Kennedy HS student says he was unofficially sent home for months, describes what civil rights lawyer calls ‘blatant’ special education violations

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Marta Jewson / The Lens

TJ shows a video of the self-contained classroom he says he was placed in during his time at Kennedy.

Nicole Jones said that throughout her son TJ’s four years at John F. Kennedy High School, school administrators seemed to target him. First, they tried kicking him out, citing a dispute over his residency. Then, she said, they placed him alone in what they called a “self-contained classroom.” Finally last November — during what was supposed to be his final year at the school — they just sent him home, telling him to take his classes online at home.

“[The principal] felt that it would be ‘in my son’s best interest’ to be at home and do the work, not in school,” Jones recalled.

But Jones never agreed to the arrangement, and she said the school did not follow the legally required process to put TJ in a home-based setting.

Nineteen year-old TJ, who has bipolar disorder, received special education services at the school. Like other students in special education, TJ — who asked that we not publish his full name in this story — was required by state and federal law to be on a tailored school plan called an individualized education program. Changing his school routine so drastically should have involved evaluating all possible arrangements that could have kept him inside the school building, a meeting with his teachers and mother to review the school’s recommendation and his mother’s signature.

For the past several years, the Orleans Parish school district has been under a federal consent decree for failing to provide adequate special education services. The consent decree mandates an independent monitor provide quarterly reports and provides for increased monitoring of both a random selection and targeted group of schools each year. Victor Jones (no relation to Nicole Jones or TJ) represents the plaintiffs in the suit.

“The basis of that lawsuit was New Orleans charter schools were systematically denying a free appropriate education to disabled students,” Victor Jones said. “This. What you describe, speaks to why this class action is still open.”

TJ took his online at home classes through a program called GradPoint, the same program at the center of graduation problems that have rocked the Gentilly charter school this year.  Investigations into the school’s student records — launched in the wake of allegations that Kennedy employees were improperly changing some students’ grades — revealed a large number of irregularities, including the GradPoint problems.

GradPoint, intended to be used for makeup courses for students who failed classes, was assigned to Kennedy students who were taking classes for the first time. The courses also weren’t given in a way that aligned with state education standards. In a lawsuit filed last month, another student alleged that she found out that a year’s worth of GradPoint classes she took were worthless because they weren’t being monitored by a certified teacher. Kennedy staff had previously, and incorrectly, advised her that she could graduate early by taking the classes by herself at home.

TJ is one of 92 students, more than half of Kennedy’s Class of 2019, that didn’t meet requirements for a state diploma due to admitted malfeasance by school administrators. He may also be one of several students who received inadequate special education services that have been flagged by the state.

The school is overseen by the New Beginnings Schools Foundation. Told of the allegations late last month, New Beginnings board president Raphael Gang said it was the first they’d heard of the situation and the charter group began investigating.

“The allegations made paint a disturbing picture of John F. Kennedy under its former leadership,” he wrote in an email. “When we were made aware of these allegations, we were shocked and immediately launched a full investigation into this individual student’s experience as a student.”

“However, because some of these allegations are over two years old, leadership and a majority of the staff have changed since that time,” he continued. “While the investigation is not complete, we are addressing allegations, such as his home-bound status, that do not appear to be in line with this student’s required services.”

The family also alleges that TJ’s “self-contained classroom” was really more like a closet and that he was often locked inside. The charter group disputes that.

Now, as some of TJ’s classmates unexpectedly return to Kennedy to earn their final credits, TJ told The Lens he’s not going back as long as it’s being run by New Beginnings. The charter network plans to surrender its charter agreement that allows it to run the school, but only after the upcoming school year is over.

“They’re going to run that school into the ground,” TJ said.

“I swear, if I go back to that same school with people who saw me in 11th grade when they were in 9th grade,” he said. “They messed up.”

“No, he’s not going back,” Nicole Jones said.

