Teen Hospitalized; Administrator Let Go

Christopher Peak PhotoTwo months after her 14-year-old ended up gasping for air as a peanut allergy constricted his throat, a mother still hasn’t received a full explanation of what happened to her son.

No one running Engineering & Science University Magnet School told the mom that an assistant principal had handed out nut-filled candy, and was eventually let go.

“Nobody called,” Tahania Cunningham, the boy’s mother, said in an interview. “They don’t care.”

In early April, an ESUMS administrator gave her freshman son a piece of candy, which triggered an allergic reaction and an overnight stay in the hospital, Cunningham said. Three anonymous sources and a written report confirmed the details of her account.

As of this week, Carl Babb, the retired administrator who returned to a part-time post at the school, is no longer employed by the district. A director of instruction has been working to schedule a conference with Cunningham, though the mom said she’d heard nothing about it.

Superintendent Carol Birks declined to comment on the case.

Allergic Reaction

Lucy Gellman PhotoShortly after noon on Monday, Apr. 9, a frigid day just above freezing, Cunningham’s son entered the cafeteria. Babb asked if he wanted a piece of candy.

“What is it?” the student allegedly asked. He said he was allergic. “Are there any nuts in it?”

“No, no nuts in there,” Babb said.

The student swallowed it, then immediately chucked it up in the bathroom.

Carl Babb tells a different story.

“He didn’t ask that,” Babb told the Independent Friday. He said another student had given him a long candy bar as a present. “Six or seven kids” gathered around and asked for a piece. Babb said he let the kids each break off a piece.

“Nobody asked if there were nuts in it,” Babb said.

The student went to the infirmary, where a nurse gave him a shot with an Epi-Pen. (The student didn’t have his own on him, which his mom had instructed him to keep “like his cell phone.”) Firemen and paramedics arrived, and the student was stretchered out into an ambulance.

The school phoned Cunningham and told her to go straight to Yale-New Haven Hospital. An employee waited there until she arrived.

In the room, her son had fallen asleep. When she roused him awake, he told her that someone gave him candy, but he didn’t say who. Cunningham assumed it was another student.

“You should know better,” she told him.

Her son complained about his stomach pain and kept vomiting. Doctors gave him another shot with an Epi-Pen and kept him overnight.

Back at school, in an all-staff meeting, administrators warned faculty not to pass out any food to kids. Just a week before, another teacher had been reprimanded for giving a student an apple that caused a reaction. Administrators said they couldn’t have another incident.

The next day, a nurse called Cunningham to check in.

Then, neither the parent nor the administration said anything else about it for another month and a half. Cunningham said that’s because she thought it would be unfair to blame the school if two students had shared food, as she initially thought.

“I just told my son to be more careful and I left it at that,” she said.

“I Thought They Told You”

FacebookCunningham wouldn’t learn until late May that Babb actually gave her son the candy, not another student. Then she found glaring omissions in the school’s official write-up, leading her to suspect a coverup.

On May 29, Cunningham found out the true version as she went to pick up her son from ESUMS. While waiting, she chatted up an older employee she’d never met before. They laughed about how he’d accidentally left his cell phone in the car all morning and might come back to a busted window.

As Cunningham was leaving, the employee said something to her son she couldn’t hear, then started laughing.

Back in the car, Cunningham asked who he was. “Is that the new security guard?”

“He’s the assistant principal,” her son said.

“Oh.”

“He’s the one that gave me the candy,” he continued.

“What?” Cunningham asked. “What candy?”

“You didn’t know?” he said.

“I thought a child gave it to you.”

“No, it was him,” he said. “I thought they told you.”

Her son added that, on the way over, Babb had been joshing him, saying, “I’m never giving you nothing again.”

Lucy Gellman PhotoA written report Cunningham obtained that day and shared with the Independent was filed a month late, gave incorrect information, left other answers blank and wasn’t signed by any administrators.

The form, which is used to report “all accidents, however slight,” is dated May 8, 2018 — a full month after her son was hospitalized.

It explains that a student “injested [sic] food product containing nuts,” but it doesn’t say how he got the candy.

It also misreports that the school nurse notified Cunningham; the mom remembered another employee calling her, as the nurse would have been busy administering the Epi-Pen at the time.

At the bottom of the form, two lines are entirely blank: spots where the person in charge at time and the school principal should have signed.

A day later, after Cunningham spoke up at a Board of Education meeting, ESUMS reissued a copy of the report with Carl Babb and Principal Medria Blue-Ellis’s signatures on it.

Cunningham said she felt deceived. “In the beginning, they should have told me. Then, after I spoke out, somebody still should have come to me,” she said. “I just expect them to follow the rules, and when they make a mistake, to own up to it.”

