[Ed. Note: Back in 2019, in the wake of news reports and lawsuits concerning sexual misconduct in our publicly funded schools, I wrote this blog post, asking a question that we still–in 2022–do not have an answer for: how are parents to know that their children are safe from sexual misconduct in our schools, if the city sets no benchmark policy for student safety applicable to all publicly funded schools all the time?
In the wake of recent reporting around sexual misconduct at Duke Ellington HS, Ward 2 council member Brooke Pinto and Ward 2 state board of education representative Allister Chang wrote a letter to the head of the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE), asking what that agency was doing to safeguard students. Although they got no response from OSSE, they did get a response from DCPS. Later, in speaking to me about Duke Ellington (where my child is enrolled), Chang asked me whether I thought DCPS provided an adequate response.
What follows is my March 13 answer to Allister Chang’s question to me–which includes my research on how current laws are not effectively protecting our students and what could make it better: Centralized reporting of all teachers and their histories across DC; uniform investigation and reporting policies across schools and LEAs; robust flagging AND storage of data from all inconclusive investigations; sharing of all cases, both inconclusive and conclusive, across schools and LEAs; public disclosure of all cases of misconduct against students in our schools; and protection of at will school employees who report allegations.
My research also suggests that Title IX can be used as a shield for defendants in civil cases. For instance, DCPS was recently dismissed as a defendant in a civil lawsuit brought by a former Duke Ellington student for alleged sexual misconduct by former teacher Mark Walker (who has been charged with child sex abuse). DCPS argued for that dismissal, saying that pursuing Title IX violations in civil court requires not only that someone at the school had to have known the sexual misconduct was going on while it was going on, but that the complaint of sexual misconduct had to have been made to an “appropriate” person under Title IX. (An “appropriate” person is someone with supervisory or other hiring and firing power over the alleged abuser.) The success of DCPS’s dismissal suggests that for a student to obtain justice under Title IX, that child must unfailingly identify an “appropriate” person under the statute to report her abuse to OR get lucky that the person she reported to will do so–which that and other cases show are conditions not always met and not necessarily something even adults could be expected to know (or do).
As I wrote in 2019, ensuring our students are safe from sexual misconduct in our schools is a matter of basic public safety—-much like functioning door locks, fire and building codes, safe food-handling protocols, and clean water and air. We don’t expect our students to enforce their own safety for those things in our schools, and schools don’t get to create their own rules for any of those, either. We should not expect anything different for sexual misconduct.]
March 13, 2022
I wanted to send a reply to a question you posed to me last month—and I finally feel able to do so.
I am copying here council member Pinto and her staff member because this concerns the letter you both sent to OSSE at the end of January. That letter asked what that agency would do to secure the safety of students at Duke Ellington (where I have an enrolled student) in the wake of reporting about sexual misconduct against students there. As you know, the February 11 response to your letter was from DCPS, not OSSE.
Anyway, when we spoke, you asked me whether that DCPS response (which at the time I had not yet seen) was adequate.
My answer now is no.
Please allow me to explain why—and what we urgently need instead.
I took some time to look at public records of lawsuits, reporting of sexual misconduct, and arrest records around DC’s publicly funded schools. I discovered a pattern in DC’s publicly funded schools regarding sexual misconduct against students that is neither limited to Duke Ellington HS nor adequately acknowledged by any city agency or law:
–laws are not followed strictly (or sometimes at all);
–rules and reporting are inconsistent;
–parents do not have good information; and
–loopholes in existing law allow bad behavior to flourish and justice to be denied even when laws are being followed.
As you are aware, that law strengthened reporting and tracking requirements for potential sexual misconduct in all DC’s publicly funded schools, whether with investigating allegations or doing background checks of all school staff. One of the first requirements of the act was to ensure that every publicly funded school in DC had on its website its specific policy regarding investigating and dealing with sexual misconduct.
Yet, just this past week I was unable to find that on Duke Ellington’s website.
I was also unable to find it on the websites of Wilson, Dunbar, Anacostia, Walls, and McKinley Tech high schools. I didn’t check the websites of all DCPS high schools—but the fact that three of its selective high schools and three of its high schools of right (nearly half of DCPS high schools) didn’t have it suggests that DCPS is not enforcing this part of the law.
I also looked for such a policy on the websites of a few charter schools whose staff have been implicated in recent sexual misconduct lawsuits and/or arrests, including Capital City, Chavez, KIPP DC, and Two Rivers. The last two had nothing I could find, while Chavez had only a very basic outline about mandated reporting.
In fact, of all those schools I just mentioned, only Capital City had a fulsome description of what the school commits to with regard to investigating sexual misconduct, as called for in the school safety act. (You can see it here.)
My cursory search last week of legal databases identified more than 30 civil lawsuits since 2018 brought against DC’s publicly funded schools, alleging misconduct of one sort or another toward students. Two of the cases were for Ellington, while the majority (>75%) were for charter schools.
