Roger, 13, looks to the side, to show the gap left in his hair after a teacher held him by his dreadlocks, which allowed a classmate to punch him. Photo by Gus Bennett.

The teacher grabbed Roger’s dreadlocks and put his weight against him. He was immobilized. That can be seen clearly in at least one cell-phone photo taken by a classmate on April 11. 

Another classmate’s cell-phone video of the encounter is less clear, though it shows an altercation between students and the presence of a larger man, the teacher. 

Roger says that, within the flurry of video, the other student let loose with several punches to his head. He was hit squarely, he said, because he was unable to move, held by the hair and his teacher’s body weight. “I was trying to get free so that I could fight back,” he said. “But I couldn’t because my head was getting pulled.”

One dreadlock was yanked out, leaving a hairless gap on his head. 

The punches also caused serious injury. 

On the following day, April 12, a Friday, his mother, Johniesha Egana, took Roger, who is 13, to the Children’s Hospital emergency room. Doctors found that he had suffered a concussion and advised him to stay home from school until Tuesday. 

The incident raises questions about the sufficiency of background checks, which rely heavily on the follow-through of police and courts. 

In his report, the NOPD officer noted that, in the video he’d watched, “an adult male (the teacher)… grabbed Roger from behind, by his hair.” In the end, the officer characterized the incident as a “disturbance.”

Roger’s school, Arthur Ashe Charter School, acted swiftly in response. The teacher was sent home immediately, pending the completion of an investigation by FirstLine school administrators.

Around 8 a.m. Monday morning, four days after the incident, Roger told his mother that, even after doctors had cleared him to return to school, he wouldn’t feel comfortable in the same classroom with that teacher. He wouldn’t feel safe there, he said, quietly.

At around the same time, school officials were weighing next steps. 

“We never want any child to walk away injured from school. We want kids to feel safe at school,” Sabrina Pence, the chief executive officer of FirstLine Schools, the charter operator that runs Ashe, told The Lens on Monday morning. “And this is a tough one, because the student clearly was not safe at school. So we have to figure out the right path forward.” 

Later that day, Monday, “after a thorough internal investigation,” Pence told The Lens simply that she and her colleagues had reached “a final solution.” For personnel reasons, she could say nothing more, she said.

Egana says that people who worked at the school also told her, that same day, that the teacher had been terminated after the school determined that he had not reported the fight to school administrators or followed other school protocols.

Pence herself called Egana on Monday afternoon, asking how Roger was feeling and telling her briefly about the investigation into the teacher. “He’s no longer going to be with Ashe,” she told Egana.

Roger, 13. Photo by Gus Bennett.

Roger is a 4.0 student who speaks quietly, when he speaks at all. He has attended Arthur Ashe school in Gentilly since kindergarten. His mother, who prides herself on never missing report-card conferences, remembers what the social-studies teacher told her during this year’s first-quarter conference. “Roger is great,” she recalls the teacher saying. “He gives no problems in class. He is on task.”

She is reluctant to paint him as an angel, just because he is a quiet kid. “He is just a regular boy,” she said. “But in this case, I know he wasn’t wrong.”

By Roger’s account, what spurred the altercation in April was an image that he found on his school laptop. That day in social studies, Roger had finished one task before briefly walking away from his laptop, he said. He returned to find a photo of a sex device pulled up on his screen. He could tell who did it, he said. “I knew who had tampered with my computer.”

He walked up to the front and told his teacher that his classmate had hopped onto his laptop and placed a photo of a dildo on his screen. His teacher told Roger to sit back down and finish his task.

But Roger never made it to his seat. Upset, he approached the classmate who had messed with his computer. “I told him, ‘Oh, you are something wrong, to put that on my computer,'” Roger said. “Then he had pushed me, I pushed him back and he had pushed me again.”

The two began a shoving match. 

Certainly, not a simple situation for a teacher. Of elementary school teachers, 8% reported being threatened with injury and 7% reported being physically attacked by a student, according to the 2020-21 National Teacher and Principal Survey. A survey on crime and safety released earlier this year by the National Center for Education Statistics found that violent incidents such as physical fights were most common in middle schools: 90% of middle schools reported a violent incident during the 2021-22 school year, compared with 55% of elementary schools and 85% of high schools.