Another Reaction

Christopher Peak PhotoIn April 2017, after advocacy by parents, New Haven’s Board of Education adopted a revised food allergy policy.

It orders the district to follow state health guidelines, including training staff, creating individualized health care plans, setting protocol for life-threatening reactions, and developing a communication plan.

The policy sets out that as children mature in high school, they should take on more responsibility for their health needs.

Njija-Ife Waters, president of the Citywide Parent Team, said that the district isn’t following those guidelines strictly enough.

“For three years, I came to this board consistently talking about life-threatening allergies. For three years, I kept telling this board we’re not up-to-date with laws,” she said at a recent meeting. “Look at the policies and update them according to state and federal regulations. It’s not going to matter what nobody says otherwise, because the law is the law. Get it together or you won’t have any money when you’ve got lawsuits facing you.”

Publicly, the school district hasn’t addressed its compliance with its policies, but privately, it canned the retired administrator who let it happen.

A former building leader at ESUMS before the combined middle and high school moved to a new campus, Babb officially retired in 2013, at age 60. The state started sending him retirement benefits, now totaling $6,523 a month.

In 2016, Babb reemerged to push for Superintendent Garth Harries’s firing. Along with seven other retired administrators, he signed an open letter complaining that the schools were devolving into “chaos” and asking for new leadership.

Shortly after Reggie Mayo took over as interim superintendent, Babb returned to ESUMS. Working part-time, he subbed in for the assistant principal who went on a two-month medical leave in December 2016 and then transferred to Fair Haven School in January 2018.

In late April, when Birks announced reductions to part-time staff, the Independent discovered that 72 retired administrators, including Babb, hadn’t submitted any paperwork to the Connecticut Teachers’ Retirement Board that justified his return to work. The oversight skirted federal and state laws intended to limit double-dipping on payroll and pensions.

This week, Babb wrapped up his three-decade education career when district officials told him that his part-time services were no longer necessary.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 8, 2018  9:16am

Principal Medria Blue-Ellis.

I think this is Marcus Paca.Sister-in-law. If it is they will be Gunning for her.You know how they roll.

posted by: Razzie on June 8, 2018  10:21am

Cunningham said she felt deceived. “In the beginning, they should have told me. Then, after I spoke out, somebody still should have come to me,” she said. “I just expect them to follow the rules, and when they make a mistake, to own up to it.”

Is that too much to ask of our school administrators?

posted by: ClassActionToo on June 8, 2018  10:49am

Wrong for school staff to give out any candy to students and wrong for any student, particularly a student with know allergies, to accept candy from staff. Stop trying to be the students’ friend. Also, students with serious allergies should be more mindful to carry their Epi-Pen, especially a fourteen-year-old. Come-on dude. As always, the cover-up and/or the delay in fully explaining what happened makes the situation worse. The student is well and out of trouble, good - the NHPS and CB, not so much.

posted by: m246 on June 8, 2018  12:30pm

There is no transparency with this administration. Just another example of protecting their own instead of looking out for the students. If this was a teacher they would have been fired. Instead this guy gets to keep his well paying job because of political connections until the truth was indisputable. He admits now he gave it to them! What, they asked and he couldn’t say no? It’s incompetence at its finest. No guilt, no remorse. That kid could have died.

posted by: Noteworthy on June 8, 2018  1:59pm

Esums Blue Notes:

I personally know Principal Medria Blue-Ellis. My daughter used to go to ESUMS until I pulled her out just before the move to the new campus. This was supposed to be one of New Haven’s toughest curriculum schools - it isn’t. It was supposed to really focus on STEM and be tough with students. It isn’t. My daughter ‘s final year at ESUMS in the swing school in Hamden - which the NHPS paid a princely sum to a tax dodger - students would set fire to the garbage cans in the bathrooms. It happened multiple times.  Parents were never told this was happening.

That the paperwork associated with this incident wasn’t signed by school administrators, that it took so long, that the parent wasn’t told, that nobody owned the incident is not surprising. Principal Medria Blue-Ellis covers up problems and incidents. She plays hide and seek. She solves nothing, takes responsibility for nothing and tolerates all kinds of poor behavior by teachers and others in that school.

My daughter’s grades were wrong all year. The teacher didn’t know how to use the computer system. Nobody taught her and she didn’t attempt to learn. It was always fixed manually until the final report card of the year which she allowed the computer to calculate - and did so incorrectly. Blue-Ellis never fixed the problem, the teacher only responded with hateful demeaning emails - and when the next year rolled around - I finally got the report card fixed months and months after the error. In the process - nothing but lies.

