Emailed school accusations circulated result in police review

Although called unfounded multiple times by the Board of Education, other town leaders are now requesting a police investigation into allegations shared with more than 70 recipients of an email.

Emails addressed to Board of Ed Chairman Tara Ochman from Jay Hardison, a member of Darien’s Representative Town Meeting, have accused the board and school administration of attempting to cover up “misconduct of a sexual nature, physical assault, and physical and emotional abuse of children” in the district.

Hardison also has accused the board and the district of being non-compliant with FOI requests.

Some of the accusations in his three-part email relate to an incident in which Darien High School varsity football coach Rob Trifone struck a football player in the helmet while on the field in October 2016. The incident resulted in an initial two-week suspension.

In May of 2017, Trifone received another 10-day suspension linked back to the incident after the district confirmed he had violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) by using his school email to identify the student in question.

Trifone filed an official grievance against the May 2017 suspension. The Darien Times reported on the May 2017 10-day suspension after obtaining the details from a Freedom of Information request. In one of his series of emails, Hardison accuses the district of attempting to cover up the  May suspension.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Ochman began by saying, “The Board of Education has received multiple emails from Mr. Jay Hardison. While we usually don’t comment directly on emails that contain opinions, these emails have been widely distributed to the community by Mr. Hardison and they are full of salacious innuendo and misinformation.” Ochman continued, “It has been suggested that the Darien Police Department will look into these matters.”

She then explained, “that the Board of Education does not handle situations involving individual children, but we have been ensured by our administration that they have followed proper procedures and they have contacted the appropriate and dependent authorities as dictated by law whenever concerns or allegations arise involving our students.”

Ochman finished by saying “In the numerous cases brought by Mr. Hardison from the FOIA Commission, the commission has consistently found in favor of the district on the key issue, that the district has properly withheld student records from Mr. Hardison to protect the privacy rights of students as required by federal law.”

Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner then spoke about how cases of concern are handled. He began saying, “Whenever there is a question regarding the welfare of a student under our supervision, the community should know that we follow very prescribed protocols.”

In situations like this, Brenner said, “We call DCF when there is any suspicion of harm to any student. DCF then makes their own determination as to whether or not they’re going to take the case. We also call 211 when there’s a need for immediate support for our students with emotional problems and turmoil. We also consult with our attorneys when appropriate.”

FOI and secrecy accusations

This is not the first time Hardison has raised FOI issues or accused the town leaders of being secretive.  Last August, the Board of Education and school administration had a lengthy discussion about FOI requests. During that meeting, it was revealed that FOI requests from Hardison alone regarding October 2016, the initial Trifone incident, through August had cost the town nearly $90,000.

Following that discussion, the Board of Education installed a policy as of September 2017 to create a public FOI log that lists the requester, the purpose and any other relevant information. The board intends to review it on a yearly basis as needed and it is public information.

Last October, an ethics complaint was filed against the RTM Education Committee after comments were made and recorded that some felt were inappropriate.

During that meeting, Hardison, a committee member,  said making the FOI log public is an “intimidation tactic designed to discourage people.” Hardison added that he doesn’t think the log should be public, but he doesn’t care if they publicize his requests. He also said the log is “designed to be punitive. It’s because I’m making a lot of requests.”

A committee member during the same meeting said she had unredacted documents related to the Trifone incident left in her mailbox. Hardison added that he was also in possession of those documents.

On June 19, during a Planning & Zoning public hearing on the Board of Selectmen’s future plans for a town-acquired property at the former Ox Ridge Hunt Club, Hardison accused the selectmen of asking the RTM to approve the purchase as a “bait and switch.”

Watch the hearing here. 

He said when the RTM received the purchase information, there were no plans attached to the purchase so the RTM had no idea what was to come.

P&Z Chairman John Sini pointed out that the purchase agreement given to all RTM members showed what potentially could be put on the property.

Hardison said despite that, there were no plans at the time of the vote, and said the selectmen were making an “end run” around neighbors, taxpayers and the RTM by sending the plans to P&Z and using their own budget vs. having to have the RTM vote on spending.

In a tense exchange, Sini and Hardison argued as to whether or not the public or the RTM had the appropriate input into the plans. These plans include 90 parking spaces, soccer fields, a fence, and equipment shed, and walking trails.

Hardison also accused Sini, Stevenson and other town leaders of operating as a “cabal.”

“I can’t help the government cabal you guys have and do everything together and run together,” he said.

A cabal is defined as a secret political group or faction.

A recent law voted in unanimously in Connecticut’s house and senate attempts to control “vexatious” FOI petitioners by charging them $125 for any additional appeal of an FOI denial in one calendar year after the first.

Town leaders address accusations

At the June 20 meeting of the Operations Planning Committee, which consists of town board leaders getting together to update one another on the latest news of their board and discuss other important issues, Ochman addressed the emails as well.

Watch the OPC meeting here. 

