A suspended Connecticut elementary school principal and a suspended educator have both been arrested and charged in connection with what local police say is a sprawling investigation into years-long allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior involving a fourth-grade teacher who was himself arrested and charged earlier this year.
According to the Plymouth Police Department, Sherri Turner, 59, of Farmington, and Melissa Morelli, 45, of Plymouth, are both charged with failing to report the abuse, neglect, or injury of a child or the imminent risk of serious harm to a child. Both were arrested and released upon a promise to appear in court. Arraignments are scheduled for Sept. 7, 2022, in New Britain, Connecticut.
“Other arrests,” the police department said, are “pending.” Law&Crime has been told that two additional arrest affidavits are in situ but have not been served as of time time of this report.
The Hartford Courant reported that Turner was a school principal but was placed on leave on Nov. 5, 2021. Morelli was described as a math interventionist who was put on leave on April 12, 2022.
Citing a letter to parents from the school’s superintendent, the newspaper indicated that a total of four arrest warrants have been issued for “three current employees of the school and one former school administrator.”
The probe, the police told Law&Crime, is connected to the earlier arrest of now-former teacher James Ernest Eschert, 51.
Eschert, according to the Plymouth Police Department, was arrested on Jan. 24, 2022 after a Sept. 29, 2021 complaint to the police of “inappropriate conduct . . . between Mr. Eschert and several juveniles who were his students at the time of the incidents.”
An investigation led to a Jan. 18, 2022 arrest warrant. Eschert “surrendered himself to the Plymouth Police Department” on five counts of risk of injury to a child, all felonies, and two counts of fourth-degree sexual assault, both misdemeanors, the department indicated in a press release written on the date of the arrest.
Bail for Eschert was set at $350,000, according to Connecticut Superior Court paperwork obtained by Law&Crime. A court docket suggests, however, that the amount has been lowered to $150,000 and that Eschert has been released from pretrial custody. Not guilty pleas on all counts appear on the Eschert docket.
A police affidavit also obtained by Law&Crime says Eschert was a fourth-grade teacher at Plymouth Center School. He had been with the local school district since 1998 and for a time taught third and second grade.
A Sept. 16 report by Eli Terry Jr. Middle School Principal Angela Suffridge spurred the probe, the affidavit says. The police affidavit cites a social worker’s report as listing Suffridge as the “initial reporter” — the person who first blew the whistle on the allegations. The social worker who initially looked into Suffridge’s report is Alyson Harrison.
The police affidavit reveals claims of a school cover-up of allegations against Eschert which include the buying of gifts, the giving of test answers, the touching of a thigh and arm, and the “bouncing” of “girls on his lap in a humping motion.”
The narrative contained in the affidavit reads, verbatim, as follows (emphasis in the original):
Principal Suffridge reported that victim #1 (V1), an [redacted]-year-old female student, brought her a note that V1 wrote. The written note was about incidents that occurred [redacted] years ago [redacted] when V1 was in 4th grade and her teacher was James Eschert (aka “Mr. E”). V1 is the initial disclosure victim. Principal Suffridge later told Harrison that the reason this all came bout is because a boy in the middle school had been body shaming V1 and it brought up memories of the past of Mr. E and experiences V1 had with him.
According to the note, V1 stated that Mr. E became strange and was being weird and hugging other students. V1 needed help with math problems and Mr. E came to help her and Mr. E got all weird and started touching V1’s thigh and arm. V1 stated that Mr. E tells girls things he shouldn’t tell them and then touches them in ways he shouldn’t. V1 wrote that they (she and other girls) had to pretend to like Mr. E so he wouldn’t get mad at them.
According to the note, V1 identifies three additional victims. They are victim #2 (V2), a [redacted]-year-old female student, victim #3 (V3), and [redacted]-year-old female student, and victim #4, an [redacted]-year-old female student. According to the note, V1 states that Mr. E would pick her, V2, V3, and V4 to have lunch with him. V1 stated that Mr. E loved these four girls and sometimes they would stay inside with him during recess. V1 stated that the girls would go to the bathroom to get away from Mr. E and they were creeped out by him. V1 stated that she and V2 would go to the principal one to two times a week and the principal did nothing about this behavior by Mr. E. V1 stated that Mr. E told her she had the perfect body and that she should never eat. V1 stated that Mr. E told the other girls that, “Wow. You should go work out. You are so overweight. You should be like the skinny girls.” V1 stated that Mr. E treated the boys differently from the girls and he favored the girls.
The lengthy affidavit says Suffridge spoke with V1’s mother; the mother said “she knew about the note and that Mr. E would often buy V1 gifts like stuffed animals, and she knew about the private lunches and comments Mr. E would make to V1.”
V2 allegedly told the Principal Suffridge that Eschert would ask the girls to “stay inside for recess” for what he called “Fun Friday.”
