PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters told lawmakers Monday he was wrong to hire Dr. Olayinka Alege to oversee Providence’s secondary schools last year, knowing Alege had been accused of inappropriately touching students’ feet in Florida.
“I thought I knew him,” Peters said during a Senate oversight hearing about Alege’s hiring. “I was wrong.”
Alege was charged last week with forcibly rubbing an underage boy’s foot at a Warwick gym, an incident that police say was captured on surveillance camera. Alege has pleaded not guilty, but resigned from his job as a network superintendent at the Providence Public School District following his arrest.
Questions immediately arose about why Alege was hired in the first place, considering a 2009 article in the Sun Sentinel said Alege was accused of “popping” boys’ toes as an apparent punishment while working as an assistant principal in Tampa.
“Five boys told deputies that King High assistant principal Olayinka Alege asked them on numerous occasions to take off a shoe and sock behind closed doors, and allow him to “pop” their toes,” the article said. “They said it didn’t hurt, but they didn’t like it, either.”
The article was among the top Google results for Alege’s name when he was hired last summer, and Peters read it.
“I questioned Dr. Alege about it directly,” Peters wrote in prepared testimony to the committee. “When he told me that he had meant no harm and that, in hindsight, he understood that his behavior was inappropriate and would never be repeated, I made a decision to believe him.”
He noted that no charges were filed in Florida at the time, and the human resources team that investigated the toe-popping had subsequently endorsed Alege’s two promotions in Tampa.
“My hiring of Dr. Alege as a network superintendent for Providence Public Schools was an error in judgment,” Peters said.
Under questioning by senators, Peters acknowledged he never informed the hiring committee that recommended Alege in Providence about the allegations he had discovered online.
He also didn’t tell Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who testified that she found out about the toe-cracking allegations in news reports after Alege was hired.
Sen. Tiara Mack, D-Providence, questioned why Alege was not “off-boarded” when Infante-Green learned of the allegations.
“I brought the superintendent in and sat down the superintendent and asked him what happened here,” Infante-Green said. “Mr. Alege already was working in the district.”
She said the district repeated the vetting process at that time, calling references again to “close the loop” with school officials in Florida.
Infante-Green said despite having state control of the schools, she had left hiring decisions to Peters, whom she appointed as superintendent last year. That process will change in the future, she pledged, with more oversight from RIDE in top hiring decisions.
“I find it very troubling that someone who has navigated spaces with young people and has proven to be a predator and has also led to some grooming practices with our young people was not raised as a red flag both in Florida and in Rhode Island,” Mack said.
Sen. Jessica de la Cruz, R-Burrillville, called on Peters to resign.
“The superintendent has no intention of resigning,” spokesperson Audrey Lucas said in an email. “He is fully committed to seeing through the transformation of Providence Public Schools.”
Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, said she was disappointed in what she called “dismissiveness” from Peters and Infante-Green of Alege’s reported behavior in Florida.
“The two people who are entrusted with the safety of our school district are upset that their trust was betrayed, when I’m more concerned about the trust that our children have, that our parents have, that our teachers have, that our community has when they are sending our kids to school every day,” Euer said.
“I am very heartbroken about this,” Infante-Green responded. “This is not something that I sit here and justify. I am very pained by this.”
“If it is coming off that way then I truly apologize,” she added.
Multiple senators referred to the toe-popping accusations as a clear sign of “grooming,” and a red flag for future abuse.
“People who are inappropriately touching students have no place in our school systems,” Euer said.
Warwick Police accuse Alege of approaching an underage male at a gym in April and to ask about his shoes, subsequently taking his shoe off without permission and massaging the boy’s foot for 30 to 40 seconds, according to the police report. (The juvenile’s age has not been disclosed.)
Peters said Warwick Police notified him of the allegation in April, and he placed Alege on paid leave. He and Infante-Green subsequently asked for Alege’s resignation last week.
School Board Chair Nick Hemond noted that prior to the state takeover, the School Board had a role in vetting and confirming certain hires.
The school board’s authority was significantly curtailed when the state took control of the district. Had the network superintendent candidate been presented to the board, someone could have flagged the Florida allegations, Hemond said.
“Only one person prior to hiring had this information,” he said. “This is a very serious lapse of judgment that has taken place.”
The School Board is slated to discuss Peters’ job performance in executive session on Wednesday.
Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro called in to the hearing to testify as well, telling lawmakers that the union has lost trust in Peters and Infante-Green.
“The sad thing is, this could have been prevented,” Calabro said. “This child that was attacked and abused in Warwick didn’t have to be.”
The hearing lasted nearly four hours. Sen. Lou DiPalma, the oversight chair, said this would be just the first in a series of hearings regarding the Providence schools takeover.
“I’m astonished that he knew and didn’t tell anybody,” DiPalma told 12 News after the hearing. Asked if he thought Peters should resign, he said that decision should lie with commissioner.
“The commissioner and RIDE and the state are accountable,” DiPalma said. “The superintendent is then responsible for executing the charge. … That’s a conversation that needs to be had between the commissioner and the superintendent.”
Asked if the commissioner stands by Peters as the leader of Providence schools, spokesperson Victor Morente wrote in an email: “The commissioner has not asked for the resignation of Superintendent Peters publicly or privately at this time.”