No Justice for a 12-year-old in DC

September 10, 2019

   A few years before Stormiyah Denson-Jackson took her own life in her dormitory at SEED Public Charter School, Scott Pearson told the leader of FOCUS, a charter lobbying group, to ignore the mandates of the South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012. Passed by the DC Council, the bill was designed to provide services and protections for emotionally distressed or mentally ill children. 


“We do not believe the law should be mandatory on charter schools because it conflicts with the [School Reform Act’s] guarantees of operational freedom,” Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, wrote in an email to Robert Cane, then the head of FOCUS, on Nov. 13, 2014. “And we don’t intend to take action against schools who don’t do it.” 


The notion of a protected public education class, free to do whatever it wishes, continues to animate the charter board’s approach to local laws. This fall, as the DC Council considers two separate proposals that would force charters to be more transparent, including adherence to the Freedom of Information Act, the board has argued the city has no authority over the sector. Allowing charters, which enroll more than 47,000 DC children, to deliberately violate DC laws can have deadly results, as Stormiyah’s case illustrates. 


When Stormiyah shared her suicidal ideations with a counselor and psychologist at the SEED School, neither they nor others at that institution had received the online training mandated by the South Capitol Street Act and the Youth Suicide Prevention Act. Equally troubling, the school psychologist was unlicensed in DC, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by William P. Lightfoot and William J. Lightfoot of the law firm Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot LLP against the SEED school and the SEED Foundation on behalf of Stormiyah’s mother Patricia Denson, as representative of the Estate of Stormiyah Denson-Jackson. 


The email exchange between Pearson and Crane came to light as the lawsuit has proceeded in DC Superior Court. I’ve been following the case, using it to assess how the District government has enforced child protection laws and to explore questions that have surfaced about transparency in the charter sector.  


Pearson would have known the circumstances at SEED if he and his fellow charter board members had decided to enforce the mandatory training. Certainly, the counselor and psychologist at the school would have known that they were required to refer Stormiyah for appropriate mental health services. Instead, they allegedly did nothing; they didn’t even notify her mother about Stormiyah’s emotional distress. Patricia Denson learned what had happened only when Metropolitan Police Department officers showed up at her door.


Tomeika Bowden, a spokesperson for the charter board, did not reply to several emails and phone calls seeking comment about its handling of Stormiyah’s case. Pearson also did not reply to my request for comment about his email or the board’s position on whether local laws apply to charter schools.


Give Pearson credit for being consistent. In an email dated Sept 22, 2015, he wrote to Michael Musante, a staffer at FOCUS: “We can just add [the Youth Suicide Prevention Act] to the pile of requirements that don’t get enforced.”


LaRuby May, a former Ward 8 DC Council member and current co-counsel for Stormiyah’s estate, argued that laws “requiring training for the safety of our children are not optional, and when leaders act like they are, children suffer the consequences.” 



DC children matter, too


DC elected officials spout righteous indignation about the treatment of immigrant children at the country’s southern border. That’s mostly party politics, however; an unsavory Republican is fueling such despicable public policies. Those same local leaders have been silent about events at SEED School. 


After Stormiyah’s death and prior to the lawsuit, no elected official called for a public hearing to explore what happened. There wasn’t any roundtable to examine whether laws created to protect children like Stormiyah had been implemented or enforced. And even after Pearson’s revolting email of Sept. 22, 2015, was published on this site, no one called for his termination; he still draws a six-figure salary, paid mostly by District taxpayers. 


The perceived message in the failure of elected officials to do anything is that DC children from poor or working-class families aren’t important; they don’t deserve protection and have no intrinsic value to this city or its future.



Salt in the wound


Sadly, DC Attorney General Karl Racine has amplified that perception. Over the past several months his office has been in a fight, on behalf of MPD, to prevent Stormiyah’s mother from receiving a copy of that department’s investigative report. The AG has used a District law created to protect the identity of juveniles as justification to deny the release of the document. 


“The documents requested by the plaintiff contain information about children other than the decedent. This information is confidential and protected from disclosure under District law (D.C. Code § 16-2333),” an OAG spokesperson wrote in an email to me. 


