Dealing with the aftermath of teacher’s arrest

As Wilton students returned to school today after a brief February break, school administrators and staff were planning to address the aftermath of the news that a popular seventh-grade teacher was arrested for sexual assault in the fourth degree.

Dr. Timothy Leonard, 37, a teacher at Middlebrook from 1996 to 2006 and from 2010 to the present, was arrested Feb. 10 after police found him in a parked car with a 14-year-old Trumbull boy. The car was in a movie parking lot in Trumbull. He was also charged with risk of injury to a minor.

When the news hit, students were in school for just a few hours before leaving for an extended weekend. Students were not in class from Feb. 12 through Feb. 16. The break provided an opportunity to plan how best to deal with the effects of the arrest on students and staff members.

“Everybody was in a state of shock after learning that news,” Superintendent Kevin Smith said in an interview with The Bulletin on Monday. The crisis team at Middlebrook and mental health counselors gathered Wednesday and Thursday “and put together information for parents on how to talk to kids, how to address that kind of information in light of an adult so well-trusted and highly regarded,” Dr. Smith said.

After an initial email sent Wednesday to parents and the school community acknowledging the incident, Middlebrook principal Maria Coleman sent a follow-up letter to Middlebrook families on Thursday, updating them on the support plan that was in place.

“Our priority is to support students’ personal and academic success by maintaining a sense of normalcy and routine,” she wrote. “To do that, we plan to acknowledge the incident, make students aware of the availability of mental health staff, and resume a typical school day.” She outlined three “talking points” teambase teachers would use Tuesday morning:

• An incident occurred outside of school last week that impacted the Middlebrook community.

• We want to reassure students that Middlebrook is a safe place and there are people in the building to talk to. If a student needs to speak to someone, he/she should let the teacher know or see his/her guidance counselor.

• As always, our goal is to work together, support each other, and have a productive day.

The email included tips for talking with children about an issue such as this, guidelines for supporting children, and warning signs of stress in students.

Dr. Smith said he had not received any questions from parents about the incident over the break and administrators were taking a “wait and see” attitude to “see where we are and what the needs are again” this week.

Given his tenure and popularity, the news of Dr. Leonard’s arrest was far-reaching. No outreach effort was made at the high school, but according to students, the news was the subject of hallway discussion. Dr. Smith acknowledged Middlebrook students were the target of their efforts.

He added knowing how to respond is not always clear in these situations. “We don’t always know what kids know,” he said. “We always want to proceed with caution. We don’t want to share information with a student that a parent might be uncomfortable with.”

Second school arrest

Compounding the effect of this arrest on the school and general Wilton community is the fact this is the second sex-related arrest of a school employee in less than a year. Last August, Eric Von Kohorn, a preschool paraprofessional, was arrested for possession of child pornography and promotion of a minor in an obscene performance.

Dr. Smith said the two incidents are different, but they are causing the school district to take a close look at its internal protocols. After Mr. Von Kohorn’s arrest, Dr. Smith said, “we looked at our screening procedures. We will go back and look at anything we missed. Are our screening procedures adequate? Do we need to rescreen periodically? That might be worth exploring. I don’t know if we would have picked something up. Would it be a deterrent? I don’t know.

“Everything is on the table for bringing in staff and supervising staff.”

When hiring staff, Dr. Smith said, candidates are fingerprinted and those fingerprints are run through the state Department of Children and Families database as well as the FBI database. “Those [registries] are pretty encompassing,” he said. “We also do reference checks and multiple layers of interviews.”

Nothing in Dr. Leonard’s file, Dr. Smith said, raised a red flag as to this type of behavior. In fact, after the incident, students and families often remarked on how popular he was.

One high school student said, “my sister had Dr. Leonard as a teacher when she was in middle school (she’s a senior in college now) and he was her absolute favorite teacher. He would always take the students on the ski trips the school arranged. I remember how my sister and her friends would always be excited to see him, to talk to him … My best friend’s brother also has Dr. Leonard as a teacher right now. He was pretty heartbroken about the news.”

Dr. Leonard was immediately suspended with pay, pending an independent investigation by the school district. A substitute teacher is taking his place.