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Metro, News

PPSD Superintendent Harrison Peters resigns

Community leaders reflect on Peters, discuss directions for future leadership

By
Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2021

Peters resigns after joining PPSD as superintendent in February 2020

Providence Public Schools Superintendent Harrison Peters and the Rhode Island Department of Education reached an agreement Friday to terminate Peters’ contract amid growing concerns over his hiring of a school administrator charged with assaulting a teenage boy and his knowledge of five allegations by students against the administrator of non-consensual touching. 

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and Rhode Island Gov. Daniel McKee, among other educational and community leaders across the state, had all called for Peters to resign over the incident, the Associated Press reported. 

“After conversations with Governor Dan McKee and members of our community, I asked Superintendent Harrison Peters to resign earlier this week,” Infante-Green wrote in a letter to PPSD families on Friday. 

“It’s clear Superintendent Peters must resign, and that we need new leadership in the district,” Elorza said in a statement. “This entire situation has been extremely disturbing.” 

The administrator, Olayinka Alege, was arrested and charged with assault for giving a teenage boy a nonconsensual foot rub at a Warwick gym in April. Alege has since resigned from his position in Providence.

Prior to coming to the PPSD in 2020, Alege worked with Peters in Hillsborough County, Florida. In 2009, five boys accused Alege, then an assistant principal, of “popping” their toes as a form of discipline. 

Calls for Peters to step down reached a fever pitch after Peters admitted during a Senate hearing this past Monday to knowing about these allegations since May 2019 but telling no one, the Providence Journal reported

Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union and a special education teacher at Nathanael Greene Middle School, described Peters’ testimony during the hearing as creating more questions than answers. “The story changed, the timeline was unclear and there seemed to be no acceptance of responsibility for bringing (Alege) to our children and to our state,” she told The Herald.

State Senator Jessica de la Cruz called for Peters’ resignation during the hearing. “Despite Mr. Peters’ reputation as a reformer, his judgment on the hiring of Dr. Alege, knowing what Superintendent Peters knew, is unacceptable,” de la Cruz wrote in an email to The Herald. “We need our students learning, but before that can happen, they must be safe. Their safety has to be prioritized and Alege’s hiring was a serious misstep in ensuring the safety of our children.” 

As part of his termination agreement, Peters will receive about $170,000 as his severance pay. Calabro told the Boston Globe that she found this buyout “an absurd amount of money to get paid for bringing a predator into our state.”

Peters and PPSD spokesperson Audrey Lucas did not respond to The Herald’s requests for an interview.

For many that called for Peters to resign, he represented just one small part of the larger systemic issues currently affecting PPSD amid the state takeover. State Senator Tiara Mack ’16 said that she wanted Infante-Green held accountable as well. “There was really a huge oversight in hiring that left our students vulnerable,” Mack said. “The fact that folks at the top during the turnaround missed a huge safety red flag is an indication that we need stronger, more intentional leaders.”

Calabro also discussed the role Infante-Green played in the scandal, arguing that the selection process that Infante-Green carried out for selecting Peters himself was not as thorough as the searches performed for past superintendents. She said that neither Peters nor Infante-Green was “experienced or capable of taking over a district.”

For Calabro, Peters’ resignation served as further evidence that the state takeover must end. “We know from research that school and district takeovers do not work,” she said. She described the takeover as promoting the “charter-ization” of the district and the state. “We are not in a position right now to effectuate any significant change until we have leaders in place who have experience, who have actually run a building or a district beforehand and who really want what’s best for our kids in changing our schools,” she said. 

Milly Asherov, leadership team co-director at the Providence Student Union and a junior at Classical High School, also expressed concern about Peters and Infante-Green’s leadership. She said that she wanted Peters to resign and that she found Infante-Green did not take student input seriously. She said that there is “a lot of tokenism” of student voices “within these big institutions” and that Infante-Green is “a big perpetrator of that.” 

Victor Morente, director of communications at the RIDE, countered this characterization of Infante-Green’s tenure and handling of hiring Peters. 

“The selection of Harrison Peters as Providence turnaround superintendent came after a months-long process that considered input from state and city leaders as well as community members including parents and students,” Morente wrote in an email to The Herald on behalf of the Commissioner’s Office. “The Commissioner was not aware of the reports from Florida regarding Dr. Alege’s behavior prior to his hiring. She will be much more involved in senior level hires at the District.”

Not all those who called for Peters to resign believed that Infante-Green needed to be punished as well. De la Cruz wrote that she questioned whether the calls for Infante-Green to step down had “more to do with (Infante-Green) being a reformer than the situation with Peters and Alege” as “there are people who are motivated to terminate change agents.” 

“After listening to the facts at the Senate hearing, I believe that Infante-Green relied on Mr. Peters to make the Alege hiring decision, and therefore, Peters’ resignation or firing should end the inquiry,” she wrote. “We need to conduct continuous oversight on RIDE and all of our education leaders to ensure there is accountability and progress.” 

In selecting the next superintendent, Calabro and Asherov both stated the need for more transparency and community involvement. Calabro said all superintendents prior to Peters had undergone a rigorous vetting process that involved input from “community members, parents, students, teachers, school board members and business folks.” She stated that she wanted this process to return as opposed to “allowing one person to pick and place someone at such a high level in a district that needs such intense support.” 

Asherov echoed these calls for more informed and diverse engagement. “When we hire a new superintendent, I would love to see students sitting on that committee. Not only students, but also other community members who have been in this community for a long time,” she said. 

“Something that has happened repeatedly is that the commissioner is not from here, the superintendent is not from here and the guy who got fired last week was not from here,” Asherov added. “So I think that if we give more seats to those who are actually living in this community and who have been here for a long time, you might see a better hire come out this time around.” 

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