The board that oversees the District’s charter schools is raising safety concerns about a prominent boarding academy that educates middle-school students who have extensive learning and emotional needs.
The executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board said Monday that leaders of Monument Academy Public Charter School may be endangering students and failing to adhere to students’ special education plans, a violation of federal law.
The public school’s founder and other Monument officials defended the campus, telling the charter panel that many students arrive with significant trauma and their behavior improves as they progress in the school.
Monument, which opened in 2015, gained national acclaim for its approach to educating children whose needs are not easily addressed in traditional schools: those who come from unstable homes and need round-the-clock structure and mental-health services. It is one of three public boarding schools in the District, with children living on campus five nights a week.
On Monday, the city’s charter school panel cited statistics it said highlighted chronic concerns about student safety at Monument and demanded answers from leaders of the Northeast Washington school.
Since the start of this school year, more than 1,800 safety incidents have been reported at the campus, including bullying, property destruction, physical altercations and sexual assault, according to the charter school board. Forty alleged incidents of sexual misconduct and four of sexual assault have been reported. And the charter school board said that on 17 occasions, students have been found to possess a weapon, which ranges from using a stapler in a dangerous manner to a knife.
Half of the school’s roughly 100 students have been suspended this academic year, according to the charter board.
The panel wanted to know how the school could reduce behavior incidents when its proposed budget for the 2019-2020 school year shows an increase in student enrollment while the teaching and behavioral staff is slated to shrink.
“We have seen extraordinarily high rates of student suspensions, very high rates of parent complaints, many of them alleging safety issues, significant issues of compliance of special education law, other safety issues and the failure, at this point, by our analysis, of the school to meet any of its academic goals,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
The school’s founder and chief executive, Emily Bloomfield, and two colleagues — Charles Moore, chair of the school’s board of directors, and Keisha Morris, chief of school operations — said some of the board’s accusations were off-base, incorrect or a misreading of data. Bloomfield said some of the behavioral data is the result of poor “coding” of incidents by staff members, who are being trained in how to properly record events.
“The general trend through the year has been a decrease” of incidents, Moore told the panel.
“If this was easy, then there wouldn’t be a need for Monument,” said Bloomfield, adding that she believes the school will be adequately staffed for the next academic year.
In seeking to explain the 1,800 safety incidents cited by the board, school officials said Tuesday that if five students are involved in an episode, it counts as five incidents.
Monument’s demographics are significantly different from those of most D.C. public schools. About 35 percent of students are homeless, according to Bloomfield. More than 60 percent require special education services. And nearly 80 percent are defined as at-risk, meaning they are in foster care, have been held back at least a year in school, or their families receive welfare or food stamps.
The school started with a fifth grade and has added a class each year. The school began the academic year with about 125 students, although more than 20 left midyear for various reasons. The first eighth grade class is expected to graduate next month.
The charter board took no disciplinary or corrective actions Monday evening. The chair of the panel, Rick Cruz, said it was important to discuss Monument because of the severity of concerns.
“It is incumbent upon us to have this conversation sooner rather than later,” Cruz said. “The issues are such that we need to be discussing it right now.”
Monument has been the subject of laudatory profiles, including one earlier this year in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s magazine, which described how the school provides a stable home for children who need it. And it has received grants from major education foundations. Among the big names: the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
In striking an agreement with the charter board to open, public documents show Monument set some lofty goals. Among them: The school would have a suspension rate lower than the citywide charter average to “ensure that student behavior does not result in lost learning,” according to the agreement. Monument remains far from reaching that goal, but Bloomfield said administrators are still striving to attain it.
Bloomfield served on the D.C. Public Charter School Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor, until 2014.
In 2017, when the school had about 80 students, Monument received an extra $12,113 in funding for each student from private grants and donations, according to public documents from the D.C. Public Charter School Board. That was on top of the nearly $60,000 the academy received from the city for the boarding and education of each student.
According to public records, the school took out more than $15 million in loans to retrofit a former D.C. Public Schools campus.
Bloomfield acknowledged that while every student has a bed at the school, many do not sleep there each night.
“Deciding to [open Monument] was really hard,” Bloomfield said in an interview. “I know the easier thing is not to do this. I know everyday why people don’t do this. It’s hard and it’s emotional, and it’s hard to see children and families struggle.”
Bloomfield dismissed assertions that the school is violating special education laws, saying that Monument is giving students the services mandated in their Individualized Education Programs. She acknowledged that for a three-month period last school year, the academy was behind in complying with students’ special education plans but said it has caught up.
Pearson and charter board staff members said they remain concerned about the school, especially because next year’s proposed budget shows that the staff of 100 or so is expected to decrease by 20 people while enrollment is projected to grow to 120 students.
Interviews conducted by The Washington Post in recent months opened a window into some issues confronting the school.
One mother, Tameka Merritt, expressed reservations about the way the school supervised her son, who has severe emotional needs. Merritt, whose two older sons were killed by gun violence, said her son — 11 at the time — was suspended several times for disciplinary reasons.
She shared her son’s Individualized Education Program — a specially designed learning plan — that lists him as an emotionally disturbed child who needed after-school counseling and extra supervision during school hours.
Despite this, Merritt said the school sent him home unsupervised in an Uber car.
“I didn’t even know he was coming home,” she said.
Bloomfield said it is against school policy to send children home in ride-hailing services without parental permission and that she has not heard of such episodes at Monument. She said parents can sign a form authorizing the school to allow children to take Uber or Lyft home.
Legal advocates who represent students at Monument — including Jennifer Fox-Thomas, an education engagement specialist at the advocacy organization So Others Might Eat — said other children have been given rides home in ride-hailing cars when they misbehave.
In the first half of the 2018-2019 academic year, the charter board said it received seven complaints against the school. Among the complaints: A parent did not know of a child’s suspension, and a student ran out of the school and was not stopped because there was no security.
Bloomfield pointed to the school’s waiting list for slots in the eighth grade — 14 students are on the roster — as evidence that families are searching for an option like Monument. She said she remains convinced Monument is helping students who would otherwise languish in school.
“I don’t think I fully appreciated the extent to which the behavioral challenges and needs of kids could be so significant,” Bloomfield said in an interview. “So the line we always have to walk is balancing the safety of everyone in the building and balancing the goal of keeping a child in school.”
Valerie Strauss is author of the Answer Sheet blog. Peter Hermann contributed to this report.