NORWICH – School starts in just one week, and while most building administrators are finishing preparations for the upcoming year, there is a notable absence at the Norwich High School.
In a phone interview with The Evening Sun Wednesday afternoon, Thomas Knapp openly discussed the notice of claim he filed last week against the Norwich City School District and his take on the circumstances that prevent him from resuming his role as principal at the high school.
Knapp has remained silent since he virtually disappeared from the public eye in May. Prompted by the receipt of a notice terminating his probationary administrator position before the Aug. 19 school board meeting, Knapp has now decided to speak. His first step was filing a notice of claim against the district, the school board and Superintendent Gerard O’Sullivan.
According to Knapp, he was selected to assume the helm at the high school by O’Sullivan in October 2005. “I really can’t tell you the attitude and mood and lack of school spirit that was in that building,” said Knapp, speaking about the state of affairs at the school before he was asked to take over.
When he accepted the position, Knapp said he was tasked by O’Sullivan to change the “culture and climate in the building.” He expressed his level of pride in the changes he was able to affect in his time as the building’s principal.
“I concentrated on creating an academically sound, safe and fun environment for the kids, teachers and staff,” said Knapp. Perhaps his biggest disappointment in the turn of events that has separated him from the school, he said, is the fact that those efforts have been derailed.
The “healthy relationship” Knapp had with the district administration was first tested earlier this year. In February, Knapp grew concerned with happenings at other schools in the district.
“I felt I needed a commitment from the district,” said Knapp. On Feb. 26, he approached the superintendent about the possibility of receiving tenure early.
After a brief follow-up conversation on Feb. 27, Knapp was left with the impression that O’Sullivan would make the tenure recommendation to the board of education at the March 18 board meeting.
Prior to that meeting, Knapp learned his tenure was not on the agenda. He said he felt he had been misled by O’Sullivan and notified the superintendent of his intention to actively seek other employment.
“I did ask for and receive an extraordinary recommendation,” said Knapp. According to Knapp, the recommendation was left “centered on his desk” the morning of March 19.
Despite this, Knapp maintains that he remained loyal to the district. “I still had, and possibly still have, long-term intentions with the district,” he said.
On the advice of his doctor, Knapp took two weeks of medical leave from May 12 to May 26. Knapp claims that O’Sullivan was aware of his medical concerns and the “physical issue” that prompted this leave. While Knapp did not elaborate on the nature of his medical condition, he did add that the absence was due in part to a change in medication.
Prior to his planned return on May 27, Knapp said he received a certified letter from O’Sullivan. According to the notice of claim filed by Knapp, the correspondence “directed Mr. Knapp to first report to the superintendent’s office before proceeding to the high school.”
Knapp said he had no reason to believe the meeting was anything other than a “welcome back after his two-week medical leave.” But instead of the expected status update, Knapp was greeted by O’Sullivan and an individual he identified as Mark Pettitt, an attorney for the DCMO BOCES district.
Knapp said he asked if he needed representation and was told he did not. Allegations in the notice of claim state this differently, contending that “Mr. Knapp requested and was denied Union representation during this meeting.”
“I don’t have any clue to this day what the charge is against me,” said Knapp. When asked if he felt that O’Sullivan’s actions were prompted by the same medical concerns that had led to his medical leave, Knapp replied that he was not sure.
“Since May 26, I have been healthy, willing and able to return to work,” said Knapp.
Knapp reported that he was notified in the meeting that he would be suspended with pay, pending a “913 examination.” While Knapp maintained in the interview that this examination is physical in nature, the documents filed by his lawyer refer to it as a “mental examination.”
“I didn’t know what a 913 was when I left,” said Knapp. He said he was prompted to brush up on the law and seek legal counsel when he received a letter from O’Sullivan dated June 2.
According to Knapp, the letter confirmed the superintendent’s directions in regards to the 913 examination. In addition to submitting to the exam, Knapp claimed that O’Sullivan also directed him to supply the examiner with a full year of his medical records.
The filing lists these items to include “physician’s records, tests, nurse’s notes, physician assistant notes, psychologist, psychiatrist, hospital records, medication records, and correspondence for your doctor regarding any health issues.” Knapp said he believes this request to be a violation of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws.
Knapp and his legal counsel also contend that it is within the authority of the board of education, not that of the superintendent, to request the examination. They have not seen proof that this was ever approved by the school board.
“I feel very strongly, especially early on, that the board was not fully communicated to,” said Knapp, although he did say he believes that the school board president Bob Patterson was fully aware of what was happening.
The notice of claim further stated that O’Sullivan “erroneously directed the examination to take place on a date that did not exist.” Knapp explained that the day and date of the appointment did not match. He also stated that he further protested the request because he felt the physician he was assigned to appear before was “not school board approved.”
According to Knapp, he did not receive a response from the district about his concerns and has never submitted to the 913 examination.
Around the same time in early June, Knapp said he received another communication from the school: a carbon copy of a medical leave request filled out in his name for the time period after his suspension on May 27.
Although his name is on the form, Knapp claims he did not complete the request himself. While he was being paid his regular salary, it appeared that it was being deducted from his accumulated sick time.
Knapp admitted in the interview that it is considered standard operating procedure following an absence to fill out the paperwork, checking the reason for the time off, and to turn it in at the district office. The superintendent signs off on all leave requests.
Knapp’s filing wields accusations that “the respondents forged (or caused to be forged) a medical leave request form” in his name as “part and parcel of a scheme” to perpetuate Knapp’s incapacity and the impression that he was on voluntary sick leave. It also claimed that it was the district’s intention to “deprive” him of his accumulated sick days. This has not been substantiated.
According to Knapp there was no direct communication in response to a letter drafted by his lawyer expressing his concerns about the false document, but the school district did correct the issue of the sick days.
Despite the apparent outpouring of public support on Knapp’s behalf, the notice of claim contends that Knapp’s “lengthy suspension ... created a false and unsavory impression/perception.”
“I feel completely 100 percent supported by the community, that includes kids, parents and teachers,” said Knapp. “What I’m concerned about is people who don’t know me.” Knapp cited his career in the Marine Corps and his years as a tenured teacher and administrator in other districts and said he is worried that his character and reputation will be irreparably tarnished by these events.
When Knapp learned of talk that high school students might protest his absence by boycotting classes on the first day of school, he was rendered momentarily speechless. “I’m honored,” Knapp said. “I love them dearly.” But he cautioned students against this course of action. The absent administrator would like students considering a protest to know that he “would expect them in school getting an education” on Sept. 4.
“I want them to carry on as I taught them, to respect school authorities. They should be in school on the first day,” said Knapp.
The notice of claim may raise more questions than it answers about the events leading up to Knapp’s absence at the Norwich High School. What does Knapp hope to accomplish with the filing and by speaking out about his suspension?
“I would like to see some kind of settlement,” said Knapp.
One of the “demands” made in the notice of claim is for a “name clearing hearing.” Knapp explained that what he envisions is a private forum where he can speak with the board of education with the superintendent and legal representatives present. He said he would like to be able to present a chronological listing of events he has compiled and speak about what he feels are his accomplishments at the high school.
He said he would like information shared the other way as well. “I would like to learn why I have been put in this position,” Knapp said.
Will Knapp ever return as NHS principal? While he said he is ready and able to return at any time, he said he’s skeptical about whether or not it is truly an option at this point.
“I love my job at Norwich. I could certainly come back and be the Tom Knapp the community knows me to be,” he said. “But I’m not naive enough to think that could happen without malice.”
Knapp does want to return to work, whether it is in Norwich or elsewhere. “I love my profession,” he said. “I need to get out of this quagmire of being employed, but not working.”