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JCPS Internal Investigations Of Employee Misconduct Fall Short

J. Tyler Franklin

The state’s largest school district has spent the last few years dealing with a wave of employee misconduct that left broken legs, distressed students and costly lawsuits in its wake.

The problem goes beyond a few bad teachers. The system that is supposed to investigate and stop them falls short on both fronts, according to a report Jefferson County Public Schools had commissioned on its behalf last year.

This report, as well as interviews and other documents obtained by KyCIR, paints a picture of a sloppy, ineffectual investigative unit that allows teachers and staff who endanger children to remain in the classroom long after they should have been removed.

This is one piece of a larger narrative about JCPS that has emerged in recent years. The Courier-Journal reported in March 2016 that the district significantly underreported to the state the number of times students were restrained or secluded. In May 2016, JCPS paid $1.75 million to the family of a student whose legs were broken after a classroom restraint.

A Kentucky Department of Education management review that began in July 2016 raised enough concerns that the state agency began a top-to-bottom management audit of the entire district, which is ongoing. 

As all that was happening, in October 2016, district leadership received this three-page report that calls into question JCPS’s ability to perform internal investigations. It’s been 14 months since that report was filed, and under two superintendents, JCPS has made virtually no changes to the way it investigates employee misconduct.

During that time, the report and the district’s inaction have been kept secret. By hiring the investigator, Carl Christiansen, through the district’s outside counsel, JCPS never had to publicly present Christiansen's findings. His work is protected by attorney-client privilege.

Christiansen was also brought in to investigate ongoing cases of employee misconduct, KyCIR has found, the results of which are not public record.

The full assessment of the Office of Compliance and Investigations was never provided to the Jefferson County Board of Education, the unions or JCPS families. KyCIR obtained a copy, which is published here for the first time.

Christiansen declined to speak with KyCIR, but the report outlines his work.

It says he reviewed more than 35 internal investigations into episodes of restraint and seclusion by district employees spanning more than five years. He wrote that he found “a consistent pattern of a multitude of deficiencies.”

“It is unquestionable that JCPS needs to make major changes in the manner in which allegations concerning teachers abusing students are investigated and reported,” Christiansen wrote.

Investigative Shortcomings

When a JCPS employee is accused of misconduct, the case is sent to the Office of Compliance and Investigations. One of five compliance investigators is then dispatched to investigate the claim and decide if it is substantiated.

District leaders use that investigation to decide consequences and mete out punishment.

“Kids are counting on the quality of investigations to ensure that they’re safe,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a child welfare advocacy group based in Jeffersontown. “There can’t be a more important obligation for the school district than that.”

But Christiansen’s report indicates a district that has shirked that responsibility over at least the last five years: “Many OCI reports were so lacking in thoroughness and completeness that a decision maker would be irresponsible in relying on the reports in making critical decisions aimed at protecting both employees and students.”

Christiansen worked on the district’s behalf for more than a year, re-investigating old cases of employee misconduct and taking on ongoing cases. He also issued this one macro report that assessed OCI as a whole.

His re-investigations of individual teachers led to at least eight of the worst offenders being placed on paid leave. At least three employees were subsequently terminated.

But at least two repeat offenders returned to the classroom without further punishment, because they had already been disciplined based on the original investigations.

Since Christiansen’s report was issued, OCI staff received training on “new laws, regulations and best practices for investigations,” according to JCPS spokeswoman Allison Martin. Two members of the team received their paralegal certifications, which Martin said “assists investigators in compiling thorough reports that follow the latest regulations and case law.”

The district has made one change to how it punishes employees: It now considers all past investigations, not just the most recent one, when deciding consequences.

But the system that investigates those employees remains the same. There have been no personnel or protocol changes. Employees are still being investigated by the same team, using the same systems as before.

No Action

Acting JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said in an interview he has seen the report. He could not provide examples of changes he has made to OCI in the six months since he took the interim position, but he said he was examining all the district’s systems.

“The fact that a major structural change has not been made since July 2 does not mean that there is not significant review in progress about where we need to go to make changes,” said Pollio.

Pollio said he could not comment on what happened before he took over this summer. JCPS declined to make OCI Director Georgia Hampton or her supervisor, Chief Equity Officer John Marshall, available for an interview.

Christiansen’s report was initially delivered to Chief Business Officer Tom Hudson, who shared it with Superintendent Donna Hargens. Neither is still with the district.

Hargens resigned at the end of the 2016-17 school year. According to former colleagues and her LinkedIn page, she is living in North Carolina. She didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Hudson said he thought Christiansen’s condemnation of OCI would mean a chance for reform. He showed KyCIR plans for a systemic overhaul that would empower principals to handle most minor discipline and turn the more complex cases over to a much more highly-trained team of investigators.

