Staff members at Foundation Preparatory Academy allegedly failed to immediately report a physical assault on a special education student by an employee of the school, violating state mandatory reporting law and, potentially, federal special education law, according to a Sept. 2 warning letter from the NOLA Public Schools district.  

The four-page letter handed down by district Chief of Portfolio Innovation and Accountability Officer Rafael Simmons alleges that on Friday, Aug. 19, six Foundation employees were made aware of the alleged assault. 

Under the state’s mandatory reporting law, which applies to professionals who work with children, the school was required to report the incident to law enforcement immediately. But according to the letter, Foundation — which is located on St. Bernard Avenue near Gentilly Boulevard — at first launched an internal investigation, failing to call the New Orleans Police Department until Aug. 23, the same day the district was informed of the alleged incident by a parent of the student.

An NOPD spokesperson confirmed via email that the department was notified of an incident at the school, though on Aug. 24 rather than Aug. 23, and responded to “a reported cruelty to a juvenile incident at the location.” 

“Initial reports were that a student was struck by a teacher,” they stated. “NOPD’s Child Abuse Unit is handling the investigation, which remains open and active.”

Community Academies of New Orleans, or CANO, is the charter group that operates Foundation Prep, along with other schools. CEO Myrialis King confirmed that “an incident occurred” and was reported to NOPD, “state authorities” and the school district. 

“A full investigation is underway. Our first priority is to gather the facts while we promote the safety and security of the Foundation Prep community,” she wrote in an email. 

“While we cannot discuss personnel matters, the employees involved in this matter will be addressed appropriately.”

The school did not provide additional details as to what allegedly occurred on Aug 19. The Lens requested a police report on Tuesday. 

But it appears from the letter that it may have involved the use or attempted use of physical restraint against the student. That could run afoul of federal special education law. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, students with disabilities have historically been subjected to physical and mechanical restraint at disproportionate rates. 

Legal guidance from the office warns that physically restraining special education students could constitute disability discrimination depending on the circumstances, such as whether the student’s behavior posed an imminent risk of danger and whether the staff member applying physical restraint was trained in crisis prevention. 

“At this time, CANO has not met its legal obligations for protecting the rights of students with exceptionalities,” the district’s warning reads. “It is critically important that CANO and its staff comply with federal law and all policies and procedures regarding seclusion and restraint of students with exceptionalities.” 

The district questioned the school on Aug. 29 and staff members failed to provide proof of required reporting to officials, restraint and seclusion protocols and failure to alert the parent to use of restraint and/or seclusion, according to the district. 

The school has until Friday to show it has trained staff in restraint and seclusion and mandatory reporting policies, and have a meeting of the student’s special education team to review their learning plan. 

The district has directed CANO to alert it to any inquiries about the incident from the state Department of Education or the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. 

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...