Blue-Ellis should be fired and that entire school put under review. It’s costing us a fortune and the test results are poor. All in an $85 million plus school.

posted by: NMillerT on June 8, 2018  6:53pm

This is an unfortunate situation in which training will need to be done for the teachers, administration and students.  As a nurse and an ESUMS parent I see a correction plan needs to be implicated. ESUMS is far from perfect: trust me I know.  I also know Mr Babb is an asset to the school and a great advocate for our kids.  Hopefully everyone can learn from this event.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on June 8, 2018  7:36pm

Of course it was wrong to give the child food with nuts, and of course any attempt to cover that up would also have been wrong, if that is what happened.  The district doesn’t exactly encourage an atmosphere of openness, honesty and transparency.  There is unquestionably an incentive to keep bad news quiet. 

But none of that, Noteworthy, reflects on ESUMS’s academics.  Somehow my children continue to do a lot of difficult, sophisticated work at ESUMS, and they are succeeding in the many amazing opportunities offered to them.

posted by: Olorin on June 8, 2018  10:48pm

I’m curious as to why Babb was let go so long after all the other retirees.

The headline overstated things a bit and can lead to inaccurate conclusions: Although perhaps referred to as ‘assistant principal’ as a courtesy, Babb was a part-timer serving at the pleasure of leadership. Actual assistant principals are unionized professionals and cannot be ‘let go’ without due process.

Noteworthy: without discounting your negative experience as an ESUMS parent, (and I’m sorry you went through that) I’m happy to say my own experience as same has been much different. Also, test scores remain a single, poor measure of student success and school worth.

I’ve been unimpressed with the picture of ESUMS leadership emerging from growing numbers of press accounts. But I’ve been VERY impressed with the frontline faculty and my kids experience with them.

posted by: Olorin on June 8, 2018  11:56pm

Also…How hard is it to say “We effed up. Please accept our apologies.” Where is the sense of honor?

posted by: observer1 on June 9, 2018  8:37am

The city has a philosophy that it can do anything it wants regarding rules governing employees. This philosophy is broad based and is prevalent in all departments including police and fire. They hire and promote people based on testing that is biased. They do not hire and promote based on the best and the brightest. Their performance reviews are almost nonexistent, and if written are ignored. They manipulate the police and fire civil service exams by making most of the total score an oral test based on personal opinions or bias of the people scoring. Rumor has it that the city tells the examiners who they want to score well and magically that happens. If you have people running departments who should not be running departments, we will continue to get sued. There is a cost to do business like the city consistently does. The taxpayers pay that cost.

posted by: LivingInNewHaven on June 9, 2018  8:39am

ESUMS has had admin problem for awhile.  There are teachers that are so bad that students have had to have homework receipts signed just so they will credit. Before the receipts were signed this particular teacher continuously gave a kid poor grade for homework she denied receiving. Another teacher held up the homework of a child with an EIP for the whole class to see and the teacher said, “this is how not to do homework in my class.” Parents have been told that their child would be long in her school by the principal.
It’s funny that whenever there is a problem with a school that may be perceived as better than others, thereis a certain type of hue to all the defenders…afraid of losing their out of district free ride.

posted by: LuckyEscapee on June 9, 2018  11:40am

Sounds to me like mom did the right thing and chocked it up to a simple mistake.  Then she found out there’s a possibility she can SUE and get MONEY.  That’s when it becomes a huge problem/conspiracy.  At 14 a child who can die from peanuts SHOULD HAVE BEEN TAUGHT to never take candy since most is made in the same plant than handles peanuts.  For all this article’s complaining about cover-up and accepting responsibility, where is the parent accepting responsibility for her child not being taught properly.  Because it’s way to easy to place blame than accept responsibility.  BTW: A good journalist wouldn’t editorialize so much in an article.

posted by: justice4all on June 9, 2018  1:12pm

it is always so easy to blame the school, the part time administrator, the principal yet where is the responsibility of a high school student who whether offered candy or anything by a student, adult, etc and knowing their medical conditions simply should always say no. Having experienced schools in other countries where students do not have to be supervised at all times and know their responsibility as students we on the other hand can’t trust students to handle themselves on their own and have to be supervised starting with getting to school until they get home and as we see even in high school crucify the Administrators for not doing their job.  It is no wonder the state of Public education is dismal.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on June 9, 2018  1:15pm

LINH, what “out-of-district free ride”?  NHPS receives an extra $7,000 for each out-of-district kid and counts them in their ECS numbers.  Nothing “free ride” about it, other than the obvious fact that public schools are free to all students.

