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School board stops short of charter revocation

on October 5, 2018

The West Contra Costa Unified School Board stopped short Wednesday from taking a vote on whether to revoke the charter of John Henry High School after hundreds of parents, students and staff showed up to protest the possible action.

Instead, the board directed its staff to reach an agreement with the Amethod Public Schools, which operates the John Henry school, on how to move forward following allegations that an Amethod official failed to report a child’s complaint of physical abuse to the proper authorities.

Mandated reporters, such as teachers, are required to report any seen or suspected abuse to Child Protective Services, a division of the state government responsible for intervening in instances of child abuse or neglect.

The school board’s decision came at a public hearing called to decide the question of whether to revoke John Henry’s charter. The board voted 3-2 last week to issue a notice of revocation to the school, with board members Mister Phillips and Elizabeth Block voting against doing so.

The board’s vote after the public hearing Wednesday—also 3-2, with Phillips and Block against the majority—effectively postpones a decision on whether to revoke the charter. The vote gave district staff the opportunity to negotiate with John Henry on a path forward to redress the allegations the school failed to report a complaint of abuse that were raised the previous week during the board’s public comment period.

The mandatory reporting complaint alleged that a student had contacted school staff and said he was being abused at home. Rather than reporting the incident, Evelia Villa, currently the Richmond regional superintendent of Amethod Public Schools, allegedly chose to investigate the matter herself. She allegedly instructed the student to take off his shirt so she could check if he had bruises, according to messages sent by former John Henry teachers to the school district.

Villa also allegedly described her response to the child’s complaint as an example to encourage other teachers to personally investigate complaints before reporting to CPS. This allegedly occurred at an Amethod professional development event held prior to the 2017-2018 school year, according to the messages.

But an attorney for Amethod, Lisa Corr, strongly countered the version of events in the messages. She said that according to an ongoing Amethod investigation of the allegation, the failed instance of mandatory reporting occurred in 2012, three years before John Henry came into operation.

“This does not relate to John Henry High School,” she said at the Wednesday hearing. She added: “The employees involved did not have a reasonable suspicion of child abuse or neglect.”

Prior to the meeting, hundreds of John Henry students, parents and staff gathered near the Richmond Civic Center as they prepared to protest. They marched through central Richmond, some holding drums, tambourines, trumpets, other assorted instruments and red or blue pom-poms. A costumed school mascot—a wildcat—was also present. Some wore navy and burgundy John Henry apparel, and most were clad in matching yellow shirts emblazoned with the words “Richmond Charters” on the front, and “AMPS Honor Hard Work” on the back. AMPS refers to Amethod Public Schools.

The hundreds protesting the possible charter revocation then crowded into the multi-purpose room of DeJean Middle School, where the school board meeting was held. Roughly 100 signed up to speak during public comment, which proceeded for about an hour and a half.

They spoke of how John Henry had improved their lives. Several students, especially college-intended seniors, expressed unease with the thought of losing their school in the middle of a term. Many shared anecdotes of how their grades had improved dramatically after they switched from one of the local high schools to John Henry.

Some of the speakers had attended John Henry for only two months, while others, current seniors, had been going to the school since it opened in 2015.

Amethod’s Chief Operating Officer Jorge Lopez, who grew up in Richmond, attended both the march and the board meeting. Prior to the meeting, he said he’d been surprised by the vote to revoke last week. Given last week’s vote, though, Lopez said he expected the board would revoke the John Henry charter, and that Amethod would subsequently “follow as much of a legal recourse as possible.”

After leaving the meeting, Lopez gave a speech encouraging the many students surrounding him to register to vote.

Board member Phillips made a motion not to revoke the school’s charter, and instead to direct the school board staff to conduct a thorough investigation on whether the alleged mandatory reporting incident happened. He added that the school board staff should come back with recommendations on how the district should address the alleged problems at the school, which could include a possible agreement with the school.

His motion was amended by Block to also investigate whether failure to mandatory report is a part of the school culture.

“It is not often that this board gets a second chance to do the right thing,” Phillips said, adding that, “These people, my neighbors, deserve a vote. They have suffered enough stress from this board’s failure to make a decision about their future.”

But Board member Tom Panas introduced a substitute motion for district staff to come up with an agreement with Amethod, effectively tabling the revocation vote.

Phillips pointed out that this substitute motion doesn’t include an investigation.

“I’ve sat here for an hour listening to the board talk about how important it is to investigate,” Phillips said. “And now you’re just throwing the investigation out the window?”

Board President Valerie Cuevas said she liked Philip’s motion, but that she didn’t support it because it would have taken the possibility of revoking the school’s charter off the table and she wanted to keep that option available.

But there was disagreement at the meeting on whether a short-notice revocation of John Henry’s charter is still possible.

According to Edward Sklar, the school district attorney, the notice of revocation still applies to John Henry. If the board ultimately decides to revoke the charter, it will be able to do so without having to go through the normal lengthy process, according to Sklar.

But Corr, the Amethod attorney, disagreed. Because the logic for revocation is based upon “severe and imminent threat,” she argued, a motion to revoke the charter of a school can’t logically be tabled. She used an example of a ceiling falling down to provide a metaphor for what a “severe and immediate” threat actually is.

Either way, the district staff is expected to write a report and make a recommendation on how to proceed with John Henry at the next school board meeting on Oct. 17.

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