“The K was a top notch school,” TJ said, noting he always heard good things about John F. Kennedy High School. The original Kennedy was a historic school that didn’t reopen after Hurricane Katrina. A newer school, formerly Lake Area New Tech Early College High School, adopted the Kennedy name last year after partnering with Kennedy’s alumni group.

“They’re trying to get that back, but they’re doing it illegally,” TJ said.

‘That’s when they made my school a jail for me’

TJ began high school at Miller-McCoy Academy, but during the 2014-2015 school year when the all-boys schools prepared to shut down, he transferred to George Washington Carver High School. Carver is run by Collegiate Academies.

After a semester at Carver he transferred to Lake Area New Tech Early College High School, which would later be renamed Kennedy.

Nicole Jones said Kennedy employees seemed to make a point of wanting to kick her son out of high school, attempting to send him away over a residency violation, often sending him home partway through the day and ultimately unofficially placing him on home-bound services.

She also said TJ had a behavior intervention plan. That’s a document that outlines how school staff are supposed to work with him to calm him down if he becomes agitated or disruptive. She said the school often failed to follow all the steps in that plan, calling her instead to immediately pick up him up. She said she couldn’t have held down a job because they contacted her so often.

Victor Jones, the civil rights lawyer, said schools are obligated to provide a free and appropriate education to all students.

“The law requires that students are able to receive an education with their peers as much as possible,” he said.

Bethel Cager was hired as the new principal of what was then Lake Area in the summer of 2017. She would leave the school within the year. Under her watch, in the fall of 2017, TJ said he was mainly educated in a room he described as a closet. Sometimes with a teacher, and sometimes with another student.

Prior to being moved there, Nicole Jones said the school tried to kick her son out because she had moved to St. Bernard Parish.

At a meeting with school officials about his residency early in that school year, she said only a city police officer followed TJ out of the room when he got overwhelmed and walked out.

“That NOPD officer that was in that room came out and told him, ‘You don’t let them make you want to quit,’” Nicole Jones said. “Nobody else didn’t come out that room. No principal, no dean, no counselor, no nobody but that officer.”

“He was ready to give up. But when that officer talked to him” he committed to graduating, she said. “For him to fight to stay in school when they were fighting so hard to get him out, I commend him.”

She said TJ was living with his aunt in New Orleans. Ultimately the school couldn’t point to a provision stating he had to live with his mother, and he was allowed to remain enrolled, she said.

“When they kept me, that’s when they made my school a jail for me,” TJ said, placing him in the self-contained classroom.

TJ showed The Lens a video of the inside of that room. It’s a small windowless room and the door handle on the inside hangs listlessly. In the video, the door to the room is open and TJ walks inside to demonstrate the dysfunctional handle. When toggled, the inside handle doesn’t move the door’s latch.

“But a classroom, even with being self-contained, you should be able to come in and out,” Nicole Jones said. “He couldn’t. Once that door closed — it locked. They didn’t have a key or nothing to get out.”

According to state data, during the school year TJ alleges that he was placed in the room, Lake Area reported two incidents of students being placed in seclusion.

Gang said the school has looked into the allegations and has not found evidence that TJ was placed in the room as the teenager described it.

“Our internal investigation has not been able to confirm that this student was locked in a room as alleged and staff who supported him dispute his recollection of events,” Gang wrote in a statement. “But our investigation is ongoing and we will be transparent about our findings and take appropriate action based on what we learn.”

In a statement provided by spokeswoman Ambria Washington, the NOLA Public Schools district said its staff learned of the allegations from New Beginnings after The Lens inquired with the charter group in mid-July.

The network is “taking the allegation seriously,” the district’s statement said. “We are continuing to provide daily oversight at JFK and will ensure that the school complies with seclusion and restraint laws.”

Cager did not respond to calls, texts or emails seeking comment on TJ’s description of his education.

