D.C. Schools Battle Requests to Release Information About Sex Misconduct

Originally published in Washington City Paper on October 2017
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Paul Kihn, D.C.’s deputy mayor for education, announced on Aug. 8 that DC Public Schools received six “substantiated” complaints of sexual misconduct involving school staff since January 2018. But when parents, led by Ward 6 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, Denise Krepp, asked to learn which six schools those were, Kihn declined to share the information, citing concern for the past victims, and a potential chilling effect on future victims coming forward. “We do not believe we have heard a compelling argument to release such an aggregated list, i.e. how this list will help keep students safe,” Kihn wrote to Krepp on Aug. 20.

Three days later, the D.C. Open Government Coalition filed a Freedom of Information Act request to learn the names of the six schools. The FOIA, addressed to the Deputy Mayor for Education’s office, said it was not seeking “any record of any charge, investigation, conclusions or related personnel action.” All it sought, the request said, was where the incidents happened. (The transparency coalition filed a similar request with D.C. Public Schools on Sept. 24.)

To bolster its case, the author of the FOIAs, board member Fritz Mulhauser, pointed to Kihn’s Aug. 20 letter, where he told Krepp that it’s DC Public Schools policy that “school communities are informed of such incidents as they occur.” In other words, Mulhauser said, since hundreds of students, staff, and parents at those schools were presumably informed of the incidents, per school district policy, the rest of the city is entitled to access that information, too. The courts, he added, have held that “records with information that is already public may not be withheld.”

The effort to learn this information was prompted by an incident, reported by WAMU in June, that an adult working in an after-school program at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan was arrested and charged with allegedly having sexual contact with a 13-year-old student between January and May. Parents were alarmed that they learned of the allegations a month after they were first filed, and D.C. Public Schools soon learned that the after-school program, Springboard, had not conducted a proper background check on the employee. In August, following an internal review, DC Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee shared that more than 30 percent of school district employees had expired background checks, and DCPS would work to improve its safety protocols going forward.

The Deputy Mayor for Education’s office doesn’t track comparable information for charter schools, which educate roughly 47,000 students in the city and are not subject to FOIA.

On Sept. 23, Gina Toppin, the FOIA Officer for the Deputy Mayor for Education, informed Mulhauser that his request for information had been denied, “because the DME does not maintain the requested records” and Mulhauser did not “name any specific individual records or key words.” On Oct. 11, Eboni Govan, the FOIA Officer for D.C. Public Schools, likewise told Mulhauser, “DCPS does not have documents that are responsive to this request.”

In other words, despite receiving 27 complaints of sexual misconduct between Jan. 1, 2018 and this past August, and concluding that six of those allegations were “substantiated,” the Deputy Mayor for Education and D.C. Public Schools said they have no records that contain the names of the schools where the aforementioned incidents took place.

“Given that the six schools have supposedly been the subject of an accusation, an investigation, and a finding that something of concern did happen, the DME’s response lacks credibility,” Mulhauser tells City Paper.

City Paper reached out to the Deputy for Mayor for Education to ask how it is possible that there are no records available with this information, and if he wants to respond to Mulhauser’s concern that despite the risks it may estimate releasing school names to the public might create, the law says the government cannot withhold information from the wider public if some people have already reviewed it.

In emailed responses, Kihn reiterated that his office “does not maintain such records” and contested the idea that the information has already been released publicly, saying, “The District has not disclosed specific names of the schools or