More than three years after mismanagement and poor record-keeping resulted in half of John F. Kennedy High School’s 2019 class being unable to graduate on time, a lawyer representing the affected students is asking a New Orleans judge for a partial judgment — along with an award of damages — on the students’ claims.
Suzette Bagneris, attorney for Darnette Daniels, this week asked a New Orleans judge to issue partial summary judgments against both the Orleans Parish School Board and the New Beginnings School Foundation — the now-defunct charter group that ran Kennedy at the time — finding them liable for negligence and educational malpractice. (KIPP New Orleans Schools, which is not a party to the lawsuit, now runs Kennedy.)
Bagneris alleges that the school board and New Beginnings failed to ensure that students were enrolled in core classes or take required end-of-course exams, failed to follow federal special education laws and enrolled students in online coursework without proper supervision from a certified teacher, among a number of other issues, many of which were substantiated in official reports by the Louisiana Department of Education and the NOLA Public Schools District.
Many of the problems at Kennedy were discovered during a transcript review conducted by New Beginnings employees and outside consulting group TenSquare, which was brought in to help run the New Beginnings network by its governing board following the suspension (later resignation) of its CEO amid an investigation into allegations of grade inflation at the school, which were first reported by The Lens in March 2019.
“Despite empty public apologies, for over three years, the NBSF has continued to fight these students and their parents in the courtroom,” Bagneris wrote in one of her filings seeking a partial summary judgment. “Plaintiffs look to the court to bring this nightmare to an end.”
As a result of the problems found in the 2019 review, nearly half of the students in the graduating class of 2019 were found ineligible for diplomas – something they didn’t find out until after their graduation ceremony. While the district concluded initial allegations of improper F to D grade changes were unfounded, the complaint and the transcript review led to a series of investigations — by the charter group, district and state Department of Education — that revealed much deeper problems at the school.
Dozens of students had to retake coursework. Some had to retake exams or take exams they’d never been given, and others had to return to school in the fall to complete courses required for a diploma. Some members of the class said they believed they lost out on college scholarships because of delayed diplomas or allegedly miscalculated GPAs.
In July that year, Bagneris sued the charter group on behalf of Darnette Daniels, who was representing her daughter, a junior at the time who thought she’d been eligible to graduate early after taking additional courses all school year. Other students claimed to have lost academic and athletic scholarships after failing to graduate on time.
Bagneris is still seeking to have the students certified as a class in pursuit of a class-action lawsuit against the group. In her recent filing, Bagneris outlines 16 different claims alleging New Beginnings failed to appropriately provide and supervise required courses, failed to maintain the state-required Pupil Progression Plan and failed to properly maintain special education plans.
She is claiming the charter group should be held liable for the “educational malpractice, negligent supervision, negligent entrustment in the operation” of Kennedy. Likewise, she claims OPSB failed to properly supervise the charter group.
In an interview, Bagneris said her recent motions seek damages for the proposed class — including all Kennedy students in the classes of 2019 and 2020, as well as their parents — for emotional distress. But she added that even if the proposed judgments are granted, they only partially satisfy the lawsuit.
“It would leave unresolved the other damages alleged by the plaintiffs,” Bagneris said. “The only thing I’m asking for is that the judge issue a judgment granting a liability claim and granting damages for emotional distress. But there are other damages like economic losses, jobs they lost” while retaking their courses. Bagneris said she plans to move ahead with the remaining claims even if the partial summary judgments are granted, saying she will take the case to trial if necessary.
The Orleans Parish School Board and its administrative arm, the NOLA Public Schools district, have long maintained that New Beginnings — a semi-autonomous charter group authorized by the board and regulated by the district — bears responsibility for the problems at Kennedy. In 2019, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Robin Giarrusso dismissed the board from the suit. But a state appeals court later overturned that decision. In a statement to The Lens, district spokesperson Taslin Alfonzo said the district stands by its defense.
“The Orleans Parish School Board maintains its legal position in the Daniels matter and remains confident in its defense to the claims made against it,” Alfonzo wrote.
Bagneris said the sides have an upcoming settlement conference with New Beginnings. The school board refuses to participate, she said.
“They admit this. So did [former NOLA Public Schools Superintendent] Henderson Lewis. This should be a nonissue,” Bagneris said. “The school board has dug in its heels and is fighting us at every turn.”
Alfonzo declined to comment on the decision not to participate in settlement talks, saying the board will not publicly discuss privileged strategy decisions made in the course of ongoing litigation.
In her interview with The Lens, Bagneris noted recent graduation problems at Einstein Charter School’s Sarah T. Reed High School, which mirrored the issues at Kennedy. The district was not aware of the problems there, which left half the class of 2022 temporarily ineligible for diplomas, until three days after their graduation ceremony.
Bagneris criticized the district for allowing such an incident to occur again, noting the district had put several reforms into place — some of which The Lens discovered had changed since their initial implementation — that were meant to guard against a repeat of the scandal.
“When something happens, they act like they have no accountability whatsoever,” Bagneris said. “It’s just sad.”
Charles Maldonado contributed to this report.