When Larry Chen, a former Brookline middle school teacher, was arrested last month many members of the community were left reeling.
According to court records, Chen was charged with 18 counts each of statutory rape of a child, and indecent assault and battery on a child under 14. He pleaded not guilty to the alleged crimes, which reportedly occurred between 2016 and 2018, while he was employed in Brookline schools. Chen is due back in court on May 16.
The allegations were a shock, in part, because Chen was well liked by many students and parents.
"I supported him," wrote one parent in a Brookline parents' Facebook group. "He was one of the only teachers my child responded to ... Obviously, I question this support."
"What a betrayal," wrote another parent.
Some residents also had a big question: How could this happen?
But to many advocates and school leaders, this was yet another example of how weak spots in state law and school district policy can make it harder to prevent sexual abuse from happening in schools.
It's hard to know for certain what Brookline officials knew about Chen and when, but school leaders did attempt to terminate Chen's employment at least twice during his time in the district.
After the first attempt in 2015, district leaders reinstated Chen in the face of community backlash, including protests urging the school committee and the superintendent to save his job.
In 2018, he faced termination again — this time for letting kids play a violent video game at school. Yet again, community members rallied to his defense. They posted an online petition calling him "one of the most effective and inspiring teachers in Brookline, beloved by students and parents alike." Despite their efforts, Chen resigned later that year.
The reasons for his departure and any steps the district may have taken to report concerns about Chen to the state remain shrouded in secrecy. District leaders said they can't comment on personnel records. Former colleagues declined to speak on the record with WBUR about their experiences with Chen. Many details related to his employment in Brookline, as with most allegations of school employee sexual misconduct, aren't public information.
"What people don't know is that behind the scenes, there's a lot that's going on in terms of dealing with the issue."Tom Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents
The high level of confidentiality involved in processing and investigating abuse allegations has become a significant tension point for advocates and district leaders alike.
"What people don't know is that behind the scenes, there's a lot that's going on in terms of dealing with the issue through the legal proceedings that we have available to us," said Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
According to Scott, district leaders often find themselves in a difficult position. While they might want to share information with the public, they have to protect the rights of a person who has not yet been convicted of any crime. Sharing information publicly also runs the risk of negatively impacting any potential future criminal proceedings.
"Our job is to protect the children and to remove the individual from the educational environment."Roy Belson, former superintendent of Medford Public Schools
At the same time, maintaining secrecy while an investigation is underway raises a lot of questions from the community. Parents may wonder why a teacher has been placed on leave, or what the district is investigating. They also want to be reassured that their children are safe. The result is a situation that can be complicated to manage.
There's also a chance that investigators won't find enough evidence to support revoking an educator's license or pursuing a criminal charge, even if there's a strong basis for concerns. School leaders say this is why they sometimes cite other reasons for terminating an employee while state agencies finish their work, such as conduct unbecoming of a teacher, which does at least provide some grounds for discipline.
"Our job is to protect the children and to remove the individual from the educational environment," said Roy Belson, a former superintendent of Medford Public Schools. "And if we can do that easily through using a charge that is maybe more provable right away, that's preferable."
There are other legal issues school leaders are weighing, too.
"When a teacher leaves under cloudy circumstances, most districts will be advised by counsel not to reveal the circumstances on which they left in order to avoid things like a defamation suit," said David Connelly, an attorney who works with several districts in the state.
Connelly said district officials are in an especially tough spot, from a legal standpoint, when they identify red flags in an employee's behavior but don't have hard evidence of sexual abuse or misconduct.
According to school leaders, the constraints on what they can say and do contribute to a pattern known by advocates as “passing the trash," where suspected abusers jump from school to school.
"They're protected much more than the individual superintendent or the community," said Scott from the state superintendents' association. "We certainly think there's a need for doing something that provides a little bit more flexibility in this process."
The charges against Chen and others like them in recent years have led advocates to argue that current school policies and state laws aimed at addressing school employee sexual misconduct need to be strengthened.
Many point to school district policy as a good place to start. They recommend policies that set clear boundaries about what constitutes inappropriate behavior. One example might be a policy that says school staff may not drive students in their personal vehicles. This way, advocates say, colleagues can avoid making a judgment call about a person's intentions; they can simply report behavior that breaks the rules.
"It is serious to report someone," said Jetta Bernier, the executive director of MassKids, a child advocacy group. "And that's why our focus is on what are those boundary violating behaviors that we can interrupt early on, so that we never have to get to the point of having to report someone [to state officials]."
Some advocates, like Bernier, are also pushing for new laws to help close policy gaps. State Sen. Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat, has introduced several bills. One would increase the age that an employee of a school or youth organization can claim consent as a defense in a civil action; another would set up more robust training for school staff on how to identify signs of sexual abuse; a third would make it easier for districts to tell future employers why an educator was terminated if there was a sexual misconduct investigation involved.
"I believe that if people did what they were supposed to do, we wouldn't have many of these cases."Charol Shakeshaft, Virginia Commonwealth University education professor
Charol Shakeshaft, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who has studied school employee sexual misconduct cases around the country, argues that more accountability for schools is also needed to ensure they're implementing local and federal laws correctly.
"I believe that if people did what they were supposed to do, we wouldn't have many of these cases," said Shakeshaft. "There would still be some, but in almost every case that I've looked at, there were so many places that an intervention would have stopped everything."
This article was originally published on May 03, 2022.
This segment aired on May 3, 2022.