District investigates special-ed school

By Bill Turque
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 1:41 PM

A Northwest Washington private school that has collected more than $16 million in tuition from the District over the past two years to serve special education students is under investigation for lax security, high rates of truancy and inadequate academic programs.

Officials of Rock Creek Academy said they have done their best to serve a population of emotionally and physically disabled children from kindergarten through 12th grade whose needs cannot not be met by the city's public schools. These include students with attention deficit disorder, speech and auditory issues, cerebral palsy, depression and post-traumatic stress.

"We continue to make progress academically, socially and emotionally with our students. The data proves it. My staff is insulted by the allegations out there," said Shawn Meade, president and chief executive of the 163-student school that occupies six floors of a building on upper Connecticut Avenue near the University of the District of Columbia.

But District officials said they have received what they describe as an alarming stream of complaints in recent months from Rock Creek students and parents, including an allegation of sexual misconduct by a staff member involving a student over the age of 18 (Meade said the charge was found to be untrue). Last November, D.C. police arrested an art teacher after he punched a student in the mouth following the school's annual "Family Night." The teacher was later fired.

At a D.C. Council hearing March 4, two Rock Creek students and one former student appealed to Chairman Kwame R. Brown for help in addressing conditions at the school.

Seantrice Middleton, a junior, said she had been bullied and sexually harassed. On one occasion, she said, a boy forced his way into the girls bathroom and peeked over the stall at her.

"It shouldn't be a school; it should be a mental institution," Middleton said. "Going to Rock Creek makes me think the whole world is bad."

Landon Mills, a senior, said he has been learning the same course material over and over. "It feels like the school has sucked the spirit out of me," he said.

In a letter this week to D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley, whose agency oversees private special education schools, Brown said he was "gravely concerned" about the testimony.

"It is absolutely unacceptable for any child to experience the things that were described at our hearing," Brown wrote.

Mahaley said at a council hearing Wednesday that she could not comment in detail about the investigation, but that the inquiry should be complete in about three weeks. Her office could decide to revoke the school's state certification, effectively barring placement of students from the District, who make up Rock Creek's entire student body.

"My staff and I are very concerned," she said.

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