D.C. principal investigated for fighting with students

A D.C. middle school principal is under internal investigation over allegations that she fought with two students in the last two months — one a 12-year-old girl whom the principal is accused of punching in the face and the other an 11-year-old girl whose mother said she hit her head against a wall because of the altercation.

Police investigated both incidents involving Johnson Middle School Principal Pamela Ransome, but no charges were filed. School officials said the school system’s security and labor relations offices are continuing to investigate. Municipal regulations prohibit physical force against students, except in self-defense or the defense of others, or to restore order or safety in a school.

Ransome, who, according to records, has worked for the system since 1999, is finishing her first year as a principal with a salary of $100,000. She declined multiple requests for interviews, most recently Friday at the Southeast D.C. school, when she referred a reporter to the school system’s press office.

Acting D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said she expects the findings of the investigation by the end of the week, when she is scheduled to complete decisions on which principals will be retained in the 2011-12 academic year.

The first alleged incident took place March 31, according to Safiya Simmons, Henderson’s spokeswoman. School officials won’t discuss the details. But Charmaine Jackson, the mother of the student involved, said in an interview that it began when Ransome attempted to confiscate a cellphone from her daughter Jaimy, a sixth-grader at Johnson.

By her daughter’s account, Jackson said, Ransome was summoned after the girl refused requests by a teacher to relinquish the phone. When Jaimy continued to refuse and tried to leave the classroom, Jackson said, Ransome grabbed her by the arm and pushed her against a board at the front of the room. As Jaimy tried to pull away, Jackson said, Ransome grabbed the girl by her hair. Jaimy then grabbed Ransome by the hair, Jackson said, and Ransome punched her under the left eye.

Jackson, who said she gave the phone to her daughter for safety purposes, said she received a brief, frantic voice message from Jaimy in the late morning saying, “Mommy, mommy my principal punched me in the face.” The phone then went dead, she said.

“The sound of her voice put goose bumps on my arm,” said Jackson.

Ransome was placed on administrative leave for four days pending the police investigation, according to Frederick Lewis, a school system spokesman. Police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said the case was presented to the office of D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan, which declined to prosecute. The matter was turned over to D.C. schools. Meanwhile, Ransome returned to her duties at Johnson.

Ariel Waldman, a senior counsel for Nathan, declined to discuss the case.

Jaimy is now attending CHOICE Academy, a special D.C. public school for students on long-term suspension.

Jackson said she is unhappy with the police investigation and plans to file a complaint with the U.S. attorney’s office. “To my understanding, they [the police] said they couldn’t find out who was at fault,” she said. “They had teachers and students for witnesses. At the end of the day, this is a grown woman attacking a child because she won’t give up a cellphone.”

School officials said the second incident took place in the Johnson cafeteria May 4, but they would not discuss details. Tameka Phillips said her daughter Tiyah, 11, told her the incident began when she was chasing a boy who had slapped her in the face. When Ransome caught up with her, Phillips said, the principal grabbed her by the wrist and the front of her shirt. Phillips said Tiyah then grabbed Ransome’s shirt. At some point, Tiyah fell against a wall and hit her head, Phillips said.

No criminal charges were filed, and Ransome was not put on leave. But Phillips said she took Tiyah to Children’s National Medical Center for treatment. Phillips said the incident probably could have been avoided if the school nurse had given Tiyah her medication for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, as she was authorized to do.

When Phillips met with school officials later that day, she was stunned to hear about the March 31 incident, she said.

Officials said Mark King, instructional superintendent for D.C. middle schools, and an assistant principal met with the Phillips the next day to explain what happened. Lewis, the school system spokesman, said that, according to King, “she understood what happened and . . . she was fine with the school’s response.”

Phillips said that was not an accurate account. She said that King appealed to her to let the school system handle the matter and not to go to the new media. “I told him I disagreed with what happened,” she said. “I feel like they’re not going to do anything.”

Tiyah is now studying from home, using packets of material Phillips picks up from the school.

Johnson is one of the lowest-achieving middle schools in the city. Just over 14 percent of students performed at proficiency level on the 2010 reading and math tests in the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System. The school is scheduled for staff “reconstitution” under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which means that all of its teachers must reapply for their jobs.

Ransome is a graduate of New Leaders for New Schools, a training program that has produced numerous D.C. principals. A New Leaders Facebook page described a recent visit to Johnson:

“Principal Ransome has planted many seeds in order to change her students, teachers, and parents’ beliefs. Please check out the data on the walls, the instructional words over the lockers, and the written words of high expectations in the hallways and even the bathrooms. Kudos to Pamela!!!!”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.

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