Alleged violation sets date for charter revocation hearing

on October 2, 2018

The West Contra Costa Unified School Board initiated a charter revocation process for John Henry High School last week after hearing allegations that a student complained of abuse and the school failed to report it to government authorities as required by law.

In other business, the board also took steps toward establishing a district-based voting map.

Board President Valerie Cuevas advocated for the revocation after the alleged mandatory reporting violations were brought to the attention of the board during public comment. A mandated reporter, such as a teacher, is legally required to report abuse that he or she sees or suspects.

The board will hold a public hearing on the question of revoking the charter on Wednesday, Oct. 3.

After the meeting last week, multiple current and former John Henry school teachers sent messages to the district alleging an instance of failed mandatory reporting at the school, according to the public hearing notice. They alleged in the messages that a student had reported being beaten at home to a member of the school staff. They alleged that in response, Evelia Villa, then the chief academic officer of Amethod Public Schools, which operates the John Henry school, decided to investigate herself instead of calling Child Protection Services, which she was legally required to do.

Villa allegedly called the student’s mother to the school, and instructed the child to strip off his shirt. After seeing no bruises on the student’s back, she determined his story was false, according to the messages sent to the district.

Villa reportedly described her handling of the complaint of abuse during a professional development event held prior to the 2017-18 school year, and she used it as an example to recommend the teachers investigate student stories before reporting to child protection officials, according to the messages.

Villa is the wife of Jorge Lopez, chief executive officer of Amethod, the charter school system that operates John Henry school. She is currently the Richmond regional superintendent of Amethod.

Robert Moncada, outreach coordinator for Amethod who attended the school board meeting, corroborated at least one instance of failed mandatory reporting. He was listed alongside Villa as a presenter at the professional development meeting where she allegedly described how the school had responded to the complaint of abuse.

“We asked the student, had he, or had he not, been hit. The answer was, ‘no,’” Moncada told the school board last week. “That same student was having difficulties in other aspects of his life,” Moncada said, arguing that the school didn’t need to report to child protective services because, “we checked, we double checked. We checked with the parent, both parents.”

In a statement Monday, Amethod said it has launched an investigation of the alleged violations of mandatory reporting. But Amethod argued against the charter revocation, saying the current practices at John Henry do not pose any severe or imminent threat to pupils at the school.  

“Even if the allegations regarding the statements made at the training are determined to be true after the investigation is completed, they were made over a year ago,” Amethod’s statement reads. It says the current staff is trained online in mandatory reporting, and that a live training will also be held.

At last week’s meeting, board members agreed the alleged mandatory reporting violations were important to consider, but they disagreed about how to respond.

After Cueves initiated a motion to revoke the charter, the board approved it on a 3-2 vote. Board members Cuevas, Madeline Kronenberg and Tom Panas voted for revocation.

“I don’t play when it comes to mandatory reporting,” said Cueves, who led the effort on the board to vote to revoke the charter.

“If saying what I said gets me unelected, then I can’t think of a better reason to be unelected,” she said.

The next step is for the board is to hold the public hearing on the question of revoking the charter.  If the charter is ultimately revoked, it may later be reinstated through an appeals process.

The board had issued a notice of violation to John Henry and Amethod in February. But the school has since taken steps to redress the problems raised, according to a staff report made at the meeting.

The problems raised then included a lack of properly credentialed teachers, a failure to provide appropriate special education support and services and an inadequate system to select students through a random name drawing.

Several newer concerns were identified during an April site visit, including insufficient textbooks, not enough lab equipment and an inadequate curriculum, according to the staff report. These issues have also been adequately addressed, although they are not completely resolved, according to the report.

Staff recommended the board allow the school to finish addressing these problems, and suggested continued oversight of John Henry to ensure ongoing compliance.  

But several district teachers at other schools raised the alleged mandatory reporting violation during the public comment period and called upon the board to revoke John Henry’s charter.

United Teachers of Richmond Vice President Marissa Glidden, a teacher at Verde Elementary School, spoke of being hired to teach by one of the Amethod schools in 2013. Glidden said she was asked to discipline children in illegal ways during her training, though she did not say how. She told the board that it had an ethical obligation to close down the school.

“It was the worst experience of my life,” Glidden said at the meeting.

Some speakers criticized the disciplinary methods and approach of Lopez, the Amethod charter school system’s chief executive officer. One teacher linked to an East Bay Express profile of him, in which he is quoted as saying, “‘One thing I know about boards is they’re dumber than shit.” In the story, he goes on to say, “I went in and told them everything they wanted to hear.’”

But in stark contrast to the complaints from people who aren’t currently affiliated with the school, staff, students, and parents of John Henry spoke at the board meeting in support of their school. Some talked about how their children fit in well at the school. Others pointed out that the school had satisfactorily improved over time.

John Henry currently serves 257 students and has been in operation since 2015.

Though all board members said they were concerned about the problems at the school raised during public comment, they each approached finding a resolution differently.

Board member Mister Phillips methodically questioned attorney Edward Sklar, the attorney who was advising the board on how satisfactorily the school had responded to each of the earlier problems raised. 

Philips noted that John Henry was now in compliance with the earlier problems raised. He argued that the board should take the advice of its lawyer and not take action as yet on the problems raised in public comment.

Kronenberg also raised questions of legality. She said because the mandated reporting issue hadn’t been brought up before, the board hadn’t given John Henry school time to respond to the new allegations.

Pressed by the board, Sklar also said he “would have concerns” about the legality of the process.

As the board debated how to proceed, Cuevas consistently expressed no tolerance for failed mandatory reporting and pushed for taking action at the meeting on revoking John Henry’s charter.

“I’m going to be just as tough on our district schools,” Cuevas said. “If there’s indications of failed mandatory reporting, then I won’t support it.”

In other business at the meeting, the board offered an update on the drawing of a new trustee-area map, which will be used when the district switches in 2020 to trustee-area elections from the current at-large system.

At the start of the meeting, the board announced the results of a closed session that was held to decide aspects of the final map.

In a 3-2 vote, the board decided that the trustee-areas with the largest minority populations will have four-year school board terms, while the other areas will have two-year terms. Board members Elizabeth Block and Phillips voted against the majority.

Among the new trustee areas, the board voted that one area will be made up of 50 percent Latino registered voters, while another will be made up of as close to 50 percent African American registered voters as possible. This motion passed 3-1, with Philips against and Block abstaining.

Philips said he voted against every motion not because he disagreed but because the decisions were made in closed session and not in front of the public. He said the board had previously promised to make the decisions in a public vote.

A tentative timeline for public map planning meetings has also been set, with three meetings suggested for Oct. 22, 29, and 30, leading up to the Nov. 14 board meeting.

The map must be approved by the Contra Costa County Board of Education before redistricting can proceed. A map was previously rejected by the county board in July.

Some members of the public spoke of the importance of properly informing and involving the community during the mapping process.

Richmond resident Don Gosney suggested the board reach out by using social media, local media, and through making upcoming events easy to find on the district website. He also suggested the meetings not be scheduled at the same time as other important events like city council meetings and candidate forums.  

“One of the biggest complaints is lack of proper notice,” Gosney said, advising fellow members not to, “be so arrogant to think you are the center of the universe and the rest of the world needs to bow to your superiority.”

Cuevas said she wanted to remind the public that the board had previously been under a tight timeline, and that she wished to move forward with full community involvement.

“We want everybody to be involved in this process,” Cuevas said “Here’s our chance to do it again, and practice makes perfect.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the Nov. 14 school board meeting as a County Board of Education Meeting. 

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