I hold the AG in high regard. I am shocked by the reference to Denson as “plaintiff,” casting her as some remote specimen, instead of a DC resident and grieving mother. 


“The Court has ordered the District and the plaintiff’s counsel to work together to provide relevant information to which the plaintiff is entitled without disclosing confidential information about other children,” the OAG spokesperson said in her email, adding the office is making “necessary redactions to the documents. … Once that process is complete, and pending the Court’s approval, those documents will be released to the plaintiff.”


No one representing Stormiyah’s estate and her mother opposes protecting private information of juveniles, but accomplishing that doesn’t require blocking access to the entire police report, said William J. Lightfoot, who recently switched firms, forming the May Lightfoot PLLC in partnership with May. “Ms. Denson has a right to know how her daughter died. This is the only government investigation into Stormiyah’s death.”


Moreover, the statute cited by the AG is not applicable, Lightfoot said. “Stormiyah is dead; disclosure is allowed in survival and wrongful death actions; and Stormiyah falls within the statute’s enumerated exceptions.” 


It isn’t just names of juveniles that MPD and the AG apparently want hidden from public view. They also want the identity of adults protected, according to their court briefs. Who are those adults? What did they witness at SEED? 


“As this is ongoing litigation, we will decline to comment further at this time,” said the OAG spokesperson. 


It’s a Pontius Pilate moment.


Government culpability and charter collusion


Truth be told, the government probably should have been a defendant in the lawsuit. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the DC Department of Health and the DC Department of Behavioral Health were responsible for enforcing the South Capitol Act and the Suicide Prevention Act. Did they know Pearson had advised charters to ignore those laws? Now, adding to those agencies’ apparent failure to act, the city’s top lawyer has become a conspirator, refusing to allow Stormiyah’s mother a small measure of closure.


That’s just plain wrong; I am no acolyte of the proverbial three monkeys. 


From the beginning, it appears charter officials, aided by government officials, may have engaged in that time-honored ritual of covering their butts: On Jan. 24, 2018 — one day after Stormiyah’s suicide — Audrey Williams, the charter board’s senior manager for intergovernmental relations, sent an email to MPD Inspector Michael Coligan asking, “What investigations are underway; what questions are being asked; what standards are being applied; what is the time line; what can they share with PCSB and how much can be coordinated with PCS.” Coligan told her the medical examiner’s office and a different division of MPD were handling the investigation. He advised her not to worry, since the initial finding was “suicide with no foul play,” according to documents reviewed by The DC Line. 


On Jan. 25, 2018, Nicole Streeter, the board’s general counsel at the time, wrote to Williams: “If that’s true, do we know what they are investigating since what you state is that they say there is no evidence or claims to support the school is unsafe?” (Streeter is now the general counsel for the DC Council. She did not reply to my email requesting a comment.)


Meanwhile, Naomi DeVeaux, then-deputy director for the charter board, and Mecha Inman, head of school for SEED, sent a joint email to Ahnna Smith, then-chief of staff to the deputy mayor for education. The two officials wanted the medical examiner’s report. 


Smith contacted Beverly Fields, the medical examiner’s chief of staff, who agreed to assist DeVeaux and Inman. In an email dated Feb. 1, 2018, Fields asked for the name of their “loved one.” They responded: “Our loved one’s name is Stormiyah T. Denson-Jackson.”  


Interestingly, Stormiyah’s mother was never copied on any of those emails. Since her daughter’s death, she hasn’t spoken with anyone at SEED or the charter board, according to her lawyers.

It’s too early to know what will happen with the lawsuit. More important is what DC officials intend to do to prevent a repeat of what happened at SEED. “Emails from Pearson clearly show there is a need for greater transparency of the charter school board,” including the establishment of an ethics code, said William P. Lightfoot, a senior partner at Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot, LLP and a former at-large DC Council member.


There’s no question about that. But are DC elected officials fully committed to protecting all of the city’s children, including those enrolled in charters, or are Mayor Muriel Bowser and council members all talk and no show?


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