Home-bound

The school hired a new principal, Brian Gibson, at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. TJ was supposed to graduate in 2018, but he was held back, repeating his senior year during the 2018-2019 school year. Nicole Jones said that after TJ returned to school in the fall of 2018, Gibson had a new plan for him. After Thanksgiving break, TJ would be taking classes from home.

Gibson, who lost his job in the midst of recent revelations about problems at the school, could not be reached for comment.

Nicole Jones said TJ was sent home with a plan to provide a laptop and allow him to take online courses, the same courses the state later revealed were inappropriately used.

“So it took me two to three weeks to get my laptop,” TJ recalled. “So for two to three weeks I’m not getting an education.”

Victor Jones, the lawyer, said TJ’s placement at home was likely a problem.

“We have a few issues going on here. One that is a due process violation. Before making a substantial change in placement the parent had to be noticed in writing, attend a hearing, an IEP meeting and recommendations for home placement,” he said. “And if none of those things occurred we have a blatant violation under IDEA,” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that governs special education services.

Nicole Jones said there was no such process before the decision was made. And apparently, she said, the school was marking him absent.

That was another problem for Kennedy students because the state requires students receive a minimum number of educational minutes each year. The school attempted to have students make up classroom time with online courses, which was one of the ways the state found Kennedy misused the remedial courses.

“I kept getting these automated calls about his absences,” she said. She said the school told her not to worry about it.

The school, meanwhile, was not providing TJ what he needed to take the courses at home, he said.

“I had to get Wi-Fi to do the work,” TJ said. “I had to pay for it.”

He said he asked for worksheets as an alternative, but they were never delivered.

“I can’t even think of an IEP meeting that an outcome would be a five-month stay at home,” Victor Jones said. “Absolutely that was a violation.”

Federal law requires schools to consider less restrictive alternatives before placing a student in a confined room or sending them home. Victor Jones said a home placement is one of the most restrictive settings a child could receive.

In an email last week, Gang, the board president wrote, “We want to be clear that we do not condone any deviation from any student’s required services by the prior administration and we find such behavior reprehensible and unacceptable.”

Summer school

TJ did his at-home coursework last year and appeared to be on track to graduate. He’s listed as a 2019 graduate in Kennedy’s commencement ceremony agenda. But in June, a month after the ceremony, TJ was told that he needed to retake four courses.

He was one of dozens of students told to take summer school courses to make up for lacking credits due to the school’s misuse of the online remediation program, as well as several other irregularities discovered in student records.

He hoped by completing summer school, he could finally earn his diploma. But even with that, TJ’s mom said Kennedy was late in telling her when summer classes began, causing her son to miss a week of makeup time.

“So he only had five, six, seven days,” of summer school classes, she counted in an interview in late July.

Initially Nicole Jones said, they were told he needed to makeup work in four courses: Spanish II, Geometry, Health and Physical Education. But she knew he’d passed some of those courses.

“No way,” she recalled thinking. “Because in Health and PE, he passed those. One with an A and one with a B. Why would you call me telling me he has to repeat those classes when you didn’t check?”

Eventually she was put in contact with another Kennedy employee who agreed. The school would count Health and PE, but Spanish II and Geometry wouldn’t count, she said she was told.

“He said the state is not honoring that,” she said. She also said the school isn’t counting credits earned in classes taught by substitutes.

“So in credit recovery, y’all still put him with teachers that didn’t know the subject,” she said. “So they still set him up to fail.”

Nicole Jones said she spoke with New Beginnings CEO Kevin George during the first week of August.

“[TJ] didn’t have no live Spanish teacher on that computer helping,” she said. “[George] wasn’t aware of that, and he said he thought there was one.”

“He said, ‘Wow, I wasn’t aware of that’,” she recalled. “How does a parent know more than the CEO?”

Of 53 students who took makeup courses this summer, only 24 were cleared to graduate as of last week.

Nicole Jones said she is still working out TJ’s next steps, but one thing she knows is that he will not return to Kennedy.

“I don’t know what this outcome is going to be, but I’m not going to put my son through that.”

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