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

The state Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal has reversed lower court rulings that dismissed the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Orleans Parish School Board from a lawsuit filed by John F. Kennedy High School students over the 2019 mismanagement and grade-changing scandal that led to half the senior class unable to graduate on time.  

The lawsuit, filed in July of 2019 by Darnette Daniels, the mother of a student caught up in the mess, also named New Beginnings Schools Foundation, then Kennedy’s charter operator. A contractor that was brought in to help manage New Beginnings Schools — and which was instrumental in uncovering many of the problems at Kennedy — was also named in the original complaint, but has been dismissed from the suit.  The Louisiana Department of Education was later added as a defendant. 

Daniels’ daughter was one of dozens of students allowed to walk in the May 2019 graduation, only to learn in June they hadn’t been eligible for a diploma due to improper coursework or grade changes. The revelation came months after a former employee first alleged the school was improperly changing grades. The resulting internal, local and state investigations uncovered various shortcomings and staff malfeasance at the Gentilly charter high school. 

Wednesday’s ruling gives students the grounds to continue their lawsuit and sends the case back to Orleans Parish Civil District Court. 

“I think that the ruling is a very positive development for the parents and students,” the students’ attorney Suzette Bagneris said in an interview. “It’s something we have felt very strongly about from the very beginning.”

The ruling came the same day Bagneris was in civil court for other matters in the case, she said.

On Wednesday, just minutes before the appeals ruling came down, Bagneris said Judge Robin Giarrusso — who is presiding over the case in Orleans Parish Civil District Court — ruled on two other matters.

One was whether the plaintiffs can obtain an investigative report prepared by the school’s attorneys at the Adams and Reese law firm. 

“The judge has ruled she will review the Adams and Reese report and let the attorneys know if it is discoverable,” Bagneris said, regarding the report New Beginnings’ lawyers prepared on their behalf.

The other was whether NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. can be subpoenaed in the case, which he has challenged.

“The judge would not allow me to conduct the deposition of Superintendent Henderson Lewis,” Bagneris said. “She felt he was not a party to the litigation.”

However, it’s unclear how the latter ruling might change given the appellate ruling that puts the Orleans Parish School Board back in the case. 

BESE spokesman Kevin Calbert said the agency couldn’t comment due to pending litigation. NOLA Public Schools district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the same.

The case appears on the Orleans Parish School Board’s agenda for a status update in executive session at its Thursday night meeting. 

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...