He said he pushed hard in conversations with Hargens and meetings with other top district administrators to implement this new system, but he said Hargens instead wanted to handle it by talking to OCI leaders about ways they could improve. 

Since he didn’t think that would be sufficient, following the release of this report in October 2016, he found a workaround.

“It was clear that we had a systemic problem,” he said. “They’re incapable of doing complex investigations. So when other investigations would come up, we could call [Christiansen] and get him involved into looking into those.”

For the last few months of his tenure, Hudson redirected serious teacher misconduct cases to Christiansen rather than OCI staff. It’s not clear how many new cases he investigated, since his findings are not public record.

Brent McKim, the president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said the union has long had concerns about the quality of OCI’s investigations. He had not seen the report but said it was his understanding, based on conversations with JCPS administrators, that the district would be changing its practices as a result of Christiansen’s assessment.

“Well, I guess my understanding of what was going to happen sounds like it did not occur,” he said. “We’d certainly hope that the district would take steps based on the feedback that they received from the outside investigation of their processes.”

JCPS did not renew Hudson’s contract at the end of the school year, part of a major management shakeup as Hargens departed. Christiansen is no longer working on behalf of the district, and OCI is back to investigating teacher misconduct.

Pollio said he has been satisfied with the quality of OCI investigations since he became acting superintendent. KyCIR requested copies of two months’ worth of those more recent investigations. JCPS officials asked for a three-and-a-half month extension to fulfill the request.

Findings kept quiet

Christiansen’s comprehensive critique of OCI never made it to one important group: the Jefferson County Board of Education. Chairman Chris Brady said they were provided excerpts from a draft, but the full report was never presented to the board.

Brady said he has advocated for reforms to OCI, and he would like to see major cases investigated by an outside firm. But he said it’s hard to push for change when the board is kept out of the loop.

Hudson emailed the excerpts to the board as part of a larger email thread, he said. He wanted board members to request the full report based on the excerpts, and said he was disappointed when they didn’t. Hudson said he could not remember why the full report was never shared with the board. 

In the end, the result was the same. Hargens and the board decided to part ways after, among other things, a barrage of news coverage focusing on the way the district handled student restraint and seclusion.

Part of the problem was chronic misbehavers who were repeatedly returned to duty, like Jodi Anderson, a special education teacher.

In 2011, Anderson improperly restrained and scratched a student. In 2014, she held a student up against a wall for 40 minutes until he vomited and then made him clean it up. In 2015, she restrained a student despite having previously lost her district restraint certification. Her termination letter outlines a pattern of misconduct dating back nearly a decade.

All that time, Anderson remained in a classroom, working directly with students. When Christiansen re-investigated the case, the district terminated her, a move that has since been upheld by a state tribunal.

The termination letter references an “investigator” who reopened her case, but Christiansen is not mentioned by name. The three reports Christiansen filed about Anderson’s misconduct are not in a copy of her personnel file provided by JCPS to KyCIR.

That's because Christiansen didn't work for JCPS. He worked for Middleton Reutlinger, the district’s outside counsel.

There was no competitive bidding process as would have been required if the district had hired him. It's unclear how much the district spent to bring him in, since he was paid through the law firm.

And Christiansen’s work is protected from public disclosure by attorney-client privilege. Hudson said that was intentional.

“It’s a safer way to do things,” said Hudson. “If there’s something there that we don't want to become public because we may injure somebody’s reputation, then we have the option of pursuing that path.”

That also meant Christiansen’s criticism of OCI was kept quiet at a time when JCPS was facing blowback for its handling of student safety issues.

An open records request by KyCIR for all reports authored by Carl Christiansen yielded only five. Christiansen filed a report for every individual employee he re-investigated, as well as reports on ongoing cases of employee misconduct and at least this one macro look at OCI. Hudson believes Christiansen filed at least 15 reports in all.

The OCI report, which examined more than 35 old cases, was not one of the five released to KyCIR.

Martin said the district waived attorney-client privilege on those five because they resulted in discipline.

KyCIR asked the Kentucky Department of Education if the agency received copies of Christiansen’s reports as part of its top-to-bottom audit of JCPS.

“KDE was not aware and JCPS did not provide KDE with copies of the reports by an outside investigator,” KDE spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said in a statement. “KDE is interested in all information that could assist the district in ensuring a safe environment for students. As a result, KDE will be contacting the district for copies of the reports.”

[documentcloud url="http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4341711-Christiansen-Report.html" responsive=true]

R.G. Dunlop contributed to this report. 

Eleanor Klibanoff can be reached at  eklibanoff@kycir.org and (502) 814.6544.