And while not all those lawsuits concerned alleged sexual misconduct, they also do not comprise all cases of misconduct against students in our schools. (For example, see this accounting by parents in 2019, in the wake of sexual misconduct by an aftercare provider in our schools.) As you may recall, legislation to reveal cases of sexual misconduct against students in our publicly funded schools never even got a hearing at the council, while DCPS itself refused to disclose incidents when requested repeatedly. (See here and here.)
Thus, as beneficial as the school safety act is, it is vital that DC leaders recognize that it is not a solution for many of the problems we see right now in our publicly funded schools and that some recent lawsuits outline.
For instance, there is no centralized reporting of teachers and their histories across DC, while schools determine their own investigation policies. In fact, in response to questions about schools ensuring student safety, the deputy mayor for education told a DC resident she would have to ask each charter and private school what their policies are.
In addition, the act does not outline whether (and how) inconclusive investigations are to be flagged or stored for future scrutiny and whether (and how) cases can be connected—nor does it mandate how schools set their policy for reporting, which provides loopholes that do not protect students.
And the act does not provide for public disclosure of all cases of misconduct against students in our schools nor the protection of at will school employees who report allegations.
I have put below recent examples of how the school safety act and other current DC laws do not provide protection (and sometimes even justice) for our students.
A. In early 2021, teacher Joan Lavery Meyer was arrested, having been accused of committing sexual misconduct against a student more than a decade earlier. The arrest warrant described in detail how Meyer moved from school to school in DC without having any of the allegations against her tracked.
In 2009, Meyer was employed by Two Rivers when several incidents were reported with a student enrolled there. Two Rivers apparently undertook an investigation and fired her for (in the words of the arrest warrant, quoting the principal) “using bad judgement relating to her personal relationships with students.”
This suggests that there was no note about possible sexual misconduct in her record despite that termination—which means that the school safety act would not necessarily have flagged her.
Indeed, about a week after getting fired, Meyer started her employment at Chavez—and then left that school in 2012, when she began working at Duke Ellington. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was where the same student she was investigated for at Two Rivers was enrolled by that time. By 2019, Meyer was at another school, in Ohio.
But well before Meyer got to Ohio, there were two reports to DC police about her possible misconduct against this student. In each case, the student denied any sexual misconduct–and the matter was apparently dropped.
It is not clear how the student safety act would help when the victim denies the abuse—which is apparently common.
After Meyer’s arrest (in the wake of a mandated reporter making a police report after receiving communication directly from the student involved), the Ohio school district that employed her put out a statement that said that she had passed a background check.
Meyer was subsequently convicted and sent to jail.
Would current DC law have caught this teacher earlier under these same circumstances? I think that’s doubtful.
B. In 2018, a former KIPP DC student (Perez) brought a lawsuit against KIPP DC and Capital City charter school for the sexual misconduct of a teacher employed at both schools. The teacher was convicted and jailed for the misconduct by the time the lawsuit was filed.
But the lawsuit was dismissed because the clock ran out for the plaintiff according to the DC statute at the time the lawsuit was filed.
So when the DC council changed the time limit available for this plaintiff, with the passage of the Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitations Amendment Act of 2018, the plaintiff sued again.
But despite suing in the specific timeframe allowed in the new statute—and despite language in the new statute allowing the same claims to go forward—the lawsuit was again dismissed.
This time, the dismissal was for violation of the separation of powers. Specifically, the court determined that a judgement on the grounds of a statute of limitations but not on the merits (as in the first case, which was dismissed solely for not being timely—not because it had no merit) doesn’t mean you get to re-try the case later, under a different statute of limitations. That is because doing so, said the court, upends the prior decision and thus the separation of powers.
Merely extending the statute of limitations for sexual misconduct cases is not enough to ensure our students have access to justice.
C. In reporting by NBC4, two students of former Duke Ellington teacher Mark Williams (one of whom is now suing) said that they were never interviewed by anyone about allegations of sexual misconduct by Williams against each of them, about a decade apart, even though the school apparently initiated investigations and reported the allegations to police.
In addition, the complaint in the lawsuit notes that although police did make a cursory report about what had allegedly occurred in 2004, the former student was afraid and initially denied the misconduct to someone who had asked about it. (If this resembles the initial denial of the student in section A, above, it may be because denial by victims is apparently not uncommon.)
Although DC police have said they are re-opening their investigations, a former teacher at Ellington said the reason Williams was asked to resign was not for sexual misconduct, but for a DUI. That teacher noted that firing a teacher for sexual misconduct would bar him from another teaching position, while being fired for a DUI or other reason (such as “bad judgement”) would not.
What protections exist for students under current DC law if any of these circumstances repeat themselves? I think very few.
D. As outlined by the plaintiff’s complaint in the recently dismissed Perez lawsuit (above, in B), reports between 2004 and 2007 to both KIPP DC and Capital City about possible sexual misconduct by one teacher apparently resulted in no investigation.
However, the plaintiff’s complaint alleged that in 2005, in the wake of a report of possible sexual misconduct, KIPP DC did not renew the teacher’s contract. The teacher then began to work at Capital City. The complaint alleged that the head of KIPP DC tipped off Capital City about the allegations—but Capital City apparently did no investigation.
