Washington Post local columnist Petula Dvorak wrote this week about a 13-year-old international piano prodigy at Alice Deal Middle School who has been labeled a truant by D.C. Public Schools, effectively leaving her no choice but to abandon her friends and the public school system for home-schooling. Dvorak compares Avery Gagliano‘s story of absences to that of Relisha Rudd, the still missing homeless 8-year-old who had nearly 30 absences before anyone reported her missing. Dvorak makes the point that, even in the public school system, D.C. is two separate worlds, with officials only selectively enforcing policies and refusing to “take a holistic look at the child and her life in and outside school.”
The only problem, according to DCPS: It’s not true.
DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson issued a blistering rebuke of the column in a statement today, saying it was inaccurate and the school system never labeled Avery, the piano prodigy, as a truant. In fact, DCPS argues, it worked with family to accommodate the teen’s absences.
“We are disappointed Ms. Dvorak chose to present a false representation of DCPS’ response about this child’s circumstances rather than taking the time to collect the relevant facts,” the statement read. “We believe it is important to set the record straight.”
Henderson says the school system has been in close contact with Avery’s family and ultimately excused her absences for international travel. And, contrary to Dvorak’s assertion that Avery’s transcript will now be marred, Henderson says no student is ever identified as a “truant” on a transcript or academic record. DCPS never made a referral to a truancy officer, the Child and Family Services Agency, or any other government agency, she says. The family, according to Henderson, was never at risk for truancy prosecution.
The statement continued:
It seems that in this matter, while DCPS was working with the family to excuse the student’s absences, the automatic letter that is generated when a student reaches ten unexcused absences was sent. After a conversation with the Office of Youth Engagement, the family was told to disregard the letter. We also confirmed by phone for the parents that no CFSA referral had been completed, nor would this escalate any further. We believed our communication with the family as recently as August 25 clarified that Avery’s absences had been excused. We were surprised to learn that this is the reason why Avery was voluntarily withdrawn from her school. We sincerely apologize for any confusion that the cross-communication might have conveyed.
Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for DCPS, says she did speak to Dvorak last week, but they did not get into the specifics which were presented in the Post column. Dvorak did not immediately respond to a request for comment. As of 12:30 p.m., the article had not been updated with a clarification or correction.
Update, Sept. 10: Dvorak is sticking by her reporting, and wrote in a post that she did not misrepresent the facts:
But Avery’s mom, Ying Lam, stands by her account. And I stand by mine…
Instead Henderson and DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz bickered over details. Salmanowitz even told Washington City Paper that she spoke to me last week, and that I didn’t convey the specifics of the column. I spoke with Salmanowitz for 45 minutes, and she insisted the parts of our conversation about Avery’s case be off the record. I explained exactly what Avery’s parents had told me and asked for Henderson or someone else to respond on the record. No one did. The column was live on our website all day Monday. Still, no one responded.
In essence, they are claiming not just that I misrepresented and mischaracterized the situation, but that Avery’s parents did, too.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery