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Academic Warnings: PPS parents upset about notification process involving teacher accused of child porn 

Parent of autistic student calls Pittsburgh Public School District's actions a "systemic failure"

Paul and Kelly Dougherty, whose son studied with Thomas Deane

Photo by Renee Rosensteel

Paul and Kelly Dougherty, whose son studied with Thomas Deane

Thomas Deane was the kind of teacher parents sought out. 

"The guy was just everybody's dream teacher," says Paul Dougherty, a parent of a child in Deane's classroom. 

Deane ran a K-2 classroom for students with autism at Pittsburgh Public Schools' Minadeo Elementary. He devised special programs for the kids, many of whom were non-verbal, and he was especially adept at dealing with what parents often called meltdowns — sometimes-violent outbursts often associated with autism. 

Dougherty and his wife, Kelly, were so impressed that they bought a smaller Stanton Heights house so they could stay in the district to keep their 7-year-old son, Seth, with Deane for another school year. In the city's autistic-support classrooms, students remain with a teacher for three years. Seth was finishing his second year on Fri., March 30 — the day before spring break, and the last time Deane would be in the classroom.

Until that time, says Lisa Fischetti, the district's chief of staff, "We never had a complaint about Mr. Deane." 

That was about to change. 

Over spring break, Deane was arrested on child-pornography charges — the culmination of a seemingly on-again, off-again investigation carried out by various law-enforcement agencies for four years. Yet the Doughertys — and other parents with children in Deane's classroom — say the first they heard of the matter was in mid-July, after Deane pled guilty to a third-degree felony for possessing child pornography. Even after federal agents notified Minadeo administrators of the charges April 9, the school kept the matter under wraps for months. 

Deane has not been accused of abusing children directly, and since Seth Dougherty is non-verbal, his parents can't be sure what, if anything, happened in Deane's classroom. But the fear lingers, along with resentment over how the investigation was handled. 

"It's a systemic failure," says Paul Dougherty

The district says it wasn't notified of the investigation until this year, and that Deane never returned to the classroom after it found out. Even then, administrators say they had to respect Deane's confidentiality and due-process rights. And under state law, the district wasn't required to tell parents about Deane — even after he pled guilty. 

Some parents say that needs to change.

"If he's being investigated for child pornography [while teaching] children that have significant communication issues, I do feel like the parents should know," says one parent who asked not to be identified. "They should have been up front with us."

Deane, of Squirrel Hill, first came to the attention of law enforcement in 2008. INTERPOL, the Switzerland-based international police which tracks international Internet traffic, notified U.S. authorities that computer users in the United States had downloaded large number of child-pornography files in May 2008. According to charging documents, investigators with Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) department traced one of the computer IP addresses back to Deane.

(Deane declined to comment for this story. His attorney, Ron Hayward, could not be reached.) 

When agents visited Deane in August 2009, the documents say, he admitted to having clicked on child-porn links, but said the images were "horrible" and he immediately tried to delete them. He also revealed that he worked with autistic schoolchildren.

ICE agents seized Deane's computer, giving it to state and county police to crack password-protected files. The case then idled for nearly three years, until ICE agents approached District Attorney Stephen Zappala's office this past April to review the case. From there, things moved rapidly. "Our involvement was really quick," says Mike Manko, a spokesman for Zappala. Deane was arrested by the District Attorney's office on April 4, and prosecutors notified the district of the arrest, Manko says. 

The reasons for that three-year lag are unclear. FBI spokeswoman Kelly Kochamba says ICE was the lead agency in the investigation. "We don't why know nothing was done about it," she says. ICE spokesman Harold Ort would only say in an email "it's the investigative process." Allegheny County Police did not return calls or emails for comment. 

Also at issue for parents is when the district first learned that Deane was under suspicion — and how it notified families.

The district staunchly maintains that it knew nothing of the 2008-09 investigations. Statements by law enforcement are vague. Ort's statement asserts that "the school district was notified during the course of the investigation," but doesn't say when, and Ort did not respond to follow-up inquiries. 

Adding to parents' suspicion are the district's actions once Deane was arrested. Fischetti says that district lawyers instructed Minadeo's principal, Melissa Wagner, not to tell parents about the case after Deane's arrest. 

"We were flying blind there for a while," says Fischetti. "We got caught off-guard" by Deane's arrest, which she says placed the district in a difficult quandary. Deane hadn't been convicted, and releasing information about the charges might ruin his career. "We had to balance that employee's due-process rights with what we could say or not say to parents. ... We understand parents and their frustrations because they wish we could have told them the reason, but we couldn't." 

As a result, the first word parents received was from Deane himself, who wrote a mid-May letter informing them that he was retiring. An accompanying letter from the district said the class would be taught by a substitute. No mention of pending charges was made in either letter. Deane retired before the district could conduct its own inquiry, Fischetti says.

The first definitive word about the reasons for Deane's departure came in a July 19 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story about the porn charges. In that article, a district spokeswoman said that aides were always present to help manage the classroom. 

"That's a blatant lie," counters Dougherty, who says a personal aide who frequently was with Seth at school saw Deane escorting children to the bathroom alone, or calming them after a meltdown. Another parent, who frequently dropped by the classroom and who spoke with City Paper on condition of anonymity, said Deane sometimes took children for walks alone. 

Fischetti says the spokeswoman's remarks to the Trib were in error: "I don't think we are trying to come across as saying we can account for every minute of every day with every teacher." 

The district says it later sent out a July 23 letter, apprising parents of Deane's guilty plea. Signed by Wagner, the principal, the letter stressed that no child porn had been found on Deane's school computer, and that "[a]t no time did the District ever receive any report that Mr. Deane had inappropriate contact or improper behavior with any students."

But at least three sets of parents in a class of nine students say they never received that letter. And as of press time, the district was preparing to send out a more detailed letter from Superintendent Linda Lane. The new two-page letter spells out the district's timeline of events, and the steps school officials took in response. 

Fischetti acknowledges that the district's handling of the Deane case "is not a very good example" of how to deal with such circumstances. The July 23 letter "didn't have, I think, the level of details that parents would have appreciated," and the more detailed letter "is just going out. We regret that."

"The district is doing the minimum they have to do when he had the most vulnerable children entrusted to his care," says Dougherty.

In fact, the law doesn't require the school to do anything at all. 

The state Department of Education's policy on notifying parents of wrongdoing is ... not to have a policy. "How and when school districts inform parents of an educator's misconduct is a matter of local policy," says Timothy Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Child-abuse awareness advocates point to a lack of a statewide policy, as well as to how abuse is defined and reported, as areas that need to be addressed. Currently in Pennsylvania, according to Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline), an investigation of abuse by a school employee is only initiated in cases of "serious bodily injury," sexual abuse or exploitation: Reporting requirements only apply to local law enforcement, and witnesses to the abuse aren't required to make the report. Fontana has been trying to change that law since 2005.

Parents won't need to worry about Deane himself anytime soon. He was sentenced to seven years of probation, and required to register as a sex offender for 10 years. And while Fontana's bill doesn't deal directly with reporting to parents, the lawmaker says that's been part of the pushback against his bill, Senate Bill 549.

"The million-dollar question is should parents be notified," Fontana says. "I can understand that you don't want to tag someone for sexual abuse or any abuse of a child if it's not so. But it's a fine line." 

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