By VANESSA DE LA TORRE, firstname.lastname@example.org, The Hartford Courant
Published: July 7, 2016
HARTFORD — Gislaine Ngounou, a top aide to Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez who became enmeshed in a controversy that continues to swirl around the city schools, is stepping down after two years on the job.
In an email to staff and community members Thursday, Ngounou referred to her time as chief of staff as a journey that has been “simultaneously exciting, inspiring, life-affirming, challenging and, at times, absolutely draining.”
Without detailing what led to her departure, Ngounou said that leaving is “one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made,” and that she planned to “pursue other opportunities that will allow me to exercise my leadership and seek social justice in a different capacity.”
Her last day at work has not yet been decided, a schools spokesman said. Ngounou did not have an immediate comment when reached Thursday.
Ngounou issued a public apology this spring after failing to “aggressively” follow up an allegation that a district administrator was behaving inappropriately with a minor. Eduardo “Eddie” Genao, then the school system's executive director of compliance, was later charged with felony risk of injury or impairing the morals of a child after police say he sent sexual text messages to a 13-year-old girl.
About three weeks before Genao's April 13 arrest, Aaron Lewis, who knows the girl's mother, sent a text message to Ngounou warning of “an urgent matter concerning one of your directors with regard to inappropriate child contact.” Genao's name was not included in the message.
Ngounou texted Lewis that afternoon: “I have a couple of minutes now. May I call?” Lewis replied that he was in a meeting. That evening, Ngounou texted that the day had been “hectic” and asked “if it's too late to connect” or if Lewis had “a few minutes now,” according to screen shots of the March 22 messages that Lewis provided to The Courant.
By then, Lewis, president of a literacy group in Hartford called The Scribe's Institute, said he decided to alert school board Chairman Richard Wareing, sending him an email on March 23 with the subject line “IMPORTANT message from Dr. Lewis.” Wareing said he missed the email.
The girl's mother has said the state's mandated reporter law should have been followed in the case. Ngounou told colleagues that she assumed she would reconnect with Lewis, “but neither of us followed up on the matter with each other,” she wrote in a districtwide email April 11. “This was an omission of the mind and not an omission of the heart. I take full responsibility for the failure on my part to aggressively pursue more information.”
The same day as Ngounou's apology, Mayor Luke Bronin and Narvaez announced that the school system would review its policies and procedures when school employees hear that a child might be at risk of abuse or neglect, and asked the state Office of the Child Advocate to assist in the investigation. That review is ongoing.
Genao, 57, a career educator and former Hartford assistant superintendent, has not yet entered a plea in the criminal case. He resigned on April 5.
Last month, Ngounou, Wareing, Narvaez, the city and the board of education were among the defendants named in a civil complaint from the girl's mother. The lawsuit, alleging negligence, has not yet been filed in court, according to the mother's attorney, A. Paul Spinella of Hartford.
Narvaez implied Thursday that Ngounou had another job lined up. She said she would miss her.
“Gislaine receives job offers all the time and I understand that this was an offer she could not refuse,” Narvaez said in a statement. “I am happy that she will be able to share her talents with districts across the country.”
Narvaez added that, in light of budget cuts, her chief of staff position would not be filled. Ngounou's salary this past school year was $176,274.
After Narvaez was hired as schools chief in 2014, she personally recruited Ngounou to Hartford after both served in the Montgomery County school system in Maryland. Like Narvaez, Ngounou is an alumna of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, receiving her doctorate in education leadership.
Before attending Harvard, she was a math teacher and instructional coach in Kansas City, Mo.
Ngounou, a native of Cameroon, advocated for “family-friendly” schools in Hartford and was known for encouraging frank conversations about race. She led cultural competency training for school principals and other administrators and was a lead organizer, along with school board member Craig Stallings, of the district's March 19 symposium on race, racism and equity that brought hundreds to the Bulkeley High School auditorium, where professors gave presentations on the history and effects of institutional racism.
It was at that event, Hartford police say, that Genao met the girl, who lives out of state. In Thursday morning's email, which carried the subject line, “To my Hartford Public Schools' Community: A Message of Love and Gratitude,” Ngounou said she appreciated others “helping me face the tough conversations and injustices that continue to keep us down,” and lamented “how difficult it is to undo systems of inequities that have existed for far too long in our district and our city.”
“Faced with a constant slew of negative attention and poisonous narratives that have done little more than seek to further divide and distract us,” Ngounou wrote, “you continue to do whatever it takes to face the truth, to listen and learn, to focus on the work at hand — even when it becomes personally and professionally painful.”
Copyright ©, 2016, Hartford Courant