“V2 told her [Suffridge] that Mr. E’s desk was in the back of the classroom and Mr. E. would tell the girls that they could sit on his lap if they wanted to,” the affidavit asserts. “V2 told her that Mr. E would compliment the girls on their outfits. V2 said that one time V1 was writing on the child board and her shirt was rising up and Mr. E was staring at her. V2 told her that Mr. E would sometimes play with her hair while they were working on a reading assignment.”
V3 allegedly told Suffridge that “she would make excuses” to attempt to prevent Eschert from hugging her; she also allegedly “would make excuses to go outside” so she didn’t feel pressured to spend recess inside with her teacher.
Harrison, the social worker, notified school superintendent Brian Falcone and the State Department of Education of her investigation on Sept. 17, 2021, according to the affidavit.
The mother of V5 alleged to Harrison that “she has definitely gone to the school a number of times” about Eschert and that the “school district has known about [them] for years.”
The mother said she pulled another of her children out of Eschert’s class because she “didn’t want her to have a similar experience with Mr. E,” the affidavit continues.
However, that younger sister allegedly was involved in an “acting club” taught by Eschert. The mother of the two girls “said she saw Mr. E belly bump the girl playing Santa.” A complaint was allegedly lodged with the school district about that incident as well.
V5’s mother seemed to suggest “that nothing reported was ever flagrant enough to be a criminal matter,” the affidavit indicates.
The investigation, however, uncovered more, the affidavit claims. Harrison spoke again with V’s mother. The mother said V5 “was upset and crying and thought she would never have to talk about this again” but decided to provide more information.
The police document says V5 expressed a preference for speaking with “a stranger” about what happened — so as to shield her mother. But the mother said her daughter had vouchsafed that Eschert was seen “bouncing girls on his lap in a humping motion.”
The investigation continued. The affidavit continues with increasingly disturbing allegations of sexualized physical contact between the teacher and his female students:
On September 29, 2021, Harrison arrived at V5’s residence and conducted an interview with V5. V5 requested the interview happen in her bedroom, where she is most comfortable. V5 said that Mr. E was her 4th grade teacher. She knows he lives in Avon, Connecticut, and he shared this fact with the girls. She said Mr. E was her first male teacher. She said she was not used to Mr. E’s classroom setting, noting that rather than arrange his desk in a corner of the room like most teachers do, he had his desk in the middle of the classroom. V5 said it started out with Mr. E favoring four girls. She said Mr. E would give them answers to quizzes and tests and let them sit in chairs on each side of his desk. She said Mr. E would give them hugs which she thought was weird because no other teacher did that with her before. After sitting next to Mr. E’s desk for a while he would invite her and the other girls to sit on his lap. While she was on his lap, Mr. E would move her body on his private part. She felt his private part get hard. Mr. E. would also ask them to go under his desk and gave them paper to decorate under there. V5 said that while under his desk, Mr. E’s private part would be in her face or another girl’s face and sometimes he would touch his private part over his clothing. She denied he ever pulled his private part out of his pants for her to see. She said Mr. E would rub her shoulders and touch her breasts over her clothing to check if she was wearing a bra each day or not. She said that on one occasion Mr. E touched her underneath her bra. She said she saw him doing this to other girls too. She said this always happened in the classroom. She said Mr. E would invite them to his house in Avon, noting that they are welcome to dinner if they are ever in the neighborhood. He would tell them that he would take them out for ice cream, but they never went. She said that Mr. E would carry a small camera around and take pictures up the girl’s skirts and down their shirts. She said when they did yoga in class, Mr. E would take pictures of the girls in dresses and then give the girls a picture of themselves and keep a picture. She said that Mr. E printed the pictures at Walmart. She noted how she has one picture of herself that Mr. E took, sharing that it was taken in his classroom around Thanksgiving. She talked about how she’s always had a lot of anxiety around quiz and test times and how it was difficult for her when she entered 6th grade and had a male teacher again. She reported that she was scared and worried the male teacher would do the same thing Mr. E would do. She confirmed that she wants to go to counseling and already talked with her mother and father about this.
Harrison then told V5 that she had to tell the police what happened, the document states.
The girl responded that she was “ready to talk about what has happened and thinks something more needs to be done.”
“She said this has gone on too long and she doesn’t want any more girls to have Mr. E as a teacher,” the affidavit asserts.
Conversations with the police ensued; the affidavit says the content was virtually the same.
A subsequent conversation with Falcone is partially redacted in the affidavit connected to Eschert’s arrest. It does, however, suggest that someone else on the staff “knew about this and did not report” it as required under state law.
Falcone became the superintendent in July 2021 and said it “sounds like all of this predates his position,” the affidavit notes. However, he said he knew “17 years ago” that Eschert was suspected of giving away “standardized test scores.”
