A special education teacher who spent more than a year on paid administrative leave following accusations that he molested a child in his home has been officially fired from the Essex Westford School District.
Last month, the EWSD School Board upheld recommendations from superintendent Beth Cobb to fire 45-year-old Mark Zizis, of Shoreham, who stands accused of fondling a young boy during a sleepover at his home in 2011.
Zizis was arrested in February 2017 after the boy’s mother reported the alleged abuse to investigators in Addison County. Zizis pleaded not guilty to a charge of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child and is currently awaiting trial.
He had worked as a behavioral specialist and special education teacher at Albert D. Lawton for 11 years when district officials placed him on leave. They said at the time they would hold off on a decision on Zizis’ future employment until either his criminal trial concluded or until they received substantiation of the abuse, correspondence obtained in a public records request shows.
In her recommendation to fire Zizis, Cobb pointed to a report from Vt. Department for Children and Families that she said substantiates the allegations. She charged Zizis with engaging in behavior “unbecoming of a teacher” and argued for his termination during a 90-minute executive session last month.
Zizis fervently denies any wrongdoing. He appealed Cobb’s recommendation and pleaded his case to the school board in a highly personal letter, which he shared with The Reporter last week.
In the letter, Zizis recounts a “mental, physical and financial battle” over the last 18 months to defend and maintain his reputation. He calls the allegations a “fabricated tale” from an “emotionally disturbed child” and named the investigation a “modern day witch hunt.” He urged the board to not act in haste.
“I ask that you please allow me the right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law, instead of prematurely acting as a judge and jury,” he wrote.
When Zizis returned a teaching contract to the district earlier this year – signaling his intent to remain in his position despite the ongoing criminal case – Cobb informed him that he must provide evidence showing either the criminal charge was dropped or that he successfully appealed DCF’s findings.
DCF relies on a lower standard of proof than in the criminal process: Instead of proving the allegations “beyond a reasonable doubt,” investigators must only find that a “reasonable person” would believe the alleged abuse occurred. Suspects with substantiated allegations are placed on the Child Abuse Registry, a confidential list that employers can check when someone applies to work with a vulnerable population, like children.
Zizis’ attorney, Devin McLaughlin, told Cobb they have postponed their appeal of the DCF report until his client’s criminal proceedings are resolved. Zizis must request that review within 30 days of his case’s conclusion, according to McLaughlin, who said they planned to seek an acquittal during a trial this fall.
Cobb informed Zizis in July that he was suspended with pay pending the school board’s ruling. Noting his ongoing criminal case, the DCF report and his status on the Vermont Child Protection Registry, she wrote, “Any of these reasons alone is a sufficient basis to terminate your employment.”
The school board planned to meet with Zizis on August 21, but Cobb asked to delay the hearing upon realizing a big crowd would likely attend that meeting due to the transportation saga.
Board chairwoman Martha Heath wrote Zizis on August 29, the day after his hearing, to inform him he’d been fired effective immediately. She said he could appeal the decision in court.
Zizis’ arrest came prior to EWSD’s first official day of operation, meaning his employer at the time was still the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union. A letter from the supervisory union dated Feb. 22, 2017, the day of Zizis’ arrest, directed him to not contact any parents or students involved in the matter and to not access his district email. He was also barred from speaking to colleagues unless it was to seek the union’s support for his case.
In his letter to the school board, Zizis took issue with how law enforcement handled his case. He said investigators failed to interview any of his former colleagues, students, families, supervisors or anyone who could vouch for his work history. He said he continues to study his case and remain hopeful for a positive outcome, but said neither a decision from the board nor a jury will change how he thinks of himself.
“I will spend the rest of my life knowing that I am an innocent man who was falsely accused of an unspeakable crime,” he wrote.
The alleged incident occurred in March 2011 during a sleepover at Zizis’ home with Zizis’ own child present. According to court records, the victim called his mother the next morning and asked to be picked up early. The mother later told investigators her son wanted to be held and seemed afraid to be out of her presence. She started to believe something occurred that night.
She ceased contact with the Zizis family shortly after, court records show. Six years later, the alleged victim, now in his teens, told his mother if he knew Zizis would be arrested, he would be willing to tell his story.
Speaking to investigators last year, the mother recounted interactions with Zizis that she found strange at the time, like asking if she wanted to trade children for the day, or saying that he loved her son and wanted to give the boy his last name.
When investigators met with Zizis outside his home to explain the allegations, he said he remembered the sleepover and recalled the mother acting strangely, claiming something had happened but not sharing any details with him.
In November 2011, eight months after the sleepover, Zizis went to the Middlebury Police Department and spoke with a detective. He said someone sent his employer an anonymous letter accusing him of inappropriate behavior and asked how he could protect himself.
It’s unclear what that letter said. In an email to The Reporter, superintendent Cobb confirmed the letter was sent to CCSU, but she said district administrators don’t have access to it.
“I have not seen it,” she wrote.