An Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge on Friday removed the Orleans Parish School Board as a defendant in a lawsuit over the recent graduation scandal at John F. Kennedy High School.
The case was filed over the summer after mismanagement at the school resulted in about half the 2019 senior class being unable to graduate on time, a number of whom waited throughout the summer for the school to hand over their transcripts or diplomas. The lawyer for the plaintiffs, 10 former Kennedy students, is seeking class-action status on behalf of the entire class of 2019 and all current Kennedy students.
The lead lawyer, Suzette Bagneris, is seeking damages for students and their families who spent much of the summer in summer school and some who say they missed college enrollment deadlines or scholarship opportunities.
In court Friday, Judge Robin Giarrusso also dismissed the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The Louisiana Department of Education and New Beginnings Schools Foundation, the charter network that runs Kennedy, are still defendants in the lawsuit.
“We live to fight another day,” attorney Suzette Bagneris said in an interview after the proceedings.
The lawsuit was filed July 1, weeks after dozens of Kennedy seniors learned they had not been eligible to graduate, even though they’d been allowed to walk across the stage at their May graduation ceremony.
The problems came to light in the spring after a former employee went public with allegations that some students’ grades had been changed improperly. Those allegations led, in part, to the suspension of New Beginnings CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams. In her absence, New Beginnings hired contractor TenSquare LLC, which was also named as a defendant in the suit, to help run the network.
Ten days after the Blouin-Williams’ April 1 suspension, a law firm was hired to investigate the alleged grade changes. Within a matter of days, the firm apparently reached the conclusion that the charges were untrue, though it’s not clear how the attorneys came to that finding or how it was reached so quickly.
Later, when Kennedy’s counselor quit, TenSquare employees moved into an administrative role at the high school where they discovered even more problems and grade changes that the district later confirmed.
Students spent the summer in limbo as they made up missing credits, some which resulted from improperly administered remedial courses, while waiting for their transcripts from the Louisiana Department of Education. Amid the allegations and investigations, the department was taking a more thorough look at seniors’ graduation eligibility, slowing down the process. A department employee testified in August that Kennedy failed to provide course information on time which further slowed the process of granting diplomas and issuing transcripts.
NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. called for a criminal investigation into the school. He also called for an audit of high school student records citywide. The Lens recently reported that will cover about five percent of students.
Last month, the district issued a surprisingly brief a five-page final report of the district’s investigation into Kennedy. The district ruled the initial grade-changing allegations “inconclusive.” But it concluded many of the other problems discovered by the contractor and the state led directly to students being unable to graduate in a timely manner.
Fighting for diplomas in court
Early court proceedings in the case have been at times urgent. In July, Bagneris unsuccessfully sought an emergency order to produce transcripts for students who needed them to enroll in college. But the case has slowed somewhat as students returned to school and Bagneris seeks class-action status for all Kennedy students.
Proceedings over the summer included the Orleans Parish School Board pointing the finger at New Beginnings and New Beginnings blaming the Louisiana Department of Education for the slow issuance of transcripts. Bagneris did not initially sue the department and added them later.
In court Friday, with three lawyers for the students on one side and three lawyers for the education agencies on the other, Giarrusso got to work.
“Who’s up first?” she asked.
A lawyer for BESE volunteered. He successfully argued the state board had no place in the lawsuit, arguing that Kennedy was an OPSB — not state — charter school. Kennedy transferred from the Recovery School District to the local district in 2017. Even if it had been under state oversight, he said the board had immunity.
Attorney Dennis Phayer said that while the petition had very detailed points, “None of them implicate BESE.”
Giarrusso granted BESE’s request to be removed from the suit.
Next came the Orleans Parish School Board.
Attorney Sharonda Williams argued that the board was hardly mentioned in the petition and that New Beginnings, not OPSB, was responsible for the student transcripts at the heart of the suit.
“The charter agreement says the school maintains student records,” she argued.
One attorney for the students, Steven Rando, argued that the charter agreement, which is granted by the school board and acts as its regulator, ties the entities together.
“I took out a red pen and circled every time they referenced the charter agreement. It’s about 15 times,” he said holding up his marked up copy to the judge. “Charter agreement. Charter agreement. Charter agreement.”
“Are they relying on the charter agreement to get out of this case?” he asked.
But in response, Williams referenced a state law that says the district may not interfere with the daily operations of a charter school.
Giarrusso granted the local school board’s request, but added, “This was a much closer call than BESE.”
“I’m the last one standing, judge,” New Beginnings’ attorney Meredith Cunningham said as she stood up to argue on the charter network’s behalf.
Cunningham was challenging whether the parents adequately laid out claims and said the students’ didn’t clearly lay out how fraud had been committed.
“You have to state who, what, when, where and why to claim fraud,” Cunningham said. “Who misled you? If it was an omission, who hid it from you?”
She also argued the students claims weren’t clear enough.
“The students need to say what happened to them,” Cunningham said.
“Isn’t that something you could find out in discovery?” Giarrusso asked.
“Perhaps,” Cunningham replied.
Bagneris said the students’ allegations were as clear as day.
“Each paragraph painstakingly goes through what happened to the parents and children at John F. Kennedy High School,” she said. “They were led the entire time to believe they were eligible to graduate.”
Giarrusso opted to keep the suit alive with New Beginnings as a defendant.
“I get what this is about and if it happened to my kid I would not be very happy,” Giarrusso said.
Bagneris said she’d likely appeal the ruling on the Orleans Parish School Board. Attorney Madro Bandaries, who is working with her, agreed.
“Why would you investigate someone you don’t have any control over?” he asked.