The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The warnings about safety came for months. But regulators didn’t force Monument Academy to make changes.

Monument Academy Public Charter School in Northeast Washington is a weekday boarding school.
Monument Academy Public Charter School in Northeast Washington is a weekday boarding school. (Kate Patterson for The Washington Post)
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Top D.C. education officials knew for months about safety issues plaguing a charter school that serves some of the city’s most vulnerable children but did not force changes, public records and interviews with school employees show.

Students at Monument Academy Public Charter School fought during the school day, routinely destroyed school property and simply left campus without permission. Complaints poured into the city agency charged with overseeing the high-profile school, and some staff members reported to their superiors that they felt unsafe. Some child advocates and parents said they thought the school was dangerous, too.

Officials at the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the city's charter schools, acknowledged long-standing problems at Monument and said they believe they addressed those issues appropriately.

Still, unlike many charters, there was no dedicated security staff on the Northeast Washington campus of Monument — a weekday boarding school for middle school students, many of whom struggled in traditional schools.

At a public meeting of the charter school board in May, a member revealed that more than 1,800 safety incidents classified by Monument as serious were reported during the 2018-2019 school year. Those incidents included sexual assault, physical altercations, bullying and property destruction.

“Over the past year, the board has been addressing a number of compliance and safety issues with Monument Academy, which has led the Public Charter School Board to significantly increase its scrutiny of the school, including having staff visit the school multiple times over the past several months,” Scott Pearson, executive director of the city’s charter board, said at the May meeting.

Monument leaders say the number of safety incidents is misleading because if multiple children were involved in a single episode, it counted as multiple incidents. They also emphasized that the school enrolls students with significant emotional needs, many of whom have been pushed out of their previous schools for behavior issues.

Tami Lewis, who was named vice chair of Monument’s board this summer, said the school’s objective is to keep children with behavior issues in class while ensuring other students remain safe.

In an interview, Pearson said he and his staff acted appropriately as they fielded a high volume of complaints about Monument. Charter board staff members who monitored security and behavior incidents at the school shared their findings with Monument officials.

But the city’s charter school board did not direct the school — or Monument’s governing board — to take measures to ensure student safety.

“It is always appropriate for us to intervene when health and safety concerns emerge but not always in a public meeting setting,” Pearson said. “We were not prescriptive about what exactly they should do because we do not think that is our role.”

The handling of Monument by the charter school board — which prides itself on giving the 120 campuses in its sector autonomy — opens a window onto how the board operates. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, and although they are subject to local and federal laws, they are not bound by the rules and bureaucracy of publicly funded school districts.

Monument’s governing board voted June 4 to close the school — more than six months after it said it realized that financial and academic issues were probably insurmountable.

Even then, that decision was not final: Monument, which serves about 100 students, reopened Aug. 7, partnering with another charter school operator. The campus remains a boarding school, where students live five nights a week.

The Washington Post interviewed more than a dozen staff members and others with knowledge of Monument’s operations, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Pearson said he believes troubling episodes had dwindled to an “acceptable” level by March. But some teachers at Monument said in interviews that they stopped logging incidents because it took too much time to input information about the frequent episodes.

Pearson said the board summoned Monument leaders to a May public meeting after learning that staffing levels were decreasing even as enrollment was expected to increase, spurring concerns that the school could not operate safely during the 2019-2020 academic year. Less than a month later, the Monument board voted to close.

Charles Moore, Monument’s board chairman for some of the 2018-2019 academic year, defended the school at that May meeting.

“The grander story about Monument is a story about students with a tremendous set of needs and, for the most part, have not been successful in other schools,” he said. “It’s not easy to simply compare Monument to other schools.”

D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson cited Monument as a factor in deciding to take steps toward auditing the practices of three District agencies with oversight of alternative schools, including charters.

“The problems Monument has faced didn’t begin yesterday, so what were our expectations of the charter board, and what rules should be in place when it comes to District kids with the most severe challenges, in charter and neighborhood schools?” Patterson said. “These are very difficult issues.”

D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Education, said concerns about Monument reached his desk, prompting a meeting with school leaders near the start of this year. He said his committee offered help.

“The District of Columbia continues to be used as a testing ground for charter ideas when we already have a large number of charter schools in the city, with many of them very successful,” Grosso said. “I don’t like the idea of continuing to open new schools with ‘maybe this idea will work.’ That’s just not fair anymore to the students.”

* * *

Monument opened in August 2015. Within weeks, complaints started coming in to the charter school board.

That September, a caller to the board reported witnessing staff unable to handle chaotic behavior.

The caller’s request: “For the school to be monitored closely. For the school to implement better processes to handle children in crisis mode,” according to a log of complaints obtained through a public records request.

