Parents question Newton schools amid porn case

Nagging memories aired following teacher’s arrest

David Ettlinger faces US charges. David Ettlinger faces US charges.
By Deirdre Fernandes
Globe Staff / May 11, 2012
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Since his arrest in January on child pornography charges, a number of unusual incidents involving former Newton elementary school teacher David Ettlinger’s behavior in the classroom have surfaced, raising questions among parents about how the city’s school district responded.

A parent reported in 2008 that Ettlinger kicked a student. In another case, a teacher’s assistant complained that Ettlinger told a child to eat a banana out of a trash can. In 2009, the president of the school’s parent-teacher organization said, she went to the principal after seeing Ettlinger frequently hug a student and allow her to sit on his lap during a field trip.

In another instance, Ettlinger gave his personal phone number to students. And a parent recently complained that last year, a student in his second-grade class wet himself because the child was not allowed to go to the bathroom.

According to interviews with district administrators, there were no letters of reprimand or warning in Ettlinger’s file during his 12-year career in Newton schools.

Superintendent David Fleishman said his staff has talked with the elementary school’s former principal, who is now retired, on several occasions since Ettlinger’s arrest to piece together information about some of these incidents.

Only one case, involving a student who said he had been kicked, led to a written record of the incident, a complaint letter that the child’s parent sent to the central administration, said Fleishman.

Now, some parents want to know why there was a scarce paper trail on Ettlinger, who is in Louisiana facing federal charges that he participated in a global child pornography network. He also faces state charges for indecently assaulting three young girls from the Boston area, including two alleged instances in 2009, and taping the encounters. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. None of the alleged victims were his students.

In e-mails to the school administration, reviewed by the Globe, and in interviews, some parents have asked for an independent investigation of past complaints against Ettlinger and even an ombudsman to review future complaints against other teachers.

“I think the complaints and concerns paint a picture of a character who needed to be evaluated,’’ said Cybill Goldberg, an Underwood parent who co-wrote a letter to Fleishman in mid-April.

“Our school suffered as a result of administrators not acting despite what sounded like a growing chorus of complaints,’’ a father wrote in an e-mail to Fleishman in mid-March.

As Ettlinger’s past gets fresh scrutiny, Fleishman stressed that none of the past complaints were sexual in nature, some never reached the principal’s desk, and in total they were few in number.

The complaints, most of which occurred under the former Underwood principal David Castelline, were investigated and resolved, Fleishman said in an interview.

Castelline, who retired in June 2011 after 19 years as principal of Underwood, hired Ettlinger to teach at the school.

In an interview, Castelline said he listened to parent concerns, thoroughly investigated the cases, and then did what he thought was right for the school. He declined to comment on any specific cases or whether he kept notes on the complaints.

“After thoroughly investigating and finding the specifics of what did and didn’t happen, there was no reason for specific action,’’ Castelline said about the complaints against Ettlinger. “I have done a lot of soul-searching. . . . I feel the action I took was correct.’’

In the future, Fleishman said, the district may offer administrators further training on how to conduct teacher investigations and require additional tracking of complaints.

The district is reviewing how it can “document in a way that gains the trust of the parents and protects the confidentiality of teachers,’’ said Joe Russo, the assistant superintendent for elementary education.

Ettlinger, who was known as Mr. E, was an enthusiastic and popular teacher. His colleagues respected him. Many children raved about him.

But some children found Ettlinger difficult.

In 2008, an Underwood child alleged that Ettlinger kicked him. Castelline, who was principal then, investigated the situation, met with the parents, and determined that the kick was not an assault, but an attempt to get the child moving, Russo said.

The child was allowed to skip Ettlinger’s science class for a month, until the end of the school year, Fleishman said.

A few years ago, a teacher’s assistant raised concerns that Ettlinger told a student to eat an unpeeled banana out of the trash, according to Fleishman.

The superintendent said the former principal addressed the issue with Ettlinger. Nothing was put in his file on this incident, Fleishman said.

In 2009, during a break on a field trip to a butterfly farm, Caroline Zutter, then Underwood’s PTO president, said she saw a female student hugging and holding on to Ettlinger, then sitting on his lap.

“It was beyond inappropriate, and I was shocked,’’ said Zutter, who said she immediately went to Castelline, who instructed her to talk to Ettlinger.

She did, and Ettlinger denied any wrongdoing, Zutter said.

“They both made me feel like I had overstepped my line,’’ Zutter said in a phone interview.

Fleishman has said that, based on conversations with Castelline in recent months, school officials at the time investigated that incident and talked to the girl’s mother, who was also on the trip, and did not object to the contact.

But Zutter said the principal should have looked at the incidents together and investigated further whether Ettlinger did not maintain proper boundaries with some of his students.

“So many parents felt, I could do whatever I want, but nothing would happen,’’ Zutter said.

In the incident last fall, in which a student wet himself because Ettlinger did not permit him to go to the bathroom, the parent did not complain to the current principal at the time, Fleishman said. But that parent did mention it at a parent meeting with the superintendent in March, after Ettlinger’s arrest.

In Newton, as in other communities, school officials say that if parents are worried about a teacher, they should talk to the principal. If they are not satisfied with the results, they can come to the assistant superintendent and superintendent, Fleishman said.

For a minor infraction, such as swearing in class, yelling at children, or putting a hand on a child, when the child is not acting aggressively, a principal can issue a letter of warning in a teacher’s personnel file, said Mike Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association.

“The threshold is low,’’ Zilles said. “The system is not negligent about it.’’

A more serious violation, or a pattern of behavior, can result in a letter of reprimand, then suspension or firing, Zilles said.

Whether to submit a warning letter in Ettlinger’s file was a decision made by the principal, Fleishman said.

Zilles said Castelline was known to have high standards for his teachers.

Nate Gibson, an Underwood PTO president for three years, said Castelline “was dedicated to making students feel safe at Underwood.’’

“That was my experience,’’ Gibson said. “My heart aches that that wasn’t other people’s experience, as well.’’

After seeing television crews camped out in front of their school, disrupting day-to-day learning, some parents are ready to move on.

Underwood parent Stuart Sadick said he commends the district for bringing in counselors, having administration officials meet with parents, and repainting Ettlinger’s classroom in an attempt to give students a fresh start.

The district should keep better track of the number of complaints against a teacher to identify patterns, Sadick said, but parents must take responsibility too. When Ettlinger gave his personal number to students at the beginning of this school year, parents were aware of it, and nobody complained, Sadick said.

“Did I say it was wrong?’’ Sadick said. “No. Would I say it was wrong now? Yes.’’

Laura DeDominicis, an Underwood parent who co-wrote the letter with Goldberg, said parents still need to be assured that school officials fully investigate complaints.

“It’s important to us, not just to be reactionary,’’ DeDominicis said. “But to create a better system.’’

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at

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