Time to hold DC Charter Schools accountable

When I read the email exchange between Michael Musante, a lobbyist for local charter schools, and Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB), I became enraged. I think, perhaps, you would have had a similar reaction.

 

In discussing the introduction of the Youth Suicide Prevention Act in the DC Council, Pearson wrote on Sept. 22, 2015, “Unbelievable. Does it ever stop?”

 

“I wouldn’t be able to take trips to Europe every summer if it stopped,” Musante replied in the email chain, a copy of which was provided to The DC Line.

 

“I guess we can just add it to the pile of requirements that don’t get enforced,” replied Pearson about the law created to protect District schoolchildren

 

Unsurprisingly, a significant number of charter schools appear to be in violation of the suicide act, which the council approved in spring 2016. The SEED Public Charter School is alleged to have been one of those violators, when in 2018, Stormiyah Denson-Jackson, a 12-year-old student at the Ward 7 boarding school hanged herself in her dorm room. Negligence is one of the allegations made in the multimillion dollar lawsuit filed by attorneys William P. Lightfoot — a former at-large DC Council member — and William J. Lightfoot of Koonz McKenney Johnson DePaolis & Lightfoot LLP against the school and the SEED Foundation on behalf of Stormiyah’s mother, Patricia Denson, as representative of the Estate of Stormiyah Denson-Jackson.

 

“For at least three years, the Charter School Board did not enforce a group of laws, one of which was designed to prevent children from committing suicide. That should anger people and frighten parents into action,” William J. Lightfoot said to me last week after he and the estate’s attorney, LaRuby May — a former Ward 8 DC Council member — appeared in a hearing before DC Superior Court Judge Jose M. Lopez. Attorney James Aist with the Baltimore-based Anderson Coe & King law firm was there representing SEED School and SEED Foundation; he refused to speak with me, however.

 

The Lightfoots received the emails as part of an extensive Freedom of Information Act requests they made of the charter school board, hoping to uncover what action that body may have taken regarding Stormiyah’s suicide. Last week, they asked Judge Lopez to permit a more extensive discovery of documents that could extend back to 2014. He told the attorneys to talk the matter over; if they can’t reach an agreement, the Lightfoots could file a motion.

 

For the cavalier tone and the content of their emails, both Musante and Pearson should be fired. Their attitudes may have contributed to the apparent indifference to the suicide prevention law displayed by some in the charter school sector.

 

“Of all the vulnerable populations, I believe children are the most vulnerable. They are always at somebody else’s mercy,” said an education advocate who is a strong supporter of charter schools and who requested anonymity to speak freely. Without excusing what happened at SEED, she acknowledged the school’s missteps in this case while asserting that “the idea of SEED is important, and it should exist.”

 

“Most people are well-intentioned. However, just because you are well-intentioned doesn’t mean negative things can’t happen,” continued the advocate. “That is why I don’t understand how you can argue against regulations.”

 

Charter school leaders seem to be against any regulations, suggesting that they interfere with their independence. They currently are fighting a legislative proposal introduced by Ward 6’s Charles Allen that would subject all charter schools to the city’s existing open meetings and Freedom of Information Act requirements. That proposal doesn’t go far enough, however. It’s time to reassess the exemptions provided to charter schools, imposing many of the same regulations that apply to DC Public Schools.

 

Like children caught breaking a curfew, Pearson and Musante offered weak excuses when I asked them about their email correspondence and their apparent disregard for local laws. “On any piece of legislation, there are various points of view, and what necessitates the role of advocates like me is the consistent need to help policymakers understand the implications of what they are proposing,” said Musante, asserting that he wrote the email during a “busy time.”

 

Attempting to soften the implication that his work is more about European vacations than the lives of District children, he argued that as “long as there is government action,” there is a role for him “in shaping policy and in government relations.” Musante cited his selection as co-chair of the city’s Mental Health Coordinating Council as proof of his seriousness about “health issues and the toll they take on the District’s students.”

 

Is it cynical for me to think that he could have maneuvered to play that leadership role to prevent passage of any legislation or regulations that could be perceived as adversely affecting charters?

DC Public Charter School Board executive director Scott Pearson said in a statement that “student safety is our top priority.” In an email exchange obtained by attorneys, he had suggested that the DC Council’s Youth Suicide Prevention Act, if adopted, could be added “to the pile of requirements that don’t get enforced

 

Pearson, through a spokesperson, said: “Student safety is our top priority and always has been. … That’s why staff at more than half of the public charter schools in the District have taken suicide prevention training so far.”

 

Wait, wait. The suicide prevention school climate law mandates that “all teachers and principals in public schools and public charter schools complete the youth behavioral health program once every 2 years.” Pearson’s statement makes clear that some schools are in violation of that provision.

 

The law further requires the DC Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) to conduct an annual survey and to report the results to the DC Council. The first report was submitted in December 2017, after the Oct. 1 deadline set in the law; the 2018 report was not submitted until January 2019.

That report indicated that as part of the pilot only 26 schools — charter and traditional — participated in the 2017 survey. The following year, only 18 schools participated. “The schools that withdrew cited changes in school leadership, classroom time burden, staff time burden, student survey/testing fatigue,” the report says.

 

Then, there was this: “Students responded to questions pertaining to safety less favorably” in 2018 than they did in 2017. Youth suicides, shootings and a generally dangerous environment in many schools are certainly among documented reasons for their feelings.

 

At-large Council member David Grosso, chair of the Committee on Education, was clearly  troubled by the correspondence between Pearson and Musante, which I shared with him via email.

 

At-large DC Council member David Grosso said that various agencies have acknowledged “picking and choosing which laws they enforce and implement,” which he described as a problem he has had to confront as part of his oversight responsibilities as Education Committee chair. 

 

“The cavalier dismissal of the importance of preventing youth suicides that this email exchange conveys is unacceptable,” said Grosso. “I would hope that … Pearson would look at legislation like this as a worthy challenge to improve the lives and outcomes of our students.

 

“Unfortunately, the tragic death of Stormiyah Denson-Jackson by suicide at SEED Public Charter School last year reminds us how important this work is and why we need continued expanded investments in mental and behavioral health services for our students,” he said, adding that during a recent public hearing “a witness testified about another student who died by suicide in the past year.”

 

“While [the] PCSB has indicated that teachers have undergone the required training to identify and respond to the warning signs of suicide in students, their work on implementing the school climate surveys has lagged,” Grosso continued in his email to me. “Failure to comply with or faithfully implement in a timely manner the laws the council passes is not a challenge that is endemic to charter schools, or even the education sector. I have long fought with not only the PCSB, but also DCPS and the DME on their failure to timely and completely implement and follow the laws that the Council has passed.”

 

This is particularly harmful when it involves laws enacted to protect the District’s children, but it’s not limited to the education sector. “Multiple agencies across the government openly admit to picking and choosing which laws they enforce and implement,” Grosso said.

 

With their influence and authority, why can’t Grosso and his colleagues stop that?

 

 

A version of this article was first published on TheDCLine.org

 

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