A Wilbur Cross employee dedicated to helping struggling youth lost his cool with one of the hardest-to-reach kids and ended up with a 15-day suspension without pay.
An independent investigator hired by the New Haven Public Schools concluded that Frank Redente, Jr., a youth development coordinator who has spent the past two decades working with the district’s most troubled children, acted unreasonably when he used force to take down a high-school freshman last spring.
Paula Anthony, an attorney at Berchem Moses hired by the district to conduct an independent investigation, said that Redente escalated the situation and used an unlawful restraint on the student. An additional investigation by the Department of Children and Families concluded there was insufficient evidence to substantiate any claims of abuse.
Lisa Mack, the district’s human resources director, wrote in a letter that the district had considered firing Redente. Officials instead entered a “last change agreement.” As part of that deal, Redente and his union representative agreed that they will not grieve the discipline in this case nor his termination if he is caught “in physical contact with a student” in violation of board policy or state law within the next three years.
Redente was suspended without pay for 15 days last month and reassigned to Fair Haven School. He will also take mandatory crisis-intervention training and anger management counseling.
Around 1:30 p.m. on May 4, 2018, a Friday afternoon just before dismissal, Redente tried to escort a high-school freshman who’d just been involved in a fight, to the assistant principal’s office. The student, who had a lengthy disciplinary history including three suspensions, cussed him out: “I didn’t do shit and I ain’t going nowhere with you.” But Redente eventually persuaded him to go along.
The student had been suspended three times for fighting and had been disciplined on many other occasions for ditching class and cussing at staff. He was known throughout the building as a difficult kid.
As they reached the first floor, they started fighting. Redente said that’s because the student punched him in the face. Redente said he reflexively tried to protect himself. Based on witness statements and video footage, Anthony concluded that Redente initiated the fight.
“The evidence supports a finding that [the student] was unnecessarily provoked into conduct that led to a restraint, and that the restraint by Redente was not conducted in accordance with BOE policies and/or state statute,” Anthony wrote in a report, which was submitted on July 20. “It is concluded, therefore, that Redente’s actions were not appropriate to the circumstances.”
Part of the altercation was captured on video by a security camera. Through a public-records request, the Independent obtained a redacted copy (above) in which every student’s face is blurred. (The video was first published by WTNH.)
As soon as they walk in the frame, the footage shows Redente shoving the student in the back. The push is hard enough, Anthony points out, “to propel [the student] forward a few steps.”
Redente said that the clip tells only half the story because an additional security camera in the stairwell wasn’t working. If that footage were available, he claims that it would show the student hitting him first.
“I am a 24 year employee of NHPS, who was specifically requested to be assigned to Wilbur Cross High School because of my recognized ability to positively interact with at-risk youth who display challenging behaviors,” Redente said in a written statement. “There is a video of me pushing this youth and restraining him. I had explained during my interview, to no avail, that this push was done tactically to provide space between me and a young man with a history of aggressive behavior who had just struck me in the face at the bottom of the stairs.This was apparently not captured on video because the camera in the stairwell was not functioning.”
The student, in a written statement taken right after the incident, said he was trying to get away from Redente. As he walked down the stairs, he remembers saying, “Get the fuck away from me,” and Redente responding, “What did you say to me?” The student said Redente then ran down the stairs and and pushed him, before putting him into a restraint.
In a second interview with DCF, the student said that, as they were walking down the stairs, Redente put his hand on the boy’s back. He told DCF that he swung his arms up and told Redente not to touch him. He acknowledged that he might have struck Redente as he shrugged him off. The student told DCF that’s when Redente pushed him.
Redente said that he’d couldn’t square how he’d been cleared by the Department of Children and Families and disciplined by the Board of Education.
“The video and incident were thoroughly investigated by the Department of Children and Families, DCF concluded that my actions did not warrant substantiation of abuse or neglect. I have no explanation as to how or why the NHBOE could review the same set of facts and ascertain such a diametrically opposed opinion as to what transpired,” the statement went on. “At this time, both parties have reached a conclusion to this matter. The outcome was a settlement that allowed me to put an end to this nightmare and get on with my life and get back to work.
“I have committed my professional career to the at-risk youth of New Haven,” he continued. “The health and safety of my students has always been my number one priority. As proud as I am of that career, I am more proud of the many young men and women who I’ve been able to mentor and guide to productive lives. Now that this situation has been resolved, I am completely focused once again on their health and well-being.”
Redente is the son of a member of the school board. Superintendent Carol Birks said she went out of her way to avoid that influencing the investigation.
“We promptly reported the incident to the Department of Children and Families, which did not substantiate either abuse or neglect. However, after viewing the video and in the interest of school safety, I decided that further investigation was necessary,” Birks said in a statement. “Because Mr. Redente is the adult son of a Board member, I determined it was in the best interest of all concerned to retain the services of an outside law firm rather than utilize NHPS staff to conduct the investigation. Outside counsel conducted a thorough investigation into the matter, and based on the facts found and in consultation with counsel, I decided that serious discipline was in order. In consultation with his union, Mr. Redente accepted such serious discipline without grievance.
“In my judgment, this resolution appropriately balanced our need to impose serious discipline against the right of the employee to fair treatment,” Birks added. “At no time did the fact that Mr. Redente’s father is a Board member affect my decision to discipline Mr. Redente.”
The Bigger Challenge
The incident poses a bigger question for the district about how to handle students who repeatedly act out, especially given budget cuts in critical areas.
On the day of the incident, half of Wilbur Cross’s security staff wasn’t there.
Normally, the school is staffed with eight security guards and two school resource officers. Five of the guards reported to other schools that day as part of a push by Superintendent Carol Birks, after the Parkland shooting, to put security in every building.
Jason Bartlett, the city’s youth services director, helped create the Harp administration’s signature program for identifying and helping students in danger of facing expulsion and possible arrest. It’s called Youth Stat. The student in the fight with Redente was involved in Youth Stat.
Bartlett said Youth Stat offers all the help it can, but there are some students that they just can’t reach.
“Youth Stat is not a panacea. It cannot solve every situation,” he said. “The first young man we ever had in Youth Stat, we were not able to save him. He’s now incarcerated. We tried three years’ worth of interventions, everybody tried. But there’s still free will here, and not every situation can be resolved in the way we would like.
“The mind is still growing into the 20s, so in youth development, there is not necessarily the right dosage at any one time,” Bartlett added. “All we can do as a system here, as caring adults, is lend a hand, try the interventions when we can and try to be supportive.”
The student involved in the Redente altercation was also being considered for a spot at one of the district’s three alternative schools, a smaller environment that might have been more conducive to his learning needs. It’s unclear why he wasn’t transferred, whether because of a limited number of spots, a parent’s opposition, or an administrator’s hope that they might get through.
Because of the fight, the student was given a nine-day suspension. When he came back, he got into another physical altercation, and the school recommended that he be expelled. He’s now at Riverside Opportunity High School, the consolidated alternative school.