During yet another police interview on Oct. 14, 2021, V5 indicated in reference to the girls that Eschert “would stick his hands up their shirts.” She also said Eschert “would ask what color their bra was that day and then check to see what it looked like.”
It was also divulged during that Oct. 14 interview that Eschert would allegedly go to third-grade teachers to “choose 4 or 5 girls that he made sure got into his class.”
Those “favorites” would be given gifts, answers to tests, and inside time during recess.
“He would pick you up and place you on his lap and he would say ‘You can do your work like normal’ and he would hold you and he would rub you on him or he would rub himself on you and he would wrap his arms around you and he wouldn’t let you go,” the girl allegedly told the police, according to the affidavit. “[H]e would be bumping his hips forward.”
V5’s mother said she “didn’t report anything to the school administration” regarding V5 but did so regarding her other daughter, who was eventually listed as V12, with regards to the “belly bump.”
Additional social worker and police interviews with V1 allegedly corroborated many of V5’s accounts.
V1 claimed “none of this was taken seriously before” after “numerous” previous complaints — “it was like once a week they went to the office to report Mr. E.”
Rather than take action, those in whom the students confided did little or nothing, the affidavit says: “Mr. E just kept getting warnings.”
V1 said she told an administrator that Eschert was “touching us inappropriately and we want you to do something about it.”
“But we said that every week and she did nothing about it,” V1 told the police in reference to the administrator.
Details were allegedly divulged to the administration; nothing of substance was allegedly done — in part because an administrator told the complaining parties that she’d “worked together with Mr. E for years.”
The affidavit says V1 said the administrator — who appears a principal referenced as having retired within the last several years — was “definitely Mr. E’s friend.”
The names of the “administrators” who were allegedly told about the allegations were redacted from the original affidavit.
Additional complaints from additional alleged victims were also lodged with the administration, according to several subsequent pages of the massive 21-page affidavit.
At least one parent, the mother of the so-called V7, blamed herself for not being more forceful with the administration.
“I let this go on,” a mother is quoted as saying. “I know for a fact that multiple parents have contacted [redacted] and she has done nothing.”
That mother also alleged that Eschert “manipulated” her through friendly Facebook chats.
Another parent told the authorities that she feared that Eschert would simply be allowed to resign and would go on to teach somewhere else. She promised a letter-writing campaign to any future employer if that occurred.
That parent indicated that the alleged conduct had been “covered up by the school for years.”
V1’s mother told the police that she “did complain” about the situation and that a new administrator indicated that “rumors” about the teacher were known. But that new administrator also did nothing, the mother told the police, according to the affidavit.
V2 was also interviewed by Harrison, the social worker, and subsequently by the police. Her accusations also included the touching and rubbing of her thigh and the touching of her hair.
Another alleged victim, V6, reportedly said she now realizes “how weird Mr. E is” because she’s older.
Yet another, V3, was recalcitrant with the authorities but generally spoke well of Eschert. Investigators wrote in the affidavit that they suspected she was hiding details.
“We were so young,” a purported Victim #8 allegedly told the constabulary. “We didn’t know any better.”
“It was super weird,” she allegedly continued when asked about the goings on in Eschert’s classroom. “I don’t blame my younger self for thinking that it was normal.”
“He started physically touching us,” a purported V7 told the authorities in the affidavit while recounting Eschert pulling her onto his lap.
“I tried to pull away,” V7 reportedly said, “but he wouldn’t let me.”
“He’s a pervert,” V7 told the constabulary about Eschert.
Eventually, a search warrant resulted in the police obtaining the aforementioned camera — a red Nikon digital camera — and a mountain of more than 760 photos.
Twenty six of the images recovered by the police were “determined as inappropriate,” the affidavit alleges, “[t]wo of which . . . were of 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,” the document asserts.
The document describes Suffridge, the principal who “actually listened” to the girls, as somewhat of a hero.
Neither the school superintendent nor an administrative secretary have responded to Law&Crime’s emailed request for comment on the matter.
The police touted their long and arduous investigation back in January when Eschert was arrested.
“From the inception of this case, the Plymouth Police Department has spent countless hours conducting interviews, reviewing statements, and preparing court paperwork,” the department indicated over the winter. “This department takes all school threats and safety and well-being of students earnestly.”
Plymouth Mayor Joseph T. Kilduff noted that Connecticut has mandatory reporting laws — laws which require suspected child abuse to be reported to the authorities — in a post on Facebook. That message adds only marginally to the material accusations:
Since this is a pending criminal investigation, I cannot comment further but I want to reassure parents and concerned citizens that the Town of Plymouth is committed to protecting our children and act in their best interest. I want to thank the Plymouth Police for their thorough investigation of this matter and the Plymouth Board of Education for their full cooperation.
The police documentation provided to Law&Crime as of press time is below.
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