Sunday, August 10, 2003

Under the Curiously Lumpy Rug

An eye-opening interview with Henrico County
whistle-blowing teacher Nancy Nagle

by F. T. Rea

Ed Note: (This interview was published in July in the Summer issue of SLANT.)

In an age of institutional malfeasance run amok and toppling ethical standards, we-the-people owe plenty to any citizen with the grit to be willing to stand alone, just to do the right thing. Last year Time (magazine) named a trio of headline-making whistle-blowers - Cynthia Cooper (WorldCom), Sherron Watkins (Enron) and Colleen Rowley (FBI) - as its Person(s) of the Year.

Since conscience-driven whistle-blowers, such as Cooper, Watkins and Rowley, frequently put their own futures at risk in the doing, most mortals tend to shy away from such a role. Fortunately, there are still a few brave souls who can become "outraged in a way" they can't "subdue" - and then they must act.

Fan District resident Nancy L. Nagle, 49, a public school teacher in Henrico County, is in the process of learning how difficult life can be when one is at odds with entrenched power, acting to cover its... exposure. Nonetheless, to protect what she saw as children in need, Nagle broke ranks to go public with the dark story of a fellow teacher who was habitually abusing disabled children, and a principal who was routinely ignoring it.

Nancy Nagle, wife, mother of six, a specialist in Early Childhood Special Education in Henrico County for six years - a movie-lover who looks a little bit like Michelle Pfeiffer - has put her future on the line to do what she believed was her duty. The main players in the purple drama that is still swirling around Nagle are as follows:

Betty Moore: Until her sudden resignation in December 2002, Moore, whose classroom was adjacent to Nagle's at Ratcliffe Elementary School, had served as a teacher in Henrico County's Early Childhood Special Education Department for over a decade.

Chelley Stokes worked as Moore's educational assistant at Ratcliffe for three years. It was Stokes' specifics on Moore's abuse of disabled students - criminal behavior that had already been reported by the school nurse - that set the wheels in motion.

Angelo Cuffee was the principal at Ratclliffe for nine years, prior to his retirement on July 1, 2003. It was Cuffee who received the report by the nurse, and then Stokes' subsequent report. However, Nagle says she has learned that Cuffee had also reprimanded Moore for striking a child during the 2000/01 school year.

Sgt. Cindy Wood is attached to the Child Abuse and Domestic Violence Division of the Henrico County Police Department. Wood was the investigating officer assigned to look into what crimes Moore may have committed, especially in December of 2002. Wood entered the picture in mid-February of this year.

Lyle Evans, Superintendent of Administrative Services for Henrico County Public Schools, questioned Nagle about the Moore case in March of 2003. At that point Nagle's name was yet to be cited in the local media's regular accounts of the brewing scandal. When Nagle refused to admit that she had been speaking with the press (at this point, without attribution) their tense meeting ended abruptly. Shortly afterward Nagle received a certified letter from Evans, reprimanding her for not following proper procedure, with regard to reporting child abuse.

On May 3, 2003 Nicole Johnson wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that under an arranged plea agreement, Betty Moore had been sentenced to 12 months in jail; the term was suspended for three years. As our whistle-blower was a key witness, Johnson's news story mentioned her name, and put Nancy Nagle on the record as the source for the press Evans had been searching for.

According to Johnson's article, leading up to Moore's conviction on a single count of assault, witnesses said they had seen Moore, "striking a child in the mouth, hitting a child's hand, pulling a child in a wheelchair by his jacket to the floor, and spanking a child."

With Moore's departure having been orchestrated behind closed doors, and since this is hardly the only serious problem to surface in the county's public school system in the last year, one is left to wonder - just how much dirt has been swept under the rug in Henrico?

SLANT: What was the date you made the decision to go over Cuffee's head, the decision that led to your contacting the press? Was there a specific event that pushed you to that point?

Nagle: "I decided to pick up the phone and alert the authorities on Friday, December 20th [2002]. This was precipitated by the events of the previous two weeks. Simply put - what I expected to see occurring, just wasn't happening."

SLANT: What do you mean?

Nagle: "The first eyewitness delivered her account to Mr. Cuffee on December 4th. Betty wasn't removed from the room until December 10th. A second eyewitness account was delivered to Mr. Cuffee on December 9th. [At that time] He began to question the witnesses named in the first account. A third witness, questioned by Mr. Cuffee, put her account in writing - at his request - on December 19th."

SLANT: When did Moore step down?

Nagle: "Betty resigned on December 16th."

SLANT: Did you speak with her during this period?

