UPDATED: Citing school environment concerns, Hindley principal placed on leave

Hindley principal DJ Colella with music contest winners in February.

Hindley School Principal DJ Colella has been placed on leave pending an investigation into “certain concerns” about the learning and professional environment at the school, according to an Aug. 10 letter to him from Interim Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon.

The Darien Times obtained the letter to Colella via a Freedom of Information request.  

As part of the FOI disclosure, the district also released an anonymous complaint sent by a parent to Board of Ed Chairman Tara Ochman in June (a copy of the letter was received by The Darien Times.) The parent, who said he or she feared “the repercussions” if their identity was known, said a Hindley student had taken a plastic gun to school in the spring.

“At a time when there is enormous concern about guns in school, and a child who even brought a plastic gun to school might reasonably be sent home, the school principal decided it was appropriate to stage a war reenactment in which students were marching around the grounds holding — yes — guns,” the letter read.

The parent called it “remarkably tone deaf.”

The parent continued to state Colella had “proven himself again and again to have an arrogant macho ethic that is from from the nurturing, learning-oriented approach that I think would be far more appropriate for an elementary school.”

Finally, the parent called Colella a “sexual harassment suit waiting to happen — and I cannot imagine that Darien’s schools need more lawsuits to deal with.”

Dr. Landon, who took over Darien schools on July 1, said in his letter to Colella that he, an attorney for the schools, and Human Resources Director Marge Cion met with the principal, along with his attorney, on July 26, “in connection with an investigation of certain concerns related to your conduct as the principal of Hindley Elementary School.”

Colella was questioned as part of the investigation at that meeting, according to Landon’s letter.

“At the conclusion of this meeting, Attorney Smith warned you not to discuss this matter with district staff while the investigation is ongoing and not to retaliate against any district staff members in connection with this matter,” Landon wrote.

“Since our meeting on July 26, we have continued our investigation. Based on certain information we have uncovered through that further investigation, we are hereby placing you on administrative leave with pay pending further investigation of this matter,” he wrote.

Landon said the leave is “without prejudice to your rights,” and “will continue until further notice from me.”

“During your administrative leave, unless you are directed otherwise in writing by me, you are not to report to work, you are not to take any action on behalf of the district, and you are not to access any portion of the district’s computer system, (including, but not limited to, the district’s email system,” he wrote.

Finally, Landon reiterated Colella is not to discuss the investigation with any staff, and said Colella is “further directed not to harass, intimidate and/or retaliate against any district employee in connection with this matter.”

On Aug. 17, Landon wrote a letter to the Hindley School community announcing the leave. “It is with sadness that I must report to you that your Principal, DJ Colella, will be on leave at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year,” he said.

Westport educator Julie Droller has been appointed interim principal.

Colella was appointed as principal of Hindley School effective July 1, 2016.

Colella was a fifth grade teacher for 10 years, a sixth grade science teacher for five years and has served as the assistant principal at the Somers Middle School in Somers, N.Y., since 2010 before coming to Darien.

Landon closed the letter by telling the school community he will “update you on Mr. Colella’s status as more information becomes available.”