Speaking to Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky, Selectman Susan Marks, RTM Moderator Seth Morton, and Sini, Ochman said Hardison’s accusations were without merit.

“He has made a number of claims to the FOI Commission and the commission has ruled in our favor,” Ochman said, of the district not providing Hardison with documents he’s requested.

“We are protecting privacy as required by federal law,” she said.

As far as Hardison’s emails and attached documents and records, Ochman said a parent had chosen to provide records to him, which is the parent’s choice. However, unless a parent provides permission to the district to release the information regarding a child, the district is “still bound” to protect privacy.  That parent has not provided the district the required approval.

Ochman reiterated that the FOI commission and legal system has sided with the school in the accusations made by Hardison.

“I’m appalled by these irresponsible charges. This board has acted with the utmost professionalism,” Ochman said.

Ochman said if Hardison truly believed the serious charges he had leveled, he should bring them to the “proper authorities,” versus sending emails with vague and indirect innuendo.

Board of Ed secretary Katie Stein, also at the OPC meeting, said the board and administration followed the proper protocol when handling Hardison’s complaints.

Sini, who also was on the email distribution list, and responded to Hardison, suggested that rather than wait for Hardison to bring his complaints to the proper authorities, perhaps the board should have a third party weigh in.

This lead to a tense discussion between Sini and Ochman, who said he should be satisfied with Ochman and her board’s conclusions.

“I think you are overreaching. The board is telling you they are without merit,” Ochman said.

“I’d like to hear it from a third party, if possible,” Sini said. Sini pointed out that his goal was to end the current ongoing accusations by having them fully vetted. 

Darien Police involved

The third party became Darien Police Chief Ray Osborne due to the email exchange between Sini and Hardison, as well as another exchange with First Selectman Jayme Stevenson.

On Friday, June 22, Sini responded to Hardison, but only copied Osborne and First Selectman Jayme Stevenson.

“I find your ongoing allegations of “confirmed sexual misconduct, physical abuse, and emotional abuse and neglect, in our Darien Public Schools (DPS)” extremely serious in nature,” Sini wrote.

“Despite ongoing pleas by the Board of Education Chairman, Tara Ochman, for you to provide the alleged evidence of abuse, you have not done so. As such, I have included Captain Osborne on this email in the hopes that your claims of abuse can be properly investigated by the law enforcement authorities,” Sini wrote.

Hardison responded but copied his entire email distribution — which includes over 70 individuals, including current and past town officials, other Darien residents, and media ranging from the New York Times, to Darien media, to the Hartford Courant, and many other news outlets in between.

In his response, Hardison accused Sini of falsehoods in his email and said he had been requesting the Board of Ed arrange for an independent investigation into his accusations. He also added that he had requested a meeting with Osborne.

On Friday, Hardison told The Darien Times the police chief had responded to his request, saying he didn’t think it was appropriate to meet at this time and that they are reviewing documents and the information they already have.

“If, after that review, he deems a meeting appropriate, he is going to contact me,” Hardison said.                                   

Hardison also followed up on Sini’s comments with an FOI request for all communication between Sini and Ochman, as well as any emails between Sini, Ochman, and Stevenson in any combination beginning Sept. 2016.

Sini told The Darien Times he provided the chief of police with several of Hardison’s emails which included allegations of “sexual misconduct, physical abuse, and emotional abuse and neglect.”

He said he did so “due to their extremely serious nature. Because there is an ongoing investigation, any further comment would be inappropriate.”

Further contact has been made with the police chief as per an email exchange with First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and concerned parents who were on Hardison’s distribution list.

“We have heard from many parents on our steering committee that they sincerely hope that these violations are not true. Due to the serious nature of the alleged misconduct involving children, we are reaching out to you to find out if the town has taken any steps to assess the veracity of the allegations,” said the email to Stevenson..

In response to the email, dated Tuesday, June 26, Stevenson said she shared the email senders’ concerns.

“Immediately upon receipt,  I contacted Town Attorney Wayne Fox who, as you know, is not counsel to the Board of Education. Attorney Fox is in contact with Darien Police Chief Osborne on these claims,” she wrote.

“Due to the serious allegations Mr. Hardison has levied and the way in which he has chosen to do so, the Town will now engage with our attorney independent from any action taken by the Board of Education and their counsel.  Allegations of harm to children must be immediately and fully adjudicated,” Stevenson said.

On Thursday morning, Chief Osborne told The Darien Times “We have been provided information that we are currently evaluating.  Beyond that, I would not want to comment further until we complete that evaluation.”

At the end of Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, Schools Superintendent Dan Brenner, who is concluding his tenure in Darien at the end of June after three years, again refuted Hardison’s claims.

“As always, there’s nothing more important to this administration and this Board of Education than the welfare of the children at Darien schools and to say otherwise is simply to suggest you don’t know who we are,” he said.

The Darien Times will update this story as information becomes available.

 

Additional reporting by Times Reporter Greg Marku.