Reading Massachusetts Education

Reading Rejects Diversity: The Scandalous Eviction of the Chinese Culture Connection (CCC)

The shameful treatment of this non-profit organization by Superintendent Harutunian and members of the Reading School Department will not soon be forgotten.

Under Reading Superintendent Munnelly's administration in the 1990s, Reading Memorial High School enjoyed a surplus of nearly 100,000 sq. ft. of excess space. Enrollment numbers were dropping. At this time, the Reading School Committee and Chinese Culture Connection (the CCC, headed by founder and then Reading resident Catherine Hsu) entered into a barter agreement for former locker room space about one-third the size of a RMHS classroom. In lieu of rent, the CCC would provide the Town with 10 free workshops each year, with the average monetary "value" of each workshop ranging from $300-500 (excluding materials, see 1992 agreement between the CCC and the Reading Public Schools).

Change in CCC Leadership

Following the death of her husband, Ms. Hsu needed a more substantial income source for her family and less expensive housing. Hsu reluctantly resigned as Director of the Chinese Culture Connection and Mei Hung became the new director of the CCC in June 1999. Mei Hung was informed in a July 21, 1999 telephone call from Reading High School Principal Frank Orlando that he was terminating the RMHS office space agreement. This agreement between the Reading Public Schools and the Chinese Culture Connection had been initially approved by the Reading School Committee on October 5, 1992 (see July 23, 1999 letter from Mei Hung to Principal Orlando and the original 1992 agreement between the CCC and the Reading Public Schools).

When Director Mei Hung requested that the eviction notice be put in writing for her to present to the CCC Board, Principal Orlando left a 07/26/99 phone message stating that, before he would put the eviction order in a letter, the CCC would have to compile a record of all the workshops that had been conducted in the Reading schools over the past seven years. Orlando's request was confusing because, since 1992, the Reading schools' contact person for CCC has been the Assistant Superintendent and, for nearly all of that period, Dennis Richards had been the Assistant /Associate Superintendent. Over the years, Richards was the point person involved with the CCC and had even jointly applied with the previous CCC director for grants. In an August 3, 1999 memo to Principal Orlando, Mei Hung suggested that "Assistant Superintendent Dennis Richards should have all the documentation since 1992." Yet, when he was asked, Richards claimed he had no records of any CCC workshops conducted in the Reading Public Schools.

On July 29, 1999, Director Mei Hung received an undated memo from Principal Frank Orlando requesting "voluminous background information regarding the CCC and the Reading School Department dating back to 1992." When she tried to phone Principal Orlando for clarification, she was told that he was "on vacation until tomorrow" (see Mei Hung's 08/03/99 letter to Dennis Richards and the undated letter from Principal Frank Orlando).

The Break-in and Missing Files

As Principal Orlando requested (and in preparation for a meeting with the Reading School Committee), Director Mei Hung located seven files, one folder for each of the seven schools which contained forms signed by school principals and teachers and information describing the workshops the CCC had provided to each of the Reading schools. Also included was documentation regarding 19 workshops conducted by the CCC as part of a 1998 all-day cultural festival run by the Killam Parent / Teacher Organization (see 03/06/98 Hsu letter and invoice). Although the Killam PTO had previously agreed to pay the CCC for any extra classes beyond the 10 the CCC's barter agreement obligated them to offer annually, Superintendent Harutunian arbitrarily decided that the PTO need not honor the agreement. Thanks to his intervention, the CCC was forced to swallow the extra costs incurred by the Killam Festival.

The seven school files were left overnight in the CCC office in a file box on top of a worktable. The next day (the 12th of August, 1999), the files were gone. CCC director Mei Hung reported the theft of the files to the police and an officer visited the high school to make a report.

Crucified in Public

Assistant Superintendent Dennis Richards portrayed the Chinese Culture Connection as an organization that had not upheld their part of the bargain (negotiated in 1992 by Superintendent Munnelly) and had been leeching off the Reading community for years. With the files missing that proved the CCC had in fact conducted workshops and classes for the Reading Public Schools, misrepresenting and attacking the non-profit organization's record was easy. Teachers and administrators who knew better remained mute. The objective became to not only evict the CCC but malign and discredit the organization in the process.

For example, the CCC had for many years, with permission, made copies on the school copy machine using their own paper. However, Dennis Richards' 09/01/99 report ,referencing Athletic Director Phil Vacarro and a school secretary, implies that the CCC's use of the copy machine was excessive and constituted a new, additional burden to the Town. According to Richards, "Phil also indicated to me that he has frequently seen CCC representatives throughout the years using the RMHS copier and paper." In reality, the CCC had its own small copy machine and, since the days of Superintendent Munnelly, had been allowed to use the high school copy machine to make multiple copies.

