A group of parents is suing the preschool at Washington Hebrew Congregation, alleging that the school ignored warning signs while a teacher sexually abused at least seven toddlers for more than a year.
The allegations are laid out against the preschool in a 239-page lawsuit filed late Monday afternoon in D.C. Superior Court.
According to the lawsuit, a teacher at the school took 3- and 4-year-old boys and girls to remote areas on campus and sexually abused them.
The teacher has not been criminally charged and is not a defendant in the lawsuit. Because of that, The Washington Post is not naming him.
The families who filed the lawsuit are not identified in the document and, according to the attorney for the parents, decided to remain anonymous to protect their children’s privacy.
The temple and its director of early-childhood education, Deborah “DJ” Schneider Jensen, are the focus of the lawsuit, which outlines instances when the parents allege Jensen ignored signs that abuse may have been occurring on campus.
The children, the lawsuit states, “were subject to systemic and regular sexual abuse on school property, during the school day, by a member of the teaching staff.”
A spokeswoman for Washington Hebrew Congregation said it is fully cooperating with the criminal investigation and denied some of the allegations of negligence set forth in the lawsuit.
“In August 2018, Washington Hebrew Congregation immediately reported the allegations to DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and Child Protective Services as soon as we learned of them,” spokeswoman Amy Rotenberg said in an email. “Although there has not been any arrest, these allegations are very troubling; as a faith community, Washington Hebrew has supported and will continue to support its entire community as individuals grapple with how these allegations affect them and their families.”
Jensen did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post, although Rotenberg confirmed that she had received them.
Founded in 1852, Washington Hebrew Congregation is a prominent Reform synagogue in the District’s Tenleytown neighborhood, according to its website. The congregation opened a preschool 35 years ago and has a campus in the District and a second in Maryland. Tuition runs about $16,000 for full-time students.
The preschool is closed this week for spring break.
The lawsuit states that the preschool teacher identified in the complaint was allowed to be alone with students despite city regulations requiring at least two adults to be present with toddlers in licensed child development centers. The school also did not properly train staff on ways to reduce the potential for child sexual abuse and to recognize signs that it may have happened, the lawsuit alleges.
Rotenberg said that the preschool has passed city inspections and that it denies violating city regulations. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the D.C. agency that oversees early-childhood development centers, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday, which was a city holiday.
The teacher identified in the lawsuit no longer works at the preschool in Northwest Washington. He was hired in March 2016, according to court records.
Within a month of the man beginning work at Washington Hebrew, teachers and parents reported to Jensen incidents of inappropriate behavior, according to the lawsuit. The alleged behavior included being late returning students when he was alone with them and not responding to co-workers who were looking for him while he was with students.
The lawsuit states that when an adult reported potential abuse to Jensen, the director said that the person reporting the potential abuse had a “sick mind” and that the teacher would never abuse children. Jensen did not investigate the incidents further, did not restrict the teacher’s access to children and did not report the allegations to city officials, according to the lawsuit.
“We are prepared to prove in this litigation that multiple adults — teachers and parents — went to the director of the school, Ms. Jensen, and either warned her specifically about behaviors they saw that were troubling or raised the concern about him taking children into rooms alone,” said Michael Dolce, an attorney at the law firm Cohen Milstein, which is representing the eight families who filed the lawsuit.
An attorney for the teacher identified in the lawsuit denied the allegations of sexual abuse.
D.C. police launched an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse at the preschool in August. A spokesman for the department said Monday that the investigation is ongoing and that no arrests have been made. A police report on the alleged incidents states that someone made allegations of abuse through a D.C. Child and Family Services Agency hotline.
When the investigation into alleged abuse was first brought to public attention in August, the school said a staff member at the early-childhood center had been placed on administrative leave.
“We have taken this matter seriously and have kept the community regularly apprised of what we know,” Rotenberg wrote in the email she sent Tuesday.
The police report says the alleged abuse happened between September 2017 and August 2018, although the lawsuit states that the teacher’s inappropriate behavior began before then.
Dolce, who specializes in sex-crime cases, said investigations involving victims who are toddlers can take longer than other cases because the victims may struggle to communicate what occurred.
The lawsuit alleges that students displayed abnormal behavior that preschool employees with proper training should have recognized as signs of abuse. The families are suing for an unspecified amount of money, claiming the school’s negligence has led to a potential lifetime of emotional distress, medical costs and therapy for the children. The lawsuit states that the alleged abuse may limit the children’s earning potential in the future.
The lawsuit does not describe in detail the nature of the alleged sexual assaults, although Dolce said the allegations represent significant sex crimes.
The families who filed the lawsuit have all removed their children from the school, Dolce said.
“All of these children have received mental health care already,” Dolce said. “To varying degrees, these children are suffering horribly, exhibiting substantial dysfunction. . . . The sets of problems do not just go away by removing the child from the environment or removing the predator.”
In August, the temple’s rabbi, president and head of schools sent a letter to families informing them of the investigation.
“These allegations and the necessary investigations are painful for everyone, but as a sacred community and congregation we seek to provide support to all as we face these challenges,” the letter said. “We seek both justice and compassion as our tradition demands.”