“Schools should be a safe place where kids can find refuge from trauma. To do that, the teachers and adults in the school should receive training and prepare to create that refuge,” said Jonas Chartock, chief executive officer of the Children’s Bureau of New Orleans. 

Teachers build sometimes-transformative relationships with students, said educators consulted for this piece, recalling how students from long ago still remember standout teachers, who taught certain skills, showed kindnesses, and signaled worthiness to children who felt otherwise. Children who felt misunderstood or mistreated carry those same long memories, the educators said.

Over the past few decades, after some students became aggressive or suicidal after being bullied, schools began creating legal definitions of the issue. State of Louisiana requires schools and teachers to report all incidents of bullying. Teachers must verbally report incidents to their principal on the same day and file a written report within two days. On the state form, Roger’s incident seems to fall under a category labeled “electronic aggression,” which includes “degrading images.”

Though school behavior interventionists are typically taught to isolate the less volatile child, de-escalating the situation, in the classroom video, the teacher walks up and grabs Roger’s dreads from both sides, a posture captured by another student image. Though it’s difficult to discern within the pixelated video of the incident, Roger said that, while he was immobilized, his classmate punched him several times in the head.

Afterward, he felt dizzy, disoriented and nauseated – likely signs of a concussion, his mom now believes. 

The Lens is not naming the teacher because he has not been charged with a crime – this time. That gets to Egana’s point, exactly. 

Because the teacher had been previously charged, for an incident strikingly similar to the one that left Roger with his injuries.

Mere hours after the incident, some classmates texted Roger a news clipping from St. Mary Parish. As it turns out, with a Google search, the middle-school students had uncovered something unknown to education officials.

The clip was from exactly nine years ago, on April 10, 2015, with a mugshot of the same teacher.  “Teacher accused of restraining male student, 9, while another student struck him,” the headline reads. The man, then 34, was charged with simple battery and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile. 

Four months afterward, according to the St. Mary paper, the district attorney dismissed the delinquency charge, allowing the teacher to plead to simple battery for one year of supervised probation that included a court-supervised anger management program.

Egana could not believe it. This teacher had been accused of nearly the same behavior nine years ago and he was still in the classroom. “Once again, it’s student versus student and teacher,” she said.

Samatha Moore, the mother of one of the children involved in the St. Mary incident, could not believe it either, when contacted by The Lens.

Though the St. Mary incident happened nine years ago, Moore said, it still feels vivid to her. On that day, a younger child, who was 9 years old, had used a pencil to hit her son, who was then about 13. Initially, her son had not paid any attention to it, she said. 

But the teacher who later ended up at Arthur Ashe, a native of the St. Mary region, seemed obsessed with the moment with the pencil. The teacher ordered her son to punch the younger student. “He held the smaller student down and forced my son to hit him,” Moore said. Her son at first refused, then swung, but the smaller boy quickly ducked, and her son ended up hitting a nearby object, breaking his hand. 

Moore successfully sued the school district, receiving $3,500, barely enough to cover her son’s medical expenses at the time, she said.

That day stays with her son, she said. “His hand will never be the same,” Moore said. “It’s broken twice since then.”

Moore hasn’t seen the teacher around town. She thought he had left the classroom completely. “This is where he grew up. He stopped teaching in any schools in this area.” As far as she knew, he was never certified to teach.

She paused. “This dude does not need to be around children. He shouldn’t be around no minors. If the school board in New Orleans or anyone wants to talk to me, they can call me. I’ll tell them.”

Louisiana law requires schools to complete background checks for all employees. Certain contractors, such as bus companies, also must check the background of anyone who interacts with children. Anyone convicted of crimes listed in the Louisiana Child Protection Act is not allowed to work in a school.

Public schools in Louisiana cannot hire a teacher whose record includes certain charges, but simple battery – which the teacher pleaded to in 2015 – is not on that list. Contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile is one of those charges, but that charge was later dropped, as part of the plea. So there may have been no red flags on the teacher’s criminal history three-and-a-half years ago, when the teacher went through a verified background check at Arthur Ashe and was hired, with temporary authorization to teach there.

In July, he went through The New Teacher Project to earn his teaching certification.

Over the years, The Lens has reported on schools that skimped on background checks. Between 2015 and 2017, Collegiate Academies was dinged by an auditor and by the state Department of Education for not having an effective system for ensuring that all employees passed background checks. Collegiate resolved it by forging a partnership with the Louisiana Sheriffs Association Civil Inquiry Network.