The missing files presented the perfect opportunity for school officials seeking to evict the CCC. According to the official minutes of the August 18, 1999 School Committee meeting, "Dr. Harutunian advised that he had met with the principals and the principals can't recall any programs over the last few years. Mr. Richards stated that he was concerned that the administration may be overlooking some programs that the CCC may have run and he asked the CCC for documentation on any programs. He has not received any documentation." Incredibly, Dennis Richards actually claimed he could find no evidence supporting the entire "missing files" incident.

The "Locked" Office

Supposedly, only the Director of the CCC had access to the office at the high school (see 1992 agreement between the CCC and the Reading Public Schools). A custodian, privately hired by the CCC, cleaned the office only once a month. According to Director Mei Hung, in a 09/09/99 Reading Advocate article, "There was only one person who arranged with the [the previous director] to come in once a month to mop the floor." Assertions by Interim Maintenance Director Dominic Cacciapouoti (and others) that custodians "had permission to enter the office at will using Reading keys on Reading locks" are simply untrue. Prior to and following the period in which the files were taken (mid-August), CCC Director Mei Hung had also complained of finding footprints on papers on her desk and, on several occasions, finding "maintenance people working in her office without her knowledge."

The responses from school administrators and acting Maintenance Director Dom Cacciuputti, whose office adjoined the CCC space, mirrored that of Assistant Superintendent Dennis Richards who, in his 09/01/99 report to Superintendent Harutunian, denied that "anything other than normal maintenance and custodial work has occurred in the area."

In reality, not only had unauthorized personnel been entering and exiting the CCC office but one of Harutunian's own sons had made a series of phone calls from the Chinese Culture Connection's office telephone to Superintendent Harutunian's home in Beverly, Massachusetts. Incredibly, Superintendent Harutunian quietly admitted this and sent the CCC a check for $10 (dated 08/21/99 but received by the CCC much later) to cover the cost of the calls (see Harutnian's letter to Mei Hung, his payment to the CCC and the phone record of the calls).

At the time, Harutunian's "13 year old son" was spending the summer working with the school maintenance department. The Superintendent accounts for his son's presence in the office in a 08/23/99 letter to CCC Director Mei Hung by explaining that his son was "helping to install the air conditioner in the Interim Maintenance Director's office when he felt the need to call his mother at home." While this may or may not be true, what this incident really indicates is that Superintendent Harutunian knew unauthorized individuals had access to the CCC office. Nevertheless, he continued to allow his employees (Assistant Superintendent Dennis Richards, Principal Orlando and others) to deny that unauthorized individuals had access to the office, to malign the CCC in public and to misrepresent the facts in an attempt to undermine the credibility of the non-profit organization and tarnish its reputation in the community.

The office incident involving Harutunian's son becomes especially interesting when considering comments made by Superintendent Harutunian at a March, 2002 administrative informational session for Reading pre-school parents (listen to part A [.mp3 audio, 30.0 MB] and part B [.mp3 audio, 17.9 MB] of the March 2002 meeting - Harutunian's comments may be found in Part A, roughly 19 minutes and 10 seconds into the recording).

The Chinese Culture Connection never accused Harutunian’s son of taking files from the supposedly secure, locked office. None of Harutunian's critics (to the best of our knowledge) have ever implicated Harutunian's son in the theft of the files. Yet, Superintendent Harutunian did not hesitate to bring his own child into the fray, suggesting at the private, invitation-only administrative meeting that his critics had accused his 13 year-old son of "stealing files" while "working with a cleaning crew."

Superintendent Harutunian is, of course, referring to the theft of the files from the CCC office?

Why, when no one had actually accused his son of taking the missing CCC files, did Superintendent Harutunian feel the need to preemptively raise and distort this issue? To gain sympathy? To discredit those with legitimate criticisms of the Superintendent? To help cover-up the theft of the files? There is no evidence linking Harutunian's son to the theft of the files. How long has Superintendent Harutunian been spreading this story?


