Oct. 31, 2016
MANCHESTER — Odyssey Community School Principal Christopher Bugbee, who has been accused by several current and former teachers of sexual assault, harassment, and preferential treatment, has been placed on administrative leave, a school official said.
The state Education Department is considering the teachers’ request to revoke Bugbee’s administrative certification.
In a letter sent Sunday to parents, Odyssey Board of Trustees President Elizabeth Mix said Bugbee would remain on leave until further notice.
“The publicity and parent concern regarding the allegations against Principal Bugbee have made it impossible for him to effectively run Odyssey School,” Mix wrote.
Bugbee had been placed on leave in September when the school was informed about the complaints but returned to work after an investigation by a lawyer hired by the trustees found “no evidence to support a finding that Mr. Bugbee engaged in sexual harassment in or outside of school.”
In Sunday’s letter, Mix told parents, “We share your distress at this situation. We will share more information and plans with you as we have it.”
Annie Busby, assistant principal, will handle day-to-day operations in Bugbee’s absence, assisted by Assistant Principal Jessica Swann and Executive Director Elaine Stancliffe, Mix said.
Six teachers have submitted sworn affidavits to the state that describe behavior by Bugbee including sexual coercion, misuse of power, encouraging alcohol use among teachers, discrimination, and unlawful labor practices, among others.
The Journal Inquirer obtained the affidavits and copies of emails among Odyssey staff members from the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which is assisting the teachers although a bid for union representation failed to win support.
Abbe Smith, state Education Department spokeswoman, said the department is investigating the teachers’ claims. The department received the documents in August, she said.
“We have a profound obligation to provide safe, positive school climates that nurture student learning and support educators,” Smith said. “We take this matter very seriously.”
Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell authorized the investigation, Smith said. Wentzell has made investigations related to educator misconduct a priority this year by establishing a Bureau of Investigation and Professional Practices, Smith said.
According to CEA, teachers began notifying the state in May of “unethical behavior, including sexual harassment,” by Bugbee.
The allegations, contained in 33 pages of sworn affidavits, include:
• Bugbee gave preferential treatment to a group of six teachers staff referred to as the Inner Circle, or IC. Those teachers were awarded better salaries, benefits, and working schedules. Five of the six IC teachers received Teacher of the Year awards.
• Bugbee encouraged drinking games at after-school parties where rules required female teachers to expose themselves and touch and kiss each other, and Bugbee.
• Bugbee would target, ostracize, and bar from leadership positions teachers who objected and would intimidate them until they resigned or were asked to leave.
• Bugbee sought wagers to see if he could get female teachers to expose themselves and encouraged a recovering addict to drink.
• Teachers witnessed and experienced Bugbee’s numerous sexual advances toward female staff members.
• Bugbee “massaged” female teachers’ breasts and thighs at school assemblies and staff parties.
• In 2012, Bugbee apologized in an email to all staff about his behavior at a holiday party. In the email, Bugbee wrote, “I also am aware that I can be flirtatious with some people when I drink too much.”
• Two teachers began vomiting at Bugbee’s house party after consuming beverages he prepared.
• Bugbee made numerous disparaging comments about troubled students, Latino custodians, and a transgender former employee.
Five of the six teachers who filed affidavits have resigned, retired, or been terminated since 2013, CEA officials said.
Bugbee did not respond to requests for comment through phone or email.
Complaints follow failed union effort
Odyssey teachers initially made contact with the CEA in January when some teachers sought representation by the union; not enough teachers signed on to the effort, however.
One of the teachers who advocated for union representation contacted the CEA after she was terminated, saying she was let go without due process.
The teacher, who had no record of formal discipline, was told to collect her possessions and leave, she said in the affidavit.
In a meeting with Bugbee and Stancliffe, administrators accused her of “inappropriately handling” documents containing staff salaries, she said. A week later, a letter was sent to parents saying she was no longer at the school, the affidavit says. She says she has not heard officially from the school.
In July, CEA helped teachers file an unfair labor practice against Odyssey — not including sexual harassment allegations — with the state Board of Labor Relations. A settlement was reached in August, the Odyssey Board of Trustees said in a statement.
In the statement, Trustee President Elizabeth Mix said she had not received a “formal complaint” regarding Bugbee’s behavior until Aug. 30 when the CEA’s lawyer communicated with the school board’s lawyer, Christine Chinni.
“At that point, we immediately took action by authorizing our attorney to engage an independent investigator,” she said.
But emails the CEA provided show Mix received an email a year earlier, on Aug. 26, 2015, from one of the teachers accusing Bugbee of subjecting teachers to “sexual misconduct,” harassment, encouraging teachers to drink, and misuse of power, among others.
Mix wrote back that she found it “baffling” the former teacher felt there was nobody to seek counsel regarding these allegations, the email says.
Board hired investigator
Odyssey’s Board of Trustees retained lawyer and human resources professional Scott Macdonald to investigate the allegations. He interviewed Bugbee and all willing complainants, the board’s statement says.
In September, Macdonald told the trustees he had found “no substantive corroborating evidence to support any finding of sexual harassment contained in the affidavits,” the statement says.
Bugbee, who had been on leave during the investigation, returned to school when the board received the report in late September. The trustees consider this matter closed, their statement said.
Macdonald said Friday he could not comment on the investigation because he is drafting a written report.
CEA officials said the school knew of the problems but investigated only after learning the teachers were asking for revocation of Bugbee’s certification.
“These reported endless displays of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior were willful and cannot be described as a mistake or act of negligence,” CEA President Sheila Cohen said.
CEA officials said charter schools like Odyssey — which receive public funding but operate outside of the public school systems — lack adequate oversight.
“If these complaints had been made at a neighborhood public school, the administration would have faced serious consequences, but at this charter school, these serious complaints have gone unchecked,” Cohen said.
The trustees rejected that in their statement.
“CEA’s claim that the Board of Trustees did not exercise appropriate oversight of the school is completely meritless,” the trustees said.
In September, CEA filed a Freedom of Information request asking Odyssey for 22 items related to the allegations. Odyssey responded to six, adding the school provided information that was readily accessible. If the CEA wanted the other items, it would have to pay $5,000 for an outside contractor to collect 10-plus years of electronic records, the trustees said.
The CEA has filed a complaint with the FOI Commission asking for a ruling on whether that is in compliance with state law.
With school since 2000
Bugbee was hired at Odyssey in 2000 as a language arts teacher and began as lead teacher of discipline for grades 7 and 8 in 2003. Bugbee was appointed to a newly created assistant principal position in 2008, according to the affidavit.
In 2012, Bugbee was promoted to lead principal mid-year after an unexpected departure. No search was done for his appointment, an affidavit says.