You can’t seem to decide if ESUMS is an appalling disaster or a gem that out-of-town families are desperate to attend.  Do they know something you don’t?  Maybe one teacher’s clerical troubles don’t devalue the entire enterprise? 

My teenage daughter is walking around the house today with her robot, asking her big sister if the Android virtual machine she set up can access the host computer’s blue-tooth.  I’ll put up with a little disorganization.

posted by: AMDC on June 9, 2018  1:55pm

Can we stick to the incident at hand here?  A retired school staffer gets hired at a princely wage to collect apples at lunch and high five kids.  He is not an assistant principal.  He is retired and collecting a pension while collecting this wage for hanging around the school.  He gave food to students when he should not have.  For whatever reason, the parent was not aware that it was this adult who gave her son the candy.  No reports were filed;  reports much later filed had no names on them , according to the article.
Procedure was not followed by the administrators and the district based on this story.  There should be consequences for the administrators and for Mr. Babb from the district and this should be made public.  No matter why mom did not know or why this boy took or was made to accept the candy—the fact is that this child COULD HAVE DIED because of what Mr. Babb did and an attempt was made to cover it up.  If that is not enough to fire several people on the spot;  then I don’t know what IS grounds for losing your job in New Haven.  Save your other complaints for another time. This is the issue at hand.

posted by: LivingInNewHaven on June 10, 2018  12:51am

Go back to neighborhood schools. New Haven does not need the out of towners to make a great school district. People who don’t live in New Haven don’t care about this city, but they use our NHPS and are the biggest critiques and trouble makers. They should stay in their own districts. The loudest and most annoying don’t even live in New Haven. If New Haven had fixed their neighborhood schools instead of buying into this magnet disaster, the school system would have been better offf…no dealing with entitled out of towners causing the most issues!

posted by: NHPS101 on June 11, 2018  12:44am

m246,

You are absolutely right, there is no Transparency with the Administration at ESUMS. It’s SAD that they tried to cover this situation up. Let this have been a Teacher that did this, Medria would have reported them to Central Office and DCF ASAP. From what I hear SEVERAL Staff members have been pissed off regarding this incident and that nothing was done sooner. That student could have Died and this would have been a much bigger situation.

Morale is so low at ESUMS. The Administration SUCKS, they treat the staff like pure shit that’s why so many people are trying to leave. 3 staff members including the Asst. Principal left earlier this year because of Medria. It’s going to be a BIG STAFF CHANGEOVER for the 2019-2020 school year.  Just go and ask some of the staff in the building. Not good for the school at all. At the end of the day, the students are suffering. Medria Blue Ellis needs to GO!

posted by: BigBubbe on June 11, 2018  8:06pm

Let’s look at reality. I have been a grandparent volunteer at ESUMS for the past five years as has Jill the Pill. We have moved from a collaborative restorative justice community becoming a CT School of Distinction for creating a replicable and scalable climate and culture to a silo stall state of the art prison designed by Svigals ignoring the input of teachers for sake of School Construction on the UNH campus that has none of the collaborative features envisioned by the parents or faculty due to the narrow legal eyes of NHPS and UNH lawyers. This school had such potential for state of the art technology and project based learning till the “downtown” administration tried to make it mediocre to put it in line with all other NHPSs. If this one can be so successful in a rented former SNET building , why can’t rest of them? We were there. We got smashed. We are operating with a population of over six hundred middle and high school students with a principal and one administrative intern (who is teacher with 092 certification). There are no APs. The budget doesn’t get approved till August. Medria can’t hire teachers until then…and the only ones left are those in the displaced pool who are on improvement plans or have failed improvement plans but cannot be terminated. Give me a break! It’s not Medria’s fault. It’s the fault of the years of promises for a shared collaboration between NHPS, the City of West Haven and UNH. Step up to the plate and take responsibility for your role in this dilemma. Carl Babb was filling in to relieve the lunchtime stress so teachers could eat!  Do your jobs, peeps (alleged collaborators), and stop bashing the principal. And, Dr. Birks, here’s your opportunity to reclaim the school’s STEM college prep mission and vision.

posted by: Union_Made on June 12, 2018  8:10pm

I am not usually one to comment on news stories, however, I can’t help but interject. There is a fine line between making a criticism of an individual and dragging someone’s name through the mud. The comments on this thread are, in some cases, crossing that line. Ms. Blue-Ellis is a person, agree with her or disagree with her, she still deserves the decency and respect anyone of us would expect. I am hopeful that the New Haven Independent will review and remove the comments that do not meet this bar. How can any of us expect to productively debate about school policy and improvement in an atmosphere dominated by personalism and hostility?

To the student, I applaud your engagement with issues at your school but ask that you reconsider your approach.