The initial explanation offered by members of the Harutunian administration for the eviction of the Chinese Culture Connection was that the CCC space would be used for a bigger Athletic Director office. Indeed, this entire episode probably began with Athletic Director Phil Vaccaro expressing interest in expanding his office. In the end, however, school department officials insisted that the small CCC space was somehow needed to accomodate special education collaborative students transported from other towns. Ironically, other excess high school space (also handicapped accessible) in close proximity to an outside entrance already existed at the high school. However, that space was being used by School Committee member Roberta D’Antona to run her "non-profit" daycare program REAP (Reading Extended-Day After-School Program).

For many years, the REAP organization's locations were heavily subsidized by the Town of Reading. REAP paid extremely low rent for the spaces and enjoyed many unusual benefits. Under the Harutunian administration, REAP space was protected and untouchable. Instead, the smaller space used by the CCC was targeted for SPED needs by school administrators while REAP space and empty classrooms in the math / science wing were not even offered for consideration.

Reading administrators made lame attempts to temporarily provide the CCC with space. Principal Orlando gave CCC members a cursory tour of the high school, offering only undesirable spaces deep within the building and omitting available room inside the math / science wing. Within a few months, the CCC accepted an offer to move to a space in a more culturally diverse and appreciative community, Malden, Massachusetts. The CCC was finally gone from Reading Memorial High School.

Mission accomplished.

The Cover-Up

The CCC break-in and cover-up was "business as usual" for the Harutunian administration. During Harutunian's tenure, important files and records would regularly disappear, particularly if they were requested by members of the public. Police reports referenced by school administratiors and local newspapers (the reports of officers Stanton and Patterson) still have not been released. The only 08/26/99 police record available does not even mention the theft of the files, only that Director Mei Hung reported "finding her door open at the high school" and that "nothing appears to be missing at this time." To date, the mystery of who took the files from the Chinese Culture Connection's office has never been solved.


Who took the files? More importantly, who benefitted from the theft of the files?

CCC Answering Machine Messages [.mp3 audio, 3.33 MB] - Listening to to the phone messages left on the CCC answer machine by Reading school administrators, one might be inclined to believe that Superintendent Harutunian, Assistant Superintendent Dennis Richards and Principal Frank Orlando were bending over backwards to be helpful to the CCC. In reality, they were doing everything they could to discredit and embarass the CCC and then evict them as quickly as possible. See a transcript [.pdf, 115 KB]

Undated letter from Principal Frank Orlando [.pdf, 22.9 KB] requesting the same information "regarding the activities of the Chinese Culture office for Reading students and teachers" that later disappeared from the CCC office.

Mei Hung's 08/03/99 letter to Dennis Richards [.pdf, 379 KB] outlining her confusion over being asked to deliver information and documentation to Principal Frank Orlando that, as the CCC's "point person" since 1992, Assistant Superintendent Dennis Richards should have already possessed.

Official minutes from the August 18, 1999 School Committee meeting [.pdf, 94.4 KB] at which Dr. Harutunian's "recommendation that the Chinese Cultural Center move out of the space no later than October 31, 1999" was discussed.

Assistant Superintendent Dennis Richards' 09/01/99 CCC break-in report [.pdf, 459 KB] in which he concludes that "based upon the information I have gathered I believe that anything other than normal maintenance and custodial work has occurred."

Daily Times Chronicle, September 3, 1999 [.pdf, 210 KB] - The Reading School Department finds no evidence that documents were taken in alleged CCC break-in. Of course they don't find any evidence, they benefitted from the disappearance of the files!

09/09/99 Reading Advocate article [.pdf, 57.5 KB] in which CCC Director Mei Hung challenges Dennis Richards' statements and the statements of other Reading school administrators.

The original 1992 agreement between the CCC and the Reading Public Schools [.pdf, 52.2 KB] - Contrary to the statements of Dennis Richards and Interim Maintenance Director Dominic Cacciapouoti, concerning the CCC's office space, there was always supposed to be "no custodial service for the area."

Phone record [.pdf, 19.5 KB] of the calls made to Superintendent Harutunian's home by his 13 year-old son from inside the supposedly "locked" and secure CCC office.

Payment made to the CCC [.pdf, 15.6 KB] by Superintendent Harutunian for the calls made by his son from the CCC's office telephone to his home in Beverly, Massachusetts.

08/23/99 letter to CCC Director Mei Hung [.pdf, 35.2 KB] in which Superintendent Harutunian explains that his son was in the CCC's office "helping to install the air conditioner in the Interim Maintenance Director's office when he felt the need to call his mother at home."

08/26/99 police record [.pdf, 18.4 KB] does not mention the theft of the CCC's files, only that Director Mei Hung reported "finding her door open at the high school" and that "nothing appears to be missing at this time."