Nagle: "On Friday, December 19th, I had a phone conversation with her. Betty told me that she had been given a choice to resign, rather than possibly being terminated. She said she'd been questioned by two Henrico County school board members; she said they had assured her that if she resigned, her personnel file would be clean. I asked her specifically about a Child Protective Services investigation, and about notification of the parents. She [Moore] said there was no mention of either being contacted.

"She [Moore] scoffed at the thought of her license being under scrutiny, and was sure that the Henrico County Police Department had not been contacted."

SLANT: It sounds like that conversation was significant in pushing you toward blowing the whistle. Was it that you feared a whitewash was in the works?

Nagle: "Specifically, I was waiting for some kind of acknowledgment that this was an on-going investigation by the Central Office Administration. At the same time, I was aware of Mr. Cuffee's purposeful, secretive behavior, in demanding that the parents of the children named in the allegations not be notified.

"He [Cuffee] warned the staff to 'say nothing' and 'to just let it blow over.' It all added up to a cover-up, and I was outraged in a way that I couldn't subdue."

SLANT: Now that Betty Moore has been removed from her position as a teacher, what do you want to happen to resolve this matter properly? What is missing at this point?

Nagle: "What is missing is the reason why I became involved in the first place. The school administrators that received the complaints of abuse by Betty Moore decided against a complete investigation. They decided, instead, to swiftly and quietly usher her out of the county and call it a 'resignation' due to 'family issues.' When they acted on behalf of their interests, in place of those of the victims, and their families, they lost an opportunity to be responsible to the very people they are paid to serve."

SLANT: How would you fix this mess? What needs to happen?

Nagle: "What I'd like to see is the initiation of an independent investigation, beginning with the events of December 4th, 2002, when the complaints were first delivered to Mr. Cuffee. The investigation needs to be carried out by an agency with no county allegiances."

SLANT: So, you're saying the county can't investigate itself?

Nagel: "Absolutely!

"I think it is a dangerous practice, when an organization assumes the responsibility for investigating the possible criminal behavior of an employee. The question then becomes - did the leaders believe they could act without bias, or did they just not care?"

SLANT: With the way this story has been reported by the media, so far, what area of it do you think the public needs a better understanding of?

Nagle: "The public needs a better understanding of how poorly these Ratcliffe families have been treated by Henrico County Public Schools. Since this story was first reported [by the media], on February 26th, it has been presented in segments that focus on different angles. As a result, there are gaps in the [perception of the] story."

SLANT: Do you now believe Henrico County has disrespected your right to free speech?

Nagle: "My civil liberties were most definitely disrespected. When Lyle Evans stated in his [March 21] letter to me that I was in direct violation of HCPS's Professional Growth Plan for Licensed Teachers - by speaking to the press - he simultaneously failed to recognize my First Amendment Rights as a citizen of the United States."

SLANT: OK, at the end of the day, is this the story of an abusive teacher who was an aberration? Or, is it the story of a county that has been systematically covering up abuse, for whatever reasons? Or, what would you call it?

Nagle: "I would call it a symptom of a bigger disease. Betty Moore's behavior was blatant and extended over a long period of time. Other co-workers reported the same conduct prior to her Ratcliffe assignment. Ultimately, the source of the disease lies at the feet of the people who hired her, supervised her, evaluated her and signed her contract year after year."

SLANT: At this point, do you have any regrets in this matter?

Nagle: No, I have no regrets about my actions as a whistle-blower.

SLANT: Do you plan to stay on, or have you had enough of teaching in Henrico County?

Nagle: "Yes, I have decided to continue working for Henrico County Public Schools, after initially feeling that I should leave.

"The question was, 'Do I want to be part of an organization that operates under a value system that is in direct conflict with my own?' But then I realized that the majority of [HCPS] employees exemplify the best of what public education has to offer. Once I became a controversial figure, it was evidenced by the support from friends, community members, co-workers and parents of students that my conflict was limited to only a few administrative figures."

Ed Note: This rather bizarre story is eventually going to enter a new dimension. A local attorney, Steve Sommers, is in the process of preparing a batch of legal action that will surely put the Betty Moore saga back in the news, in spite of her plea bargain on the criminal charges.

"I represent four families of children that have allegedly been abused by Betty Moore, while she was a teacher in Henrico County Public Schools," Sommers told SLANT. "The pending civil suits that are being prepared will allege culpability beyond Betty Moore in the Henrico County Public Schools."

Bottom Line: As with the bewildering and far-flung child abuse scandal that has spilled out of the Catholic Church, the key question about this local behind-closed-doors problem is this: How far up the chain of command did the knowledge and facilitation of abuse go?

In legal jargon such guilty knowledge is called "scienter." The reader shouldn't be surprised to see that term used in future articles about what else is eventually found under that curiously lumpy rug.

No comments: