Teacher accused of child abuse cleared, will return to Kensington school soon

Marianne Kennedy and her principal say she acted properly with an out-of-control child.

Marianne Kennedy has missed Willard Elementary’s winter concert, and the science fair, and red-ribbon day.

But the Willard teacher, hailed as a hero in the school community but wrongly labeled a child abuser by the city’s Department of Human Services, will return to the Kensington school next week.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services this week ordered Kennedy’s child-abuse charges expunged. She had been accused of harming a troubled first grader last June, and has been out of the school, barred from contact with children, since September.

Kennedy was transformed  after she got word from her attorney Thursday night that she had been cleared. She couldn’t stop smiling.

“I just want to be there with the kids again,” she said. “I’m ready to go back tomorrow.”

An official with the Philadelphia DHS said Friday the agency would not appeal the ruling, based on a recommendation by Administrative Law Judge F. Joseph Brady.

“We support the process and respect the outcome,” said DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa. “It is equally important to make sure that when any child feels they have experienced abuse, that we foster a culture that supports and empowers children who report concerns regarding how they are treated.”

A School District official told Kennedy she could return to Willard on Tuesday, she said.

The Willard first grader, who had the highest level of behavioral supports the school offered, told his aunt that Kennedy sat on him in June, causing him to be unable to breathe. Brady found that the child’s statement “does not rise to substantial evidence” because no evidence was produced to corroborate it by the aunt or anyone else.

The boy struggled the week of the alleged abuse, and on several occasions, Kennedy, the school’s teacher leader, was called to deal with him. Kennedy and other staffers say she put her hand behind his head to stop him from harming himself, but nothing more.

Brady ruled that Kennedy’s actions to physically stop the troubled boy were “reasonable” in order to “prevent him from seriously hurting himself.”

Kennedy has worked at Willard for 20 years, where she maintains a food pantry for hungry students and is known as the “heart and soul” of the school, principal Ron Reilly said. Staffers refer the toughest kids to Kennedy, who has a way of calming them without raising her voice. 

Since September, she has been assigned to a small room at the School District’s central office, where teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings are kept. Kennedy was twice considered by the School Reform Commission for termination, but after impassioned pleas from the Willard community, the SRC withdrew the resolutions.

Though she was reassigned, Kennedy has worked for Willard from afar, handling scheduling and other administrative tasks. On Friday, the email she sent to the staff noting who was out, which kids were going to gym, and which to music was exuberant.

“I didn’t sleep at all,” she wrote. “To know that my nightmare is over and I am just waiting to be returned has made me so excited.”

Reilly was pretty excited himself.

“We’re beyond joyful,” Reilly said. “We will all get a boost from her positivity.”

Everyone is thrilled that Kennedy will not have the fear of being fired and the mark of child abuse on her record, the principal said. But he’s also looking forward to Kennedy’s indispensable help in the building.

“I’m getting my point guard back,” he said.

And the kids? They’ve asked for Kennedy all year. She directed staff to tell the children that she missed them but was working on important projects at the School District office. She didn’t want to worry or confuse them.

“Seeing them will be the best part of coming back,” Kennedy said. “I can’t wait to go back to Willard, to go back home.”

Kennedy was at an SRC meeting Thursday when she got the news. After the meeting, an admirer approached her.

Estelle Richman, who awaits state Senate confirmation as an SRC member, knows a few things about government agencies. She is a former state secretary of public welfare and city managing director, among other positions.

Richman had never met Kennedy, but she knew her story.

"Congratulations," Richman told Kennedy. "I'm so pleased. This is really good news for kids."