A full decade later, the plaintiff said she notified Capital City of her allegations. Capital City then fired the teacher—but apparently made no report to police.
A year after that, the plaintiff told a former KIPP DC teacher about the alleged misconduct—who then reported it to police. It was apparently the first time the allegations had ever been reported to police. The teacher was arrested, convicted, and jailed.
DC’s mandated reporting has been around for decades—so it is unclear why it apparently failed here. Which leads me to ask:
What backstop do our students have when uninvestigated allegations about the same person occur repeatedly–and mandated reporters don’t report? I think there is no backstop.
E. NBC4 reporting showed that a Duke Ellington teacher was asked to resign not long after making a report of possible sexual misconduct against Mark Williams.
Also (and for me, not coincidentally) it was a former KIPP DC teacher who reported the allegations of sexual misconduct outlined in the Perez lawsuit to police, a decade after the first reports were allegedly made to the schools that employed the teacher.
In fact, in nearly all the publicly funded schools at issue in the lawsuits I saw that were brought since 2018 for sexual misconduct against students, teachers are at will employees.
This means that an important layer of safety for our students—teacher reporting—may in fact be actively discouraged or not sufficiently supported to ensure student safety.
And while there is a strong law for mandated reporting, that mandate does not protect the employment status of teachers who report possible sexual misconduct.
What protection is offered to mandated reporters who are also at will employees and thus are vulnerable to potential retribution for reporting sexual misconduct? I think there is none.
F. About a year ago, a recent graduate of Duke Ellington created a petition that demanded justice for sexual assault victims at Duke Ellington. She outlined how as a student she was “aware of stories and even witnessed interactions” that appeared to confirm allegations of sexual misconduct of staff.
As a parent, I have been told, repeatedly, that students’ knowledge of possible sexual misconduct by staff against students is widespread at Duke Ellington—and that older students have warned younger ones about it, while noting that they themselves were similarly warned by older students when they were younger at the school.
How can we move from pervasive stories about sexual misconduct to safe reporting–and actual safety?
While all these examples show how neither DC laws nor its LEAs adequately protect our students, the DCPS response to your and CM Pinto’s query is problematic on other levels as well.
For instance, at the March 3 performance oversight hearing for all DC education agencies, with government witnesses, the video of the hearing at about the 2:46:16 mark has an exchange between CM Pinto and the head of OSSE, Dr. Grant, in which Dr. Grant said it was DCPS’s responsibility to respond to your letter, rather than OSSE’s.
That seemed to set the stage for several exchanges hours later at the same hearing. Starting at about the 7:27:00 mark and going about 10 minutes with both CM Pinto and council chair Phil Mendelson, then again at 8:25:22, the chancellor insisted that the February 11 letter he signed didn’t say what it did about assuming full operation of Duke Ellington. The chancellor in fact noted it was misreported by NBC4—which was not at all the case.
Importantly, in all of those exchanges at that March 3 hearing, CM Pinto asked whether someone from her office could sit in on the ongoing negotiations between Duke’s board and DCPS regarding the school’s contract and budget (both of which are late and thus in violation of the budget support act).
Yet CM Pinto—as well as Duke parents and teachers—have been actively sidelined by DCPS, despite our requests otherwise, whether in being part of those negotiations; in having any budget (we still don’t—and the mayor is presenting her budget next week); and in having DCPS explain what it intends to do with our school.
Sadly, that is hardly the only way in which DCPS has disconnected itself from Duke Ellington—a school that grants DCPS diplomas. Not only has DCPS never once funded the school adequately for what the school actually does, but despite having a seat on the school’s board (which hires and fires staff and sets policy for them), DCPS has not occupied that seat for many years, if at all.
All this disconnection by DCPS from Duke Ellington HS has severe consequences for our students and their safety.
Consider that, as NBC4 reporting showed, neither DCPS nor OSSE had any records of former Duke teacher Mark Williams. You should also be aware that OSSE also does not have oversight of DC charter school teacher licensure or certification—even though those teachers together teach about 50% of DC’s public school students.
For DCPS to now “assume full operation” of the school after all this disregard provides no assurance whatsoever with regard to anyone’s safety or learning.
Moreover, what little I know of the ongoing budget and contract negotiations reveals that DCPS has not committed to continuation of the arts programming the school currently offers or given assurance that professional artists would continue to provide preprofessional training there.
I hope you can appreciate that ensuring better protection of students in our publicly funded schools requires basic things that are currently not done at all in DC from what I can see:
–Centralized reporting of all teachers and their histories across DC;
–Uniform investigation and reporting policies across schools and LEAs;
–Robust flagging AND storage of data from all inconclusive investigations;
–Sharing of all cases, both inconclusive and conclusive, across schools and LEAs;
–Public disclosure of all cases of misconduct against students in our schools; and
–Protection of at will school employees who report allegations.
It would seem that most of those things could be done by OSSE.
And I would be very interested to know whether you or CM Pinto will pursue any of them.
I know this is a very long response to a short query from you—but I did want to ensure you had at least the information I was able to find on the subject of sexual misconduct in DC’s publicly funded schools. Please keep me apprised of your work in this area; thanks so much.