In February 2016, a woman told officials at a public school in Indianapolis that she had found sexually explicit text messages between her 17-year-old son and a guidance counselor. In an email that evening, a top aide told Superintendent Lewis Ferebee that an “intimate relationship” had been alleged, adding that human resources would investigate and that there was “no reason to think the parent is going to the media.”
“Thank you for the update,” Ferebee replied.
Ferebee’s handling of the information in that email and the ensuing scandal is coming under scrutiny, nearly three years later, as he nears a vote to be the next chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Ferebee is a defendant in three civil lawsuits that raise questions in part about whether he met his obligation to ensure that such allegations are reported to the state’s child protective services agency.
Six days passed before the relationship was reported to outside authorities. The delay was considered so serious that two school system employees were criminally charged and resigned, and two others were fired on Ferebee’s recommendation — both have sued to get their jobs back.
Ferebee was not disciplined and went on to receive a performance bonus. Local prosecutors investigated his role and decided not to charge him. In response to the three lawsuits, he and the school system have denied that he broke any laws.
Ferebee was one of more than a half-dozen Indianapolis Public Schools officials who had some degree of knowledge about the alleged relationship and did not report it. But only four suffered known consequences, fallout that struck some of those involved as unjust.
Shalon Dabney, a human resources official who was charged with failure to make a report, a misdemeanor, said it is unfair that Ferebee emerged unscathed — and appears set to move into a new high-profile job.
“It was handled very poorly,” she said in an interview. “I am looking for yet another job while Dr. Ferebee gets to move on.”
In a phone conversation Thursday, Ferebee said he could not discuss details of the case, citing the pending litigation. He declined to say if the issue arose in his conversations with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). He said he wants D.C. residents to know that he takes protecting students “extremely seriously, including any situation where abuse is alleged.”
“I see my job as protecting our students, ensuring our students and staff have a safe learning environment, and producing positive student outcomes,” he said. “My record has been to do that as fairly as possible.”
Ferebee has previously said that his employees assured him they were following district policy and that he knew few “relevant facts” about the allegation. In two closed-door sessions before the school board in June 2016, Ferebee testified under oath that he knew only that the relationship was inappropriate, not that it was sexual, according to transcripts of the proceedings obtained by The Washington Post.
“I learned that there was a report from a parent of a possible inappropriate relationship between a staff member and a student,” Ferebee told the school board, under questioning by an attorney for the two administrators who were later fired.
“What was it about? Inappropriate poetry relationship?” asked the lawyer, Kevin Betz. “You knew it was sexual; right?”
“I did not know that,” Ferebee replied.
The initial email alerting Ferebee to the allegations included no specifics but said that a “parent claimed this evening that her son is having an intimate relationship with a female teacher.” The email, which has not been previously reported, was reviewed by The Post after it was entered into court records this year as part of the litigation against Ferebee and other school officials.
In the interview, Ferebee declined to comment on his contention that he was not aware the relationship was sexual.
Earlier this month, Bowser named Ferebee as her nominee to lead city schools, choosing him over Interim chancellor Amanda Alexander. D.C. Council members are expected to vote on Ferebee’s nomination early next year.
Debate over his candidacy has focused largely on his philosophy of education reform, including his willingness in Indianapolis to partner with charter schools and his decision to transform neighborhood high schools into citywide magnets.
Bowser declined to be interviewed for this story, but her office provided a statement describing Ferebee as “a strong leader who is going to help lead DCPS into the next phase of excellence.”
An aide to the mayor said that as part of the selection process Bowser was given a research dossier on Ferebee prepared by her staff, which included information about the Indianapolis case and related lawsuits. The aide noted that the Indianapolis school board had not seen reason to discipline Ferebee.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) called the allegations in the lawsuits troubling and said they would be examined as part of Ferebee’s confirmation process. “Dr. Ferebee will face questions about them, as well as his entire record as head of Indianapolis Public Schools,” said Grosso, chairman of the education committee.
Indiana law requires teachers, principals and other school officials — including superintendents — to “immediately” report suspected child abuse to law enforcement officials or child protective services. Indianapolis Public Schools policy and procedures say staff must report to child protective services.
The obligation to report immediately is intended to avoid exposing students to further risk. In this case, after human resources officials interviewed guidance counselor Shana Taylor, she went straight to the victim’s house “in an attempt to interfere with or influence” him, according to a lawsuit filed by the student against Ferebee, the school system and Taylor.
Taylor declined to comment.
Taylor, then 37, was arrested and charged with 11 counts, including child seduction, for her interactions with two boys. She pleaded guilty to three felony counts and was sentenced to six years of home detention.
The victim, identified in court records only by his initials, told police that he and Taylor had sexual intercourse on about 20 occasions between October 2015 and February 2016, including at his home, at her home, in her car and at a hotel, according to a detective’s probable cause affidavit.
They smoked marijuana together, he said, and Taylor performed oral sex on him “multiple times” in her office during school hours, according to the nine-page affidavit.
Sometimes, Taylor called the boy out of class for sex more than once on the same day, the boy has claimed in his lawsuit. The suit argues that the school system and Ferebee exposed him to Taylor’s sexual harassment by failing to properly train and supervise employees. School officials suspended the student for skipping class to be with Taylor, but apparently never investigated to learn the real reason for his absences, the lawsuit says. The school system has denied those allegations.
The boy was 16 when the relationship began and 17 when it ended, according to police. In Indiana, the age of legal consent is 16, but school employees, mental health providers and others in positions of trust can be charged with child seduction for having sexual interactions with children who are in their care and are between the ages of 16 and 18.
