Leaders of a vaunted D.C. charter school failed to assure the safety of students after educators raised concerns about inappropriate behavior by a teacher, according to a report that has led to the ouster of top school officials.
The board of the Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB) Public Charter School commissioned an outside investigation after a 36-year-old elementary school teacher, Manuel Garcia Fernandez, was accused of sexual contact with several students. Fernandez admitted in D.C. Superior Court in June that he sexually abused six students between 2015 and 2017, and he faces up to eight years in prison. He has not been sentenced.
In a five-page letter sent to parents this week, the school’s board disclosed that LAMB’s principal, Cristina Encinas, and student psychologist, Rosario Paredes, will leave their posts Dec. 15. The school’s executive director, Diane Cottman, will leave her job at the end of the school year, according to the letter.
“We believe that the administrators in charge failed to respond appropriately,” the board’s letter to parents said.
“Student safety is the most basic priority of any school, and the failure of administration to recognize the inappropriate behaviors as red flags and make appropriate decisions, has lead us to make administrative changes,” the letter stated.
Encinas and Cottman referred requests seeking comment to a school spokeswoman. Paredes did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The report speaks for itself,” said school spokeswoman Dawn Arteaga.
“The board of directors is the governing body, and what they says goes,” she said.
Fernandez taught at the Northeast D.C. campus of LAMB, which also has two campuses in Northwest D.C. The school is one of the most highly regarded in the District and has 462 students enrolled in preschool through fifth grade.
The school’s board hired T&M Protection Resources, an investigative firm with headquarters in New York, to determine when school leaders learned of Fernandez’s abuse and whether they took appropriate action.
The board did not release the full report, saying that doing so would compromise the identities of the victims.
“As a board we want to recognize that these teachers who brought these concerns to the administration were unflagging in their efforts to raise these concerns,” the letter to parents reads. “They attempted to do what they thought was right, and they should be lauded for their persistence.
“At this point, we can only offer them our apologies that the administration did not appropriately address their concerns and our gratitude for their focused attention to the safety and well-being of LAMB’s students.”
The school says it will address the findings in the report by boosting mental health and wellness support for teachers and students, and by reviewing its staffing and human resources policies.
According to the letter to parents, the report found that between 2013 and 2015, teachers and a staff member informed the administration that Fernandez had strange and immature interactions with students and “a physical familiarity with students that co-teachers continually corrected and were uncomfortable with.” Fernandez defended himself to his colleagues, and said that it was a way for him to connect with his students and that his “Spanish culture” is more physical than typical American culture.
The principal, Encinas, called D.C. Child Protective Services in 2015 for the first time after a teacher witnessed Fernandez returning from the basement with two students. Fernandez was put on administrative leave during the agency’s investigation, which yielded no evidence of sexual abuse.
Fernandez was allowed to return to teach at LAMB, and the school provided training for staff on warning signs of sexual abuse.
But Fernandez, according to the letter, still failed “to observe appropriate boundaries” with students. Teachers repeatedly informed the administration about their concerns and school leaders did not address them, the investigation found.
“We believe that the administration made decisions based on the mistaken premise that Fernandez had been exonerated by the prior investigation,” the letter to parents said.
The D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the charter school system, said it does not comment on personnel matters, and spokeswoman Tomeika Bowden cited federal law that states D.C. charter schools have exclusive control over their staffs.