Booker T. Washington High School. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district has accused KIPP New Orleans Schools, the city’s largest charter school operator, of suspending or expelling multiple students at three of its schools without due process or proper parental notification, allegedly violating state law and Louisiana Department of Education policy. 

In addition, a district review of records from the schools — Booker T. Washington High School, KIPP Leadership and Frederick Douglass High School — found that some of the students were enrolled in special education programs. According to the district, those students were removed from classes for extended periods of time and not given access to educational services, a possible violation of federal special education law. 

In one case in April, a special education student at Booker T. Washington was allegedly removed from the district’s enrollment system entirely prior to a mandatory expulsion hearing. The student missed the rest of the school year, according to the district. KIPP has denied the accusation, saying the student — who was accused of bringing a weapon to campus — left voluntarily. 

Outgoing district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.’s staff issued the two warning letters to KIPP on June 30, just days before Henderson left the district’s top post. (The so-called “level 2” warnings were two of eight that had been issued during the 2021-2022 school year — with five of them coming in the last two weeks of his tenure.)

Officials found multiple instances where students were suspended but their families were not notified in writing — something required by state law. 

The district also found two instances where students with disabilities were suspended for 10 days or more without evidence that they continued to receive special education services while they were out of regular classrooms. Federal regulations, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as well as state education policy require schools to continue to provide those services during suspensions of 10 days or more. In one case, the school did not provide the district with evidence that it had conducted a Manifest Determination Review — a federally required review to determine if student misbehavior was a manifestation of their disability — for a suspended student. 

Because of these alleged violations, the network must take a number of remedial steps. That includes full special education training that has been approved by the district before the school year starts. 

The network must also provide a list of all suspensions that occurred during the 2021-22 school year. 

In a response letter, KIPP CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Alsuise denies the allegations and asserts the district failed to communicate with the charter group to gather information before issuing the warnings. 

In one instance at Frederick Douglass High School, the district alleges the charter group violated federal law by removing a student with a disability from class. KIPP contends it continued to provide appropriate education for the student during in-school suspension, during which they were paired with a staff member for one-on-one instruction. 

“We contend this does not meet the legal requirements of removal or suspension as FAPE was still provided,” Kalifey-Aluise wrote.

In another instance, the district asserts KIPP failed to properly communicate with parents about discipline for a student with disabilities. Kalifey-Aluise acknowledges that the school failed to issue written communication to the parent about the discipline but maintains that school staff phoned the parent to keep them informed. 

Booker T. Washington

The district issued a separate warning letter specifically for one KIPP school — Booker T. Washington High School — for unenrolling a student administrators had recommended for expulsion. New Orleans schools centralized expulsion reviews in 2012 in an attempt to ensure schools weren’t kicking out problematic students without proper justification and due process.

KIPP also denies any wrongdoing in that situation in a July 22 letter sent by Kalifey-Aluise. 

“KNOS maintains any and all alleged non-compliance pertaining to discipline, enrollment, and special education at Booker T. Washington High School is a misunderstanding of the facts of the situation, with no efforts made by NOLA-PS to receive clarification from KNOS,” Kalifey-Aluise wrote in the letter

She outlines a timeline that includes a March 28, 2022 note that is fully redacted. On April 8, according to the letter, the student brought a weapon to campus. 

“School staff did not file a police report out of sensitivity,” reads a partially redacted sentence, “as well as the fact the weapon had already been surrendered by the student.”

KIPP staff told the family the student would be suspended for six days and that the school would complete a manifestation determination review. According to the letter, that review was completed and school officials determined that the incident was unrelated to the student’s disability. 

KIPP officials said that on April 20, during the expulsion hearing, the family informed them that their student would be leaving the school and was enrolling in a GED program.

“The school operated under the genuine belief that the student had successfully transferred into such a program after committing an expellable offense and thus dropped the student from the school’s roster within the PowerSchool database,” Kalifey-Aluise wrote.

In the district’s warning letter, Interim Chief Accountability Officer Smith also finds KIPP’s expulsion policies, as detailed in its handbook, to be inconsistent with district policy. For example, KIPP’s handbook states a student can be suspended until their expulsion hearing. In the warning letter, Smith wrote that is simply not the case. 

“Suspensions must be for a fixed term,” he wrote. “Suspensions cannot be indefinite.”

KIPP officials argue, however, that they have routinely submitted their handbook to NOLA-PS for annual approval and the language has never been noted. 

“It is problematic for a document to be approved annually by a charter’s authorizer, only to have the same document cited as a source of our alleged noncompliance,” Kalifey-Aluise wrote.

“KNOS denies all allegations of wrongdoing in these instances and again asserts that NOLA-PS (1) did not give KNOS ample opportunity to engage in resolution with families or share details of NOLAPS concerns prior to issuing these citations, (2) does not sufficiently provide guidance related to these ambiguous policies to its charter schools, and (3) wrongly defines the above incidents as ‘patterns,’” Kalifey-Aluise wrote. “The issues addressed here do not constitute a pattern of systemic noncompliance.”

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...