And in 2021, after an investigation found the James M. Singleton Charter School allegedly forged employee background checks, the school rehired an employee identified in the probe whose criminal record made her legally ineligible to work in schools.

That didn’t happen this time, asserts Pence, the FirstLine chief executive officer. “That process is followed with deep fidelity at FirstLine for every employee,” she said. It was absolutely followed with this employee, she noted. 

The Lens could not locate the teacher for comment. But in talking with educators about the situation, it is clear that only formal charges by police prevent him from going through a hiring process and joining another school’s staff.

The Louisiana Department of Education “does not oversee schools system criminal-background check practices for employment,” spokesman Ted Beasley wrote in an email to The Lens. “LDOE points the employing school systems to Louisiana Revised Statute 17:15, to their legal counsel, and to the Louisiana State Police for guidance as it concerns background checks for employment purposes.” That statute, he said, “explicitly points school systems to the Louisiana State Police for a fingerprint-based background check.”

Similarly, NOLA Public Schools told The Lens that the district also does not intervene in background checks but requires its schools to follow state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) policy requiring that all teachers receive background checks completed by the Louisiana Bureau of Criminal Identification.

FirstLine runs its background checks through the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and then submits names of all hires to the state, Pence said.

Louisiana, like many state education departments, runs names for new hires through a database known as the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) Clearinghouse, which tracks state-reported information about teachers who are censured because of reported abuses. 

In 2015, this teacher hadn’t yet received a teaching certification, so there was no license censure for St. Mary to report to the state. The human-resources director in St. Mary told Then Lens that she could not comment on personnel matters and, besides, no one from her office was working there during 2015. 

Within this flurry of video, the other student let loose with several punches to Roger’s head. He was hit squarely, he said, because he was unable to move, held by the hair and his teacher’s body weight.

Since the incident in April, Egana has been determined that the teacher would not simply move to another school, like he’d done before.

The night of the altercation, she drove directly to the NOPD’s Seventh District in New Orleans East near her home. 

There, an NOPD officer wrote an initial report that describes Egana, requesting that officers charge the teacher with battery, as she stood in the Seventh District, pointing to a missing patch of hair from her son’s temple and holding a thick dreadlock that came from his head.

In his report, the officer noted that, in the video he’d watched, “an adult male … grabbed Roger from behind, by his hair.”

But the officer characterized the incident as a “disturbance.”

As the officer recounted in his report, he had consulted with child-abuse detectives, who had watched the blurry video and found nothing that rose to the level of abuse, especially given that a teacher had “a duty to intervene” in a classroom fight between students. 

The officer told the mother that NOPD’s Third District, where Arthur Ashe is located, would investigate it further, with the school. A few weeks ago, after repeated calls, Egana got a call from another officer who said that they would be looking into it further and mailing the final report to her in the mail. 

Late last week, after an inquiry by The Lens, an NOPD spokeswoman said that a conclusion had been reached. “After an investigation by NOPD’s Child Abuse Unit and the Seventh District, it was determined that the teacher in question did not commit battery on the student and therefore, no arrest was made. This determination was made after reviewing video of the incident and conducting follow-up interviews.”

Egana heard the NOPD’s response from The Lens, read aloud over the phone as she was driving Roger to see a counselor, to talk about the incident, which has left him feeling really sad, in a way that both hurts her heart and makes her furious, she said.

She took a second to breathe deeply, then gave her response.

“The police are supposed to protect and serve. But I don’t feel like they protected or served Roger,” she said. “I turned to the Seventh District. I turned to PIB (the Public Integrity Bureau) and no justice still was served.”

Egana said she was left profoundly unsatisfied by the police department’s assessment. “This was far from a ‘disturbance.’ It’s disturbing,” she said. “The NOPD’s charge must change.”

Yet Egana does understand that not everything is resolved through the criminal-justice system, she said. Maybe the teacher could be re-trained – but not if it’s not even acknowledged on his record, she said. To her, it raises broader questions of how teachers are held accountable.

She also cannot forget that her child is now in therapy because of the actions of a teacher. 

And given the teacher’s brand-new certification and the shortage of teachers – especially in social studies – Egana fears that he has already landed in another position. “Another local school may have already hired him for next year,” she said. “And someone else’s child could be hurt. Someone else’s child could end up in therapy.”