Exterior of D.C. School
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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In the late summer of 2019, following a declaration from D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn that officials had received six “substantiated” complaints of sexual misconduct involving DC Public Schools employees in the past 20 months, parents encountered great resistance to learning from which six schools those complaints originated. Kihn declined to disclose the information, citing concerns for past victims and a potential chilling effect on future victims. In a letter explaining his rationale to Ward 6 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Denise Krepp, Kihn added that it’s already district policy for “school communities [to be] informed of such incidents as they occur.”

This resistance prompted the D.C. Open Government Coalition to file two Freedom of Information Act requests to learn the names of the six schools. The FOIAs, sent to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education and DCPS, were not seeking “any record of any charge, investigation, conclusions or related personnel action.” All the filers sought, the requests said, were the names of the schools where the incidents happened. D.C. Open Government Coalition board member Fritz Mulhauser noted that if hundreds of students, staff, and parents at those affected schools were presumably informed of the incidents, per school district policy, the rest of the city is then entitled to access that information, per D.C. law.

After more than a year of going back-and-forth over FOIA appeals, the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel finally ruled in the D.C. Open Government Coalition’s favor. In late October, DCPS revealed via FOIA that “substantiated” incidents of sexual harassment by DCPS employees took place at Dunbar High School, Watkins Elementary School, West Education Campus, and Malcolm X Elementary School. The other two incidents involved DCPS employees outside of school buildings. A DME spokesperson did not clarify where those additional two employees worked, though a letter sent Feb. 5 by DCPS FOIA Officer Eboni Govan suggests the other incidents occurred at the DCPS central office.

City Paper reached out to parents and principals at the four schools to see whether school communities were informed of the incidents at the time, as Kihn said.

The only school City Paper could verify by publication time was Dunbar High School. In an email dated Feb. 13, 2019, Principal Nadine Smith wrote Dunbar parents informing them that there had been reports of alleged misconduct by a staff member and that she had “acted swiftly to follow protocols.” The case was referred to DCPS and the Metropolitan Police Department for investigation, and the staff member was placed on leave.

Smith did not return requests for comment, but Dunbar parent Rosa Singletary tells City Paper that “the Dunbar community was notified in a timely manner about an alleged incident involving a staff member that was deemed to be inappropriate.” A DME spokesperson confirmed the “alleged misconduct” cited by Smith was the same incident of “sexual harassment” they had referred to.

At Watkins Elementary, three parents with students enrolled between January 2018 and August 2019 tell City Paper they had no knowledge of any alleged incident of sexual harassment involving a DCPS employee and received no formal correspondence from school leaders about it. Watkins Principal MScott Berkowitz, who started at the school this year, tells City Paper he does not have “any knowledge” of the alleged incident. Elena Bell, who served as principal during the time of the “substantiated” incident and is now leading Takoma Education Campus, did not return requests for comment. 

Zara Berry-Young, the principal of Malcolm X Elementary, did not return requests for comment, and Megan Vroman, the principal of West Education Campus, referred inquiries to Deborah Isaac, the deputy press secretary for DCPS. Isaac did not respond to City Paper’s question regarding how, if at all, West Education Campus parents were informed of the sexual harassment incident. Lisa Jackson, the community representative and treasurer of the West Education Campus parent board, says she could not speak to what notifications may have gone out to parents as her children are no longer enrolled and did not respond to multiple requests for other parents to contact. City Paper will update this story if we learn more information about the aforementioned schools.

While questions remain about what the families at the affected schools were told, it is also unclear if parents should expect similar monthslong battles for information regarding future incidents, or if DCPS will change its protocols going forward. While the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel confirmed there is “personal privacy interest” in the names of employees, details of an alleged act of sexual harassment, and “even the supervisory reporting chain” for the victims or harassers, they stated in a Sept. 3rd letter that there is not a similar privacy interest for the names of schools where DCPS has confirmed there are substantiated incidents and noted that disclosure carries a public interest benefit, as it can shed light on an agency’s conduct.

City Paper asked the DME’s office if DCPS was planning to change its policies in light of the Office of Legal Counsel’s ruling, either by releasing names of schools with substantiated incidents of misconduct upon request or proactively when substantiated complaints are received.

A spokesperson did not directly answer the question but says DCPS “strives to demonstrate transparency to the fullest extent possible.” The spokesperson maintains that the school district both aims to protect the wellbeing of all community members and “prevent [a] potential chilling effect on future complaints by victims”—a position that echoes what Kihn said last year.

The pressure to learn more about sexual misconduct escalated in June 2019, when D.C. parents learned an adult working in an after-school program at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan had been arrested and charged with alleged sexual contact with a 13-year-old student over several months. The incident, first reported by WAMU, was even more staggering because parents only learned of the allegations a month after they were first filed, and DCPS soon learned that the after-school program, Springboard, had not conducted a proper background check on the employee.