Between August 2018 and May 2019, students left campus without permission on 88 occasions, according to the charter board, a number that contributed to safety concerns.

Students were sometimes left without adult supervision and fights broke out, according to staff members.

Some parents said their children did not receive federally mandated special-education services, a problem Monument officials acknowledged and said they corrected.

Tamiesha Lawrence, whose son has special-education needs and graduated from Monument in June, said her child was assaulted by classmates while he was supposed to be under the supervision of a dedicated aide.

Another parent, Tameka Merritt, said when her son misbehaved, he was sent home in an Uber car without her permission.

One student sexually assaulted another child when students were left alone briefly in a gymnasium, school records reviewed by The Post show.

And Tamika Williams said a student pulled a BB gun on her child, then in sixth grade, and made threatening remarks. She said staff never informed her of the incident.

Williams said she enrolled her son at Monument because she wanted him to have a boarding school experience. She pulled him out after the incident with the BB gun.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Williams said. “When I went there on Fridays, the kids were in disarray, they were cursing, they were fussing at the teachers. It was always chaos, kids running through the hallways where teachers were trying to catch the kids.”

Lewis, the Monument board vice chair, said she believes the city’s charter board should provide more support to schools such as Monument that serve students who have experienced trauma.

“Many of those safety issues that some individuals have made such a big deal about are present in many other schools,” Lewis said. “But there has not been any systemic effort to find a common language, or standard reporting practices, or supports.”

* * *

Monument’s initial mission was to serve students in foster care.

It would also be a place where parents who needed their middle-school children off the streets could enroll them — a week full of rigorous academics and ample, round-the-clock social and special-education services. Although few students are in foster care, most have special-education needs and come from low-income families. Twenty-five percent are homeless, according to city records.

From the start, there were doubts about Monument. Only three of the six charter board members voted to approve the school’s opening. Two members abstained from voting, and one rejected the application.

Barbara Nophlin, the only board member to vote against Monument, said the school’s application lacked “mission-specific goals, staffing levels were not adequate for the required level of care and that the evening program and the role of the special education coordinator were not well-developed,” according to minutes from the 2014 meeting.

Still, Monument — founded by Emily Bloomfield, who served on the charter school board until 2014 and was a member of a school board in California — opened, with a large flow of cash.

It attracted philanthropists, including Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and was lauded this year as “innovative” by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s magazine.

The school received about $60,000 from the city and federal governments for the boarding and education of each student. That was added to private donations and grants, which in 2017 amounted to an additional $12,113 for each of the 80 students then enrolled, public documents from the charter board show.

On top of that, the school took out more than $20 million in loans to pay for facilities. Loan payments were set to increase in the upcoming academic year.

The city’s charter school board reviews the finances of individual schools but does not need to approve loans. D.C. government agencies are prohibited from carrying debt year-to-year, but charter schools can accrue debt.

Charter schools have their own boards that set policy and ensure that academic and financial goals are met. These panels hold a charter, or contract, with the city to operate the school — and can vote to relinquish the contract.

Nearly half of Monument’s 13-person board resigned during the 2018-2019 academic year.

Paul Kihn, the District’s deputy mayor for education, resigned from Monument’s board when he was tapped for the high-ranking city job in September 2018. His spokesman said in an email that Kihn did not know of serious troubles facing Monument and believed the charter board fulfilled its responsibility when overseeing the school.

The charter school board reviews each school every five years and shuts them down if they have poor academic performance or are financially unstable. More than 50 charters have closed or changed operators since 1998.

When Monument’s governing board announced that the school would close, Moore, then the chairman of the school’s board, wrote a June 5 letter to parents saying the school was not meeting enrollment or academic targets and could not afford to properly staff the campus. He said the school’s board should have been more transparent with families about the challenges it faced.

Monument’s fate changed when Friendship Education Foundation said 12 days later it would partner with Monument and keep the campus open. The foundation is the philanthropic arm of Friendship Public Charter School, a well-regarded network that operates more than a dozen campuses in the District and educates nearly 5,000 students.

Monument raised nearly $1 million in donations and announced that it would remain open with a new leader, Jeffrey Grant, a veteran D.C. principal.

Pearson said he is confident about safety at Monument under Grant.

The new principal said in an interview that although staffing declined overall, he has hired seven employees dedicated to security, installed more cameras and put in panic alarms that sound when doors are opened after school hours.

He said behavior incidents are already down this school year.

“One of my top priorities is to change the narrative that has been put in the universe about Monument,” Grant said. “This is not the same school that it was previously.”

Valerie Strauss writes the Answer Sheet blog.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the campus has two employees dedicated to security. Since that figure was provided at a June meeting, the school says the number has been expanded to seven. The story has been updated.

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