A series of newly released police affidavits has revealed additional details about a collection of three school principals and one teacher, who each face criminal charges for allegedly failing to report to the proper authorities student and parent complaints about another elementary school teacher. The documents suggest that the alleged abuse was common knowledge among many in the Plymouth, Connecticut public school district, but it wasn’t until a middle school principal learned of the myriad complaints that state investigators were called in.
As Law&Crime has reported at length, onetime fourth-grade teacher James Eschert, 51, was charged in January with five counts of risk of injury to a child, all felonies, and two counts of fourth-degree sexual assault, both misdemeanors.
Court records suggest offense dates in 2016, 2017, and 2019 for Eschert’s alleged in-class conduct. A detailed affidavit alleges that he recommended or selected certain girls to join his fourth-grade class and then allegedly allowed a list of favorites to remain in his classroom during recess. He allegedly gave those girls gifts and answers to test questions.
Eschert then allegedly touched a thigh and an arm and is accused of “bouncing” several of the “girls on his lap in a humping motion.” According to court records, several of the accusers reported that Eschert became erect in their presence.
Among other things, Eschert also allegedly took sexualized photos of the girls while they were in the school. A camera recovered by the authorities is said to have revealed 26 “inappropriate” images; two of the pictures allegedly showed a “a closeup of a female student’s groin area while she was performing a cartwheel.” Three images “were taken from ground level and showed female students seated in a manner which exposed their groin and underwear,” an affidavit asserts.
More than a dozen potential victims were identified in an eventual police probe after one school principal, Angela Suffridge, “actually listened” to the complaints and called state investigators and suspect that a teacher “could be grooming.” Suffridge is cast in police documents as the hero of the story; she is not charged with any crime.
Many of the alleged victims did not come forward until they older and began to understand what had happened to them, the affidavits indicate. At least one of the alleged victims has since graduated, according to the documents.
Four other educators were arrested this month in connection with the case. Retired principal Chrystal Collins, 59, of Bristol; onetime acting principal Rebecca Holleran, 47, also of Bristol; math interventionist and second-grade teacher Melissa Morelli, 45, of Plymouth; and the school’s most recent principal, Sherri Turner, 59, of Farmington are charged with failing to report the abuse, neglect, or injury to a child or the imminent risk of serious harm to a child. Or, in other words, the police say they swept the accusations under the rug.
“This case involves one teacher and three administrators at the Plymouth Center School and their responsibility as mandated reporters in the State of Connecticut in connection with the conduct of a 4th grade teacher and his female students,” the collection of recently released affidavits involving the group of four educators state in unison.
The documents describe Morelli as the “best teacher” at the school in question. However, they said Morelli didn’t “want anything to do with” Eschert, “never liked” Eschert, and “wouldn’t want the girls to go near” Escert. In other words, she allegedly knew something was amiss but failed to take the proper action.
The documents also say Morelli and Holleran called one of the the alleged victims via Facetime. With the alleged victim’s mother present, the duo allegedly said allegations had “resurfaced” regarding Eschert; a subsequent discussion resulted in the girl’s mother challenging the district for refusing to act.
An affidavit filed in Holleran’s case describes her as a second-grade teacher, an interim principal from 2020-2021, a math coach, and a math interventionist.
That document alleges that the mother of V13 — the so-called Victim #13 — called Holleran while she was the interim principal to report that V13’s friends allegedly said that Eschert was using candy to bribe girls to sit on his lap.
Holleran allegedly told V13’s mother that the incident must have been a “misunderstanding,” according to the police retelling of the matter. The mother allegedly asked Holleran to investigate; Holleran allegedly took it upon herself to do so and concluded that nothing but a “misunderstanding” had occurred.
“A child sitting on a man’s lap is not a misunderstanding, especially in school,” V13’s mother allegedly told Holleran in return.
The mother suspected that Holleran told the girls to back down with their complaints, according to the affidavit.
At one point, the police report says V13’s mother alleged that Holleran tried to downplay the accusations by saying Eschert was a “good person” — a comment that seems to have enraged the mother.
V13’s mother also said in an email cited by the police that Holleran indicated the entire complaint or complaints were “a misunderstanding” because Eschert “was her friend and he would never do that.”
A series of entries in a pupil data system suggest that Holleran called the mothers of Victim #3 and two other female students on April 30, 2021, “about a rumor from last year.”
School superintendent Brian Falcone told the police that state investigators should have been called to handle the complaints according to school policy and state law, the affidavit notes. Falcone became the superintendent just weeks before the case broke open.
Holleran allegedly told Falcone that the “rumors” or complaints didn’t contain enough factual information to warrant a call to DCF, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.
Collins Collins, who was the principal at Plymouth Center School from 2004 to 2019, was allegedly told by alleged Victim #1 that Eschert “started touching my thigh which was really weird.” Additional alleged victims and their parents told the police that multiple complaining parties went to Collins — but Collins allegedly did little to nothing of substance.
“Thanks for your information,” Collins allegedly replied to Victims 7, 9, and 10. “I’ll try to do something about it.”
One recalled Collins saying she would “try and fix it.”
The complaining parties were ultimately unimpressed.
“She might have talked to him,” one said, again per the affidavit. “But I don’t think he listened.”
The parent of alleged Victim #9 said her complaints “got brushed under the rug” after going to Collins’ office to address the issue in person.
Collins allegedly responded by saying “that’s just the way Mr. E [Eschert] teaches.”
“That’s his nature,” Collins allegedly replied to the concerned parent. “He’s a great teacher.”
Collins then allegedly vouchsafed something that made the parent of Victim #9 uneasy.
“A few other parents have made similar comments that you’re making but I told them, I’m gonna tell you, it’s just . . . he’s a phenomenal teacher,” Collins allegedly said. “That’s his way of teaching. I reassure you everything is fine. But I will look into it.”
The mother eventually told the police she was “pissed” at the response.
“Mrs. Collins was turning a blind eye or was ignorant to the situation,” the police report indicates.
Additional complaints to Collins are outlined in an eight-page affidavit in her case.
Eschert’s personnel file remained relatively barren of documentation about the core accusations, and no reports about the alleged abuse were filed with the state until Suffridge became aware of the matter, the documents suggest. Collins, however, did called the state education department about allegations that Eschert had given away answers to a standardized test. The police reports raise questions about why she reported that issue but not the broader alleged scheme afoot.
Turner, the school’s principal from 2019 to 2020, the superintendent from 2020-2021, and again the principal from 2021-2022, allegedly asked Falcone “if someone will file a failure to report on her” — which, eventually, happened.
The affidavit in Turner’s case alleges a similar pattern: an accusation from a parent; a promise to “have a discussion” with Eschert, and a failure to call the state.
Eschert “just kept getting warnings,” the documents state.
Turner allegedly told one of the complaining parents that she knew “the old principal was told and didn’t do anything about this.”
“I’m a new principal and I’m going to look into this,” she allegedly continued.
Turner allegedly said she would “started popping in” to Eschert’s classroom to keep an eye on things, the document asserts.
“She just listened and didn’t do anything about it,” one of the alleged victims asserted.
The three employees who remained on the payroll when the case unfolded have been placed on leave, according to a letter from the superintendent that was provided to Law&Crime.
Eschert has pleaded not guilty.
The combined affidavits against all four of the recent arrestees are combined into one document and embedded below:
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