From 2019, John F. Kennedy High School at Lake Area on Paris Avenue. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

The New Beginnings Schools Foundation is asking a state appeals court to review a Civil District Court judge’s decision that kept the charter group as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by several students affected by the John F. Kennedy High School graduation scandal last spring. 

The lawsuit was filed weeks after dozens of Kennedy students learned they hadn’t met state requirements for graduation despite walking across the stage at their May commencement ceremony. 

The lead plaintiff is Darnette Daniels, who filed on behalf of her daughter, Tayler McClendon. McClendon is currently in her senior year at Kennedy after learning her efforts to follow her counselor’s advice to attempt to graduate a year early didn’t count due to administrative errors. She’s struggling, her mother told The Lens last month

New Beginnings, the charter network that operates Kennedy, was named as one of several defendants in the suit. The plaintiffs’ attorney is seeking class-action status on behalf of all students from Kennedy’s class of 2019 and all current students. 

The network’s self-described “malfeasance” resulted in delayed transcripts for graduating seniors. Students claimed they lost scholarships and had trouble enrolling in college, among other hardships. Six employees, including CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams, left the network during the spring. 

The students’ attorney, Suzette Bagneris, sued the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Orleans Parish School Board, New Beginnings, and a contractor the charter group hired after Blouin-Williams was suspended. Bagneris agreed to drop the contractor from the lawsuit and later added the Louisiana Department of Education as a defendant. 

Despite students anxiously awaiting their diplomas, the lawsuit dragged on throughout the summer in what Bagneris described as a “shell game,” as the district, network and state all pointed the finger at each other for the delay.

In October, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Robin Giarrusso dismissed BESE and the Orleans Parish School Board from the case, but not New Beginnings. Although OPSB authorized New Beginnings’ charters, including the one for Kennedy, it argued it has no responsibility over the charter network’s academic offerings and records — the main sources of students’ troubles.  

New Beginnings argued it shouldn’t be included in the lawsuit because the petition was vague, didn’t demonstrate the students’ ability to sue the charter group and that Bagneris’ attempt to form a class-action was inappropriate. Giarrusso denied the network’s request. 

In late November, New Beginnings filed an application for supervisory writ, a request for review,  with the State of Louisiana Court of Appeal Fourth Circuit. The court had not issued an opinion as of Tuesday afternoon. 

A request for review

In its appeal to the court, the charter group broadly argues that the complaint, which alleges fraud and negligence, actually failed to demonstrate fraud and has no legal basis to claim negligence over the graduation problems.

New Beginnings lawyer Meredith Cunningham argues schools don’t have a specific legal obligation to students’ educational outcomes.

“Like its sister jurisdictions, there is no cause of action for ‘educational malpractice’ — a general duty of care owed in the education of students — in Louisiana with respect to students,” she wrote.

She goes on to ask the court to reverse the lower court’s ruling that New Beginnings remains in the lawsuit, arguing they’d need to establish a case for fraud in order to be owed anything from the charter group. 

“A plaintiff cannot state a claim — especially one in fraud — by cutting and pasting media reports into a single pleading. This court should reverse the district court’s erroneous decision denying New Beginnings’ exceptions,” Cunningham wrote. 

Bagneris initially filed on behalf of the class of 2019 students who were unable to graduate on time. But Bagneris later expanded the case to include all current Kennedy students. Cunningham argues this is an “improper use of class action” as the younger students would have different claims.

At times the group appears to challenge more minute details of the case, such as whether parents are representing themselves or their children, or whether all “the children are minors such that parental representation is appropriate.”

“Whatever claims current students at Kennedy in the classes of 2020, 2021, 2022, or 2023 might have grounds to assert may not have accrued, and, indeed, may never accrue, particularly for those students who’ve just joined the kennedy community within the past few weeks,” she wrote in the Nov. 25 filing. 

As the appeals court considers the request for review, the lawsuit is still ongoing in Civil District Court. A hearing is scheduled there on Friday. 

New Beginnings filed an extensive response denying the majority of students’ accusations for that upcoming hearing.

In the filing with civil district court, New Beginnings argues it “cannot be held liable for factors such as student attendance, ‘the student’s attitude, motivation, temperament, past experience and home environment,’ all of which affect student performance.”

Meanwhile, Bagneris, the students’ lawyer, is challenging the dismissal of OPSB and BESE, in a separate appeal. Bagneris and Cunningham did not respond to requests for comment. 

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...