are consistent with state law on employee discipline, suspension and termination. None allow for the district to take action against an employee based on mere suspicion of wrongdoing, Lonoconus said.
What policy changes will be made? This is a discussion that needs to continue, district officials affirmed during Thursday's meeting. Barratt said the board will work toward developing a plan and policies to handle similar situations should they arise in the future.
Will there be new rules for faculty regarding bathroom use? This has been discussed. The district has been looking at the different school buildings and the practicality of dividing the bathrooms. "There's no simple solution, but we're working on it," Barratt said.
How will such incidents be handled in the future? On a case-by-case basis, but Barratt said the board will work toward developing a plan and policies to handle similar situations should they arise in the future.
Will there be counseling/debriefing for the kids? Yes. Barratt said discussions are already underway, and principals, counselors and social workers in each school will assess what's needed, and go from there.
- "I was never, ever, Matt's troop leader," said Director of Business Affairs Charles Linderman, who also said he oversaw Lewis weekly, and more often than not, more frequently, during the fall semester. Linderman was a troop leader at Charlestown until 1996 or 1997, and he never knew Lewis, who was a member of a different troop, in a different school. "There is no conflict," Linderman said.
- "This was not done casually," Solicitor Guy Donatelli said. "The research was not done casually; the advice was not given casually." Donatelli consulted others in his law firm and sought opinions from other lawyers with regard to the legal issues surrounding Lewis and his employment. "This has been soundly grounded, from a legal perspective, in the law."
- "You all said you are doing the best you can," one parent said to the board. "I would suggest you take a long, hard look in the mirror and think, 'Could someone else do a better job?'"
- Some parents called for common sense to reign above legal obligations. "If you know someone shouldn't be around children, you get rid of them. You just get rid of them," one parent said.
- "I walked in here as the parent of a son who goes to Sugartown," state representative Dwayne Milne said, when asked by Barratt to briefly address the crowd. "I've gone through a whole continuum of emotions tonight … I'm really torn: frustrated, angered, concerned, on all those levels. I think good people are doing the very best they can. I think it's become clear that there are some matters from the state perspective we need try to get in place a little bit better to empower those who have direct contact with our children to react a little bit better, and more strategically."
- Barratt said the school board would provide an update each month regarding its examination of policies, procedures and safety measures for the future. The next school board business meeting is Monday, Jan. 9 at 7:30 p.m.