After allegations surfaced that a student was sexually abused at Capitol Hill Montessori School @ Logan, D.C. Public Schools cut ties with an after-school care provider that operates in seven states. Officials told families that student safety was paramount.
But parents at the Northeast Washington campus say the school system is not doing enough to protect students from sexual harassment, assault and abuse. They blame vague communication from school officials, “hazy” protocols and a lack of preventive education for children and teens.
Parents are railing against the District’s traditional public and charter school systems and demanding increased training for employees and more aggressive standards for background checks.
Sandra Moscoso-Mills, a Capitol Hill Montessori parent, said the alleged incident in May made her question what was going on at her daughter’s school.
“It’s a huge breach of trust,” Moscoso-Mills said. “Everything that you felt comfortable with, you have to rethink.”
Parents started examining the school’s sexual misconduct policies after a Springboard Education employee was arrested and charged with allegedly having sexual contact with a 13-year-old student between January and May, according to a statement from D.C. police. Springboard is a private company based in Massachusetts that operates before- and after-school programs.
Parents didn’t find out until a month after the allegations were reported to police. School officials announced in June that the Springboard employee, identified as Jestin Hickman of Southeast Washington, had been arrested.
An online court database did not display case information for Hickman, but Kadia Koroma, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, said the man’s preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 20.
Hickman’s attorney declined to comment. Attempts to reach Hickman were unsuccessful.
Following the allegations, D.C. Public Schools launched an internal review and discovered Springboard did not conduct a proper background check of its employee. Further analysis revealed more than 30 percent of school district employees have lapsed background checks.
Officials are working to whittle that number down to zero. All of the school system’s before- and after-school care partners — people who work in the city’s schools but are employed by outside entities — have now gone through the background-check process, said Shayne Wells, a spokesman for D.C. Public Schools.
But background checks for some school employees remain out of date, Wells said.
The district’s goal is to clear all school employees by the end of September and complete updated background checks for central office staff a month later, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in a statement.
Mark Freidberg, chief executive of Springboard, wrote in an August email that the company was updating background checks and implementing new training for current employees. Freidberg said the 13-year-old student was neither a Springboard student nor in the program’s care.
Another Capitol Hill Montessori parent, Danica Petroshius, said the alleged incident catapulted her into a movement to demand greater transparency from education agencies. Petroshius wrote a letter in June outlining parents’ questions and demands. More than 300 parents and community members signed on.
Paul Kihn, the city’s deputy mayor for education, responded Friday and told parents that city leaders are taking “aggressive strides” to detect and prevent sexual misconduct.
Those plans include delivering lessons on personal boundaries and consent in kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms, expanding mental-health resources, educating students and staff about inappropriate relationships and showing students how to report misconduct.
“The District government takes the safety and wellbeing of all students very seriously,” Kihn said in the letter. “Additionally, DCPS has undertaken an extensive effort this summer to revamp its process for approving providers in its schools and tracking compliance with DCPS requirements that safeguard the safety and well-being of children.”
Petroshius said much of the information Kihn provided did not clarify her questions. She also pointed to “misinformation” about the way school leaders communicated with parents. Kihn said the school system informed parents about the alleged misconduct at Capitol Hill Montessori on June 8. Petroshius said the message did not say the incident under investigation was sexual in nature.
“But it does provide a lot of good resources that provide further confirmation that we, as a city, have a long way to go before we can be sure that the city is doing all it can to keep our kids safe,” Petroshius wrote to Kihn.
D.C. police in recent years have responded to allegations of sexual misconduct at several schools.
Joseph Smith, a security guard at Anacostia High School, was charged with sexually abusing a student in October. Smith was sentenced in May to a year in prison, but a judge suspended the term and imposed three years of probation, court records show.
A teacher at Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School was sentenced to eight years in prison for sexually assaulting six students between 2015 and 2017.
The issue has led D.C. Public Schools to recruit about two dozen people to serve on a Student Safety Task Force. The body will help school system officials implement safety procedures and health curriculums.
Meanwhile, city leaders are working to finalize policies on reporting and investigating sexual misconduct.
Parents said they hope the task force’s work will have wide-reaching benefits, although some worry it will take years to see results.
Members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission that represents some Capitol Hill Montessori families voted Tuesday to ask D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for more information about six alleged incidents of sexual misconduct in city schools.
“If we know what the test scores are and we know how teachers are evaluated, why shouldn’t we know if incidents of sexual harassment or abuse are also taking place?” said Denise Krepp, a commissioner.
Alex Nock’s children do not go to Capitol Hill Montessori, but he said the alleged episode involving the Springboard employee encouraged him to investigate the sexual misconduct policies at his children’s schools.
“If you’re going to send your kid to school for eight or nine hours a day, you want to make sure the school system has steps to minimize as much as possible any kind of assault or sexual harassment,” Nock said.
The coalition of parents is prepared to fight through the school year. They still have to gather information about incidents of abuse, draft a proposal for city leaders and figure out how they will hold officials accountable, Petroshius said. For many, the demands of this advocacy work are stacked on top of full-time jobs and family obligations.
“It shouldn’t be my responsibility to do this. Some days I wake up and think, ‘Why am I doing all this work?’ Not just me, but tons of other parents,” Petroshius said. “But could I ever wake up and not make this my responsibility? Absolutely not.”