The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion There’s reason to look hard at the new candidate to lead D.C. schools

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has nominated Lewis D. Ferebee to serve as the next chancellor of D.C. public schools.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has nominated Lewis D. Ferebee to serve as the next chancellor of D.C. public schools. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)
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If the D.C. Council makes a New Year’s resolution , let’s hope it will resolve to perform more aggressive oversight of the D.C. Public Schools and to hold school leaders to account.

The council is off to a good start by delaying swift action on Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) nomination of Lewis D. Ferebee, the superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), to be the next chancellor of D.C. schools.

The council must weigh the performance of the Indianapolis schools — one of the largest systems in Indiana — under five years of Ferebee’s stewardship. According to the Indianapolis Star, only 1 in 5 students in the system passed both the English and math portions of the spring 2018 Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress exam, “making it one of the lowest-performing school districts in the state.”

Ferebee’s closing of nearly half of the district’s high schools and creation of innovation schools managed by charter or nonprofit operators fueled a backlash leading to the defeat of some school board members in November’s elections.

And then there’s the sexual abuse scandal.

A series of articles by the Indianapolis Star, and one by Post reporters Emma Brown and Perry Stein, have delved into a 2016 scandal that involved a sexual relationship between a 37-year-old guidance counselor and a student who was 16 years old when it began and 17 when it ended. As a result of a police investigation, the guidance counselor was arrested and charged with nine felony counts of child seduction, one felony count of dissemination of matter harmful to minors and one misdemeanor of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The counselor, also accused of having sex with the teen and another student, pleaded guilty to three felony counts and was sentenced to six years of home detention.

Several school officials were disciplined. Little wonder.

Ferebee, meanwhile, is a defendant in three civil lawsuits that raise questions about whether he met his legal obligation to ensure that allegations of an improper relationship were reported to the state’s child protective services agency.

Indiana law, as The Post reported, requires teachers, principals and superintendents to “immediately” report suspected child abuse to law enforcement officials or child protective services.

Ferebee’s own school system policy and procedures require staff to report such matters to child protective services.

That’s not what happened, according to numerous documents made public in the investigations.

Contacted by the student’s mother, who handed over copies of sexually explicit messages and photographs she found on her child’s phone, an assistant principal at the student’s school reported the matter to the director of student services, who pointed him to the head of human resources. The human resources director asked for the materials but also told the assistant principal, “Let’s not involve police just yet.”

The next day, the guidance counselor reported to IPS human resources. The same day, the human resources director contacted Ferebee’s chief strategist and top adviser: “I asked that the school police stay out of it so that she is not charged and we can handle from an HR perspective, but I don’t know if the mom plans to file charges.”

Ferebee’s chief strategist gave him a heads-up about the relationship, adding that human resources would investigate and that there was “no reason to think the parent is going to the media.” “Thank you for the update,” Ferebee replied.

Reported the Indianapolis Star: “At least seven IPS officials knew about the allegations against [the counselor] as early as Feb. 17 but no one reported them to the Indiana Department of Child Services until Feb. 23 — six days later. Court records indicate officials didn’t report the allegations until after they learned that a news outlet was aware of them.”

Following school board inquiries, the IPS director of student services and the assistant principal were terminated, and the human resources director and an H.R. case manager resigned.

Yet the day the guidance counselor was arrested, the school board extended Ferebee’s contract by two years and raised his salary 6 percent to $209,880, and nine months later, the board awarded him a $26,999 bonus.

Ferebee told The Post he couldn’t discuss details of the case, citing the pending lawsuits.

No telling what he told Bowser about it when he was interviewed for the D.C. job. Asked about that meeting, the mayor’s communications director, Latoya Foster, said Friday only that Bowser had been given briefing materials on Ferebee that indicated the Indianapolis school board found no wrongdoing on his part. Foster later confirmed that the mayor and Ferebee did discuss the subject.

The council must take it from there, including, if necessary, interviewing the disciplined former IPS officials and Kevin Betz, attorney for the fired assistant principal. Betz told the school board his client “only followed the policy and followed the directives of his boss.” Betz argued, according to the Indianapolis Star, that the school board also should fire Ferebee and other school administrators who learned of the allegations and did not report them to the appropriate officials immediately. Ferebee “is a good man,” Betz said. “But he is incompetent, and . . . driven by public relations and politics more than he is driven by the care of children who are in IPS.”

The D.C. public schools have been rocked by scandal: phony graduation rates, uncertified teachers, the forced resignation of Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson who ran afoul of a school transfer ban.

Is Ferebee what the District needs?

That’s for the council, led by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), to determine next year.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

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The Post’s View: D.C.’s would-be schools chief has some homework to do

The Post’s View: D.C. schools are improving slow and steady — and not enough

Amanda Alexander: I’m D.C.’s interim schools chancellor. I’ve never been more optimistic.

The Post’s View: Another blow to D.C. Public Schools

The Post’s View: The D.C. schools chancellor’s astonishing lack of common sense