Chesco principal's views on special-needs students triggers dispute

Posted: July 18, 2012

Lisa Lightner was already annoyed that two administrators at Oxford Area High School were texting during a meeting with a special-education student and his mother when she glanced at the assistant principal's phone.

The text was from principal David Madden, sitting in front of her. It began with a gross obscenity and then called the student "this manipulator."

Lightner, a student advocate, reported it to her supervisor at the Arc of Chester County, which provides services to disabled people. They then requested all records about the student under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and uncovered other derogatory messages from Madden about the teen specifically and special needs students in general.

He called the teen a "psychopath" and worried that he could be another "Hinckley, Booth and Oswald." He also complained that special-needs students, "the guilty people," have more rights than "the innocent."

Madden, who did not respond to a call to his office for this article, was suspended in March. Although superintendent Raymond A. Fischer recommended that he be terminated, the school board voted, 6-3, to reinstate him July 1 with one big condition. He will no longer work with special-education students, according to Fischer.

The fallout has reverberated throughout the 1,000-student school that serves a small corner of southern Chester County. Last month, special education director Jenny LeSage quit rather than work for her former boss.

"Why would you have an administrator in a building where you basically say we don't want you to have anything to do with 200 kids in the building? It's the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life," said LeSage, adding that as principal Madden oversaw at least three IEP - the educational plans that are required for all special-needs students - meetings a week.

School board member Steve Gaspar, who wanted Madden out, said, "If he worked for me, he would have been fired long ago."

Rather than go to arbitration to get rid of Madden, the board decided to make a deal. He was saved "by the good ol' boys' network" that exists in the close-knit community, he said.

In addition to giving up special education duties, Madden was ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation and drug test before he was allowed back, Gaspar said. The board has also talked about making him take over as athletic director.

Meetings

The board was scheduled to meet Monday night to privately discuss a settlement of $200,000 to $250,000 with the family, according to Gaspar. The board is to meet publicly Tuesday night and special education advocates from throughout the region are expected to attend.

Though Madden, who was hired in 2004, has supporters "all they can say is he's a good guy," Gaspar said. Though Gaspar has one child in the school and another who graduated, and is the assistant football coach and a new board member, he has yet to meet the principal.

"He's not visible. Dr. Fischer, you see him everywhere," he said.

Fischer, the superintendent, said he, too, thought Madden should go but was overruled by the board. The e-mails, he said, are embarrassing for the district.

"It shouldn't have happened," said Fischer. "Our goal as administrators is to set the climate and atmosphere for all students."

The atmosphere for Oxford's special-needs students was at times hostile, according to LeSage and others.

"The name-calling and so forth was really beyond being OK," she said of her former boss.

She said he thought all students should be treated the same and struggled with the idea that students with disabilities needed, and are required to get, special help, she said.

"There's a whole process we have to go through. It was a struggle to get him to follow these procedures,' she said.

Madden's e-mails shows his frustration at not being able to remove the student from the building even though he considered him dangerous.

The boy, who is bipolar with poor social skills but intellectually gifted, attended the high school for ninth and 10th grades, according to Connie Mohn, Arc's director of advocacy. In January, 2010, when he was a sophomore, he had a dispute with a former girlfriend. He was charged with harassment and ordered to do community service.

For 11th grade he attended a therapeutic program then returned to Oxford in September for his senior year.

Then in November, he went to his new girlfriend's class to talk to her and wouldn't leave the hallway when the teacher told him to. He looked agitated and the teacher called the principal, who called police.

He was charged with making terroristic threats and disorderly conduct and given three months' probation, fines, and told to attend anger management classes.

Madden said the student threatened "to kill her" but the student denied it, according to Mohn.

Grievances

Last February, Arc filed four grievances with the Pennsylvania Department of Education against Madden, a school nurse and a gym teacher, who they say also belittled the student in e-mails to Madden.

In one e-mail, Madden called the student "the biggest accident waiting to happen" and "the inspiration for the CSI show on school killing sprees. . . . He's scary."

He also wrote that the student was a "psychopath who has more rights than the kids he stalks or the teachers/administrators that have to deal with him."

When LeSage noted that the student only had one incident this year, Madden wrote, "Same thing can be said for Hinckley, Booth and Oswald . . . they only did it once that year."

Following the problem in November, Madden e-mailed a teacher, "Special ed . . . the guilty people have more rights than the innocents. Amazing world we live in and equally amazing that people are afraid of lawsuits. I say bring them on."

He then writes, "If I ever end up being a superintendent I will take it on."


Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com

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