On Feb. 17, 2016, the student’s mother contacted her son’s school, Longfellow Alternative School. She spoke to the assistant principal, William Jensen, and gave him copies of sexually explicit messages and photographs she had found on her son’s phone, according to charging documents. Within hours, more than a half-dozen Indianapolis Public Schools officials were told of the allegation. Ferebee has said the failure to report was the result not of ill intent but of “tangle of miscommunication.”
Jensen called Deborah Leser, director of student services, who pointed him to Tina Hester, the head of human resources for the school system.
The school system guidelines for handling suspected abuse allegations say teachers, principals and other staff members who “can’t figure out what to do” should contact human resources.
Hester asked that he send her the explicit text messages and other material, according to police. Jensen later told the school board in a sworn declaration that Hester had said, “Let’s not involve police just yet.”
In an email the next day to Le Boler, the school system’s chief strategist, Hester wrote: “I asked that the school police stay out of it so that [Taylor] is not charged and we can handle it from an HR perspective.”
Dabney, the human resources official who worked for Hester, carried out the internal investigation. Hester and Dabney were eventually charged with misdemeanors for failing to report the suspected abuse to authorities. Both resigned and enrolled in a pretrial diversion program that allowed them to avoid prosecution.
Howard Stevenson, a lawyer for Hester, declined to comment.
In an interview, Dabney said that she never before had needed to call child protection officials. By the time cases reached her desk, other school employees had always reported the allegations already to outside authorities.
Jensen, the assistant principal, was not charged. But Ferebee recommended that he be fired for failing to report the suspected abuse to child protective services. The school board agreed and terminated him.
Jensen is now challenging his termination in federal court, arguing that he followed school system policy and the directions of his superiors.
Leser, Jensen’s boss, was fired for failing to tell Jensen to call child protective services. She is also challenging that decision in federal court.
Leser later told the school board that she briefed her boss, Deputy Superintendent Wanda Legrand, that same night. “Sounds like you’ve got everything handled,” Legrand said, according to Leser.
Efforts to reach Legrand or her lawyer for comment were unsuccessful. Legrand is disputing that claim in court.
Leser was asked at a school board hearing why she thought she was being fired. “Dr. Ferebee has to have somebody who’s responsible for this, and I’m the person that he picked,” she said, according to a transcript.
Ferebee told The Post that he would do no such thing. “I vigorously disagree with any suggestion that I would discipline employees for expediency or trying to hide or cover up child abuse,” he said. “I have never done so. That doesn’t reflect my record or leadership style. My record is that employees are not disciplined arbitrarily and are treated fairly.”
On the day the mother complained, Leser told Boler, Ferebee’s top aide, of the allegation, according to Leser’s testimony before the school board. Boler relayed the information to Ferebee that evening, in the email describing an alleged “intimate relationship.”
Boler declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
Ferebee later acknowledged to the school board that he had received Boler’s email. He said he called Hester to ask if policies and procedures were being followed and was assured that they were.
According to charging documents, school system officials reported the allegation to child protective services only after a local television station began making inquiries. Dabney, the human resources official, told police she realized on Feb. 22 that no one had reported the suspected abuse. She directed officials at the school to file a report that day.
Principal Mark Cosand filed the report the following day. He said in an interview that he had first learned of the allegation the day after the mother’s complaint, and that he handled the matter as directed by superiors.
Cosand resigned the following month for what he described as medical reasons.
Taylor was arrested on Feb. 25, eight days after the student’s mother contacted the school.
On the same day, the school board voted to extend Ferebee’s contract by two years and raise his salary by 6 percent, to $209,880.
Nine months later, Ferebee was awarded a performance bonus of $26,999.
In her lawsuit, Leser alleges that Ferebee conducted “a cover-up of the Shana Taylor matter until his pay raise was approved by the IPS board.” Betz, who represents Jensen and Leser, declined to comment on behalf of his clients.
Under questioning from Betz at a board hearing in June 2016 to determine whether Leser should be fired, Ferebee testified that for days he didn’t ask his staff for details about the relationship. He said he asked whether they were following established policies and procedures.
“I don’t gather specifics,” Ferebee said, according to the transcript.
“You don’t what?” said Betz.
“I don’t gather specifics,” Ferebee replied.
The board was not persuaded that there had been a coverup. It ultimately took no action against Ferebee and agreed with his recommendation that Betz’s clients be fired.
Under D.C. law, Bowser was required to convene a panel of community members to advise her in choosing the city’s new schools chancellor. The panelists interviewed Ferebee and the other finalist for the job, Alexander, the longtime DCPS official who has been serving as interim chancellor.
Ferebee’s handling of the allegation did not come up, according to panelist Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union. Panelists were allowed to ask only a handful of questions, ones they developed before they knew the candidates’ names, she said.
“We could not ask him to elaborate on anything because, simply, the process was so controlled we could not ask follow up on anything. We could not even ask clarifying questions,” Davis said.
Two other people familiar with the panelists’ interview confirmed Davis’s account. The Bowser aide acknowledged that the panel was allowed to ask each candidate just six questions. She said three were selected by the mayor from a list of options written by the panelists. The aide said the group was allowed to ask three other questions that they came up with on the spot.
The goal of the panel was never to vet candidates, the aide said, but rather to advise Bowser on which candidate they considered to have the skills and strengths to be the next chancellor.
Panelists learned the identities of the finalists on the same day they conducted their interviews on Dec. 1. A person with knowledge of the process said panelists were not allowed to use their phones after learning the candidates’ names, and so could not research them.
The aide to Bowser confirmed the phone restriction but said it was intended to ensure the confidentiality of the process.
After the interviews, the panelists were asked about their opinions but were not asked to make a formal recommendation.
The following day, Bowser began telling other city officials that she had chosen Ferebee. She announced her decision publicly on Dec. 3.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.