Arrest warrants released shed light on Plymouth school officials' seeming unwillingness to contact DCF about sexual abuse allegations involving then-teacher

Published on Tuesday, 30 August 2022 17:33
Written by JUSTIN MUSZYNSKI

@MUSZYNSKIBP

PLYMOUTH – School officials tend to do too much investigating on their own instead of immediately reporting allegations of sexual abuse to the state’s Department of Children and Families, a DCF official told Plymouth police during the investigation into former teacher James Eschert.

Administrators, according to the agency, often “ask too many questions before reporting it to DCF,” arrest warrants in the case released this week indicate. But in the case of Eschert – the 51-year-old who has been accused of having inappropriate contact with some of his female students  – “it was as if they didn’t want to look into and/or investigate the allegations regarding” the former teacher at Plymouth Center School, the DCF investigator told police. 

Four people – Chrystal Collins, 59, of Bristol; Sherri Turner, 59, of Farmington; Melissa Morelli, 45, of Plymouth; and Rebecca Holleran, 47, of Bristol – have been charged with failing to report the allegations against Eschert, who had been a teacher in Plymouth since 1998, primarily teaching the third and fourth grade. They each face one count of failure to report abuse, neglect or injury of a child or imminent risk of serious harm to a child.

According to the arrest warrants in the case, a number of parents contacted administrators – who, like teachers, are mandated reporters – expressing concern about Eschert’s alleged behavior, with some requesting that their child be moved out of his class ahead of the school year starting.

One parent told police that she contacted Turner – who was the principal at Plymouth Center School from 2019 to 2020 before she served as the interim superintendent from 2020 to 2021 and again as the principal from 2021 to 2022 – after her daughter began coming home from school with gifts every day that she said came from Eschert. The girl said she and her friend, another alleged victim, would go to Turner once a week to say Eschert was making girls in the class uncomfortable, touching them inappropriately, the warrant said. 

Once police and DCF were investigating, the warrant said, Turner conceded to the current Superintendent of Schools Brian Falcone that rumors about Eschert’s behavior had been brought to her attention, though she felt there was not enough detail to move forward with an investigation, a conclusion she said a former superintendent agreed with. Falcone – who expressed disgust that the accusations against the former teacher may have been covered up for years – told police that he checked Eschert’s personnel file and did not find a single thing regarding complaints about alleged sexual abuse, the warrant contined.

One parent said she raised concerns to Holleran – who has been involved with the school since 2000, serving as interim principal from 2020 to 2021 – after her daughter told her Eschert had girls sit on his lap and bribed them with candy, the warrant said. The mother told police, according to the warrant, she got the feeling Holleran “already knew” about Eschert, saying all of this must be a misunderstanding before the mother could even finish talking. 

According to the warrant, Holleran said she later spoke to a number of the girls and stood by her initial assessment – that the allegations were a misunderstanding. The mother, the warrant said, told police she rebutted with, “A child sitting on a man’s lap is not a misunderstanding, especially in school.”  

Holleran and Morelli – the latter of whom taught at the school for 15 years before, most recently, serving as a math coach and interventionist – tried to do their own investigation into the allegations, instead of contacting DCF, before the accusations were “brushed off,” according to the warrant. 

Falcone, court papers said, told police it is not the job of school officials to launch their own investigation, and that DCF should have immediately been informed once a child or parent complained about the alleged behavior. 

According to one parent, Morelli was considered by many students as the best teacher at the school. The parent said her daughter told her Morelli didn’t like Eschert and that she didn’t want her female students to go anywhere near him, the warrant said.

Another parent told police that Collins – who was principal at Plymouth Center School from 2004 to 2019 – had a group of the alleged victims, including one who contends that Eschert pulled her onto his lap, visit her office to tell her that they were uncomfortable with his behavior, according to the warrant. Collins, the warrant continued, thanked the girls for the information and said she would “try to do something about it.”

A parent whose child alleges that Eschert used to sit in her seat and play with her hair told police she contacted Collins about this and was told over the phone that other parents had made similar comments about him, according to the warrant. Collins, the warrant said, also told the parent that “that’s just the way Mr. E teaches” and that it’s “his nature.” 

The parent, according to the warrant, told police Collins referred to Eschert as a “phenomenal teacher” and that “That’s his way of teaching. I reassure you everything is fine. But I will look into it.”   

The same parent also alleged to police that her daughter said Eschert handpicked the girls he wanted in his class, telling them a year ahead of time he was going to make sure they had him as a teacher, according to the warrant.

Eschert, who parted ways with the school district during the investigation, has pleaded not guilty to five felony counts of risk of injury to a minor and two misdemeanor counts of fourth-degree sexual assault. Police allege he fondled and caressed some of his female students, in addition to sometimes touching himself over his clothes in the presence of minors, according to court documents. 

Complainants told police Eschert would often invite girls to sit on his lap and ask them to stay inside with him when the other kids were out at recess. According to court documents, one girl told police that Eschert would move her body on top of his genitals after inviting her to sit on his lap. 

A complainant also alleged that Eschert commonly gave some of his female students paper to decorate under his desk while he had his genitals “in her face or another girl’s face,” the warrant said. The girl also contended that Eschert at times would touch himself over his clothing, according to the warrant.

One girl told investigators he would rub her shoulders and touch her breasts over her clothing each day to see if she was wearing a bra or not, the arrest warrant in the case said. On one occasion, the girl alleges, he touched her breasts under her shirt, the document continued.

According to the warrants, the allegations only came to light after a former student of Eschert, once she was older, shared the accusations with the principal of Eli Terry Middle School, who contacted DCF.  

Justin Muszynski can be reached at 860-973-1809 or jmuszynski@bristolpress.com.



Posted in The Bristol Press, Bristol, Plymouth, Terryville on Tuesday, 30 August 2022 17:33. Updated: Tuesday, 30 August 2022 17:36.