The revelations sparked a wave of organizing, including a letter co-authored by Krepp, ANC Commissioner Erin Palmer, and State Board of Education Representative Jessica Sutter, calling on Mayor Muriel Bowser to release more information about how sexual abuse, assault, and harassment allegations are addressed in city schools, and how many charges have been brought against public, charter, and private school employees in the last five years, including contractors and anyone else providing in-school services.

In the midst of this summer organizing effort, Kihn disclosed there had been 27 reports of sexual misconduct that involved DCPS employees since January 2018. Eighteen of those reports were “unsubstantiated,” six were substantiated, and three had pending investigations. Of the six employees against whom sexual harassment allegations were substantiated, Kihn said three remained employed by DCPS and “were the subject of corrective action.” Two others were terminated, and one resigned.

The results of the FOIA request released this past October did not include Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan because that incident involved a contractor, not a DCPS employee. Krepp, who has been battling the school district for more than a year, says she is deeply frustrated by the lack of transparency and that DCPS should release information on all sexual harassment and abuse occurring on its property, regardless of the employee’s status.

“They’ve just stonewalled,” she tells City Paper. “DCPS didn’t want to share anything, they said we’re not going to tell you, we don’t think you have a right to know.” Krepp says keeping incidents secret creates more problems. “Look at the Boy Scouts, look at the Catholic Church,” she says. “No one did anything. No one addressed it.”

DCPS has taken some steps to revise policies related to sexual misconduct. One reform, spurred in part by a law the D.C. Council passed at the end of 2018 designed to better prevent predators from getting school jobs, involves new policies and guidelines regulating staff engagement with students both in and out of the classroom, including on social media. DCPS also implemented curricula focused on healthy relationships and cited a legislatively mandated reporting requirement for all staff who have inappropriate contact with children.

In the fall of 2019, DCPS established a Student Safety Task Force to engage families around the implementation of sexual misconduct policies and student sexual health curricula. It had four meetings and was dissolved in early 2020.

Danica Petroshius, a Capitol Hill Montessori parent and one of the task force members, tells City Paper she felt most of the meetings consisted of DCPS officials telling parents what they were doing, with little time for discussion afterwards. “I will say that we asked for a lot of good information and we asked a lot of good questions, but we were just starting to scratch the surface when they decided to end the meetings,” she said. On Feb. 28, a group of 10 task force members sent a letter to DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee and Deputy Chancellor Amy Maisterra requesting the task force continue its work in 2020 and potentially beyond. “Only in the last meeting did we have the opportunity to start dialoguing about how to improve the system and safety for students,” the parents wrote. “We left the meeting energized—feeling strongly that there is much work to be done … The last time we met, we discussed many policies as potential solutions, and we are eager to work with you on developing the best solutions.”

On March 1, Ferebee emailed the parents acknowledging receipt of their letter, and on March 2, Maisterra wrote the parents expressing openness to scheduling another meeting. But the pandemic hit shortly thereafter, and Petroshius says they never heard from them again.

“I want to give [DCPS] credit that they were taking steps in the right direction, and they were just beginning to understand that proper policies are not just about buying a new curriculum,” she says. “We never got a ‘no’ on continuing our work, but we never got a final answer either.”

Efforts at the D.C. Council also stalled. In early March, At-Large Councilmembers Robert White and Elissa Silverman and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill requiring schools to inform parents when there’s a criminal investigation into a school staff member for sexual misconduct and to require an annual report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education that documents cases of sexual misconduct by school staff against a student. The bill was co-sponsored by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen and Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray and referred to the Committee on Education, but never got a scheduled hearing. Mtokufa Ngwenya, White’s chief of staff, tells City Paper “there is a possibility we will reintroduce it” in the next legislative session.

The DME doesn’t track comparable information for charter schools, which educate roughly 44,000 students in the city and are not subject to FOIA. Kimberly Carter, a parent on the Student Safety Task Force, tells City Paper that, despite the challenges DCPS has faced, her experience with sexual misconduct in the charter sector has been much worse. Carter is currently suing Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School over alleged sexual abuse by her son’s teacher and criticized the charter sector for effectively “policing itself.”

While the D.C. Open Government Coalition is pleased with its FOIA win, advocates express frustration that similar disclosures don’t yet seem guaranteed in the future. “The government finally abandoned the weak and shifting legal arguments for secrecy it tried during our appeals—yet won’t commit to public release of incident locations in the future,” Mulhauser says. “This leaves the community wondering. So we may have to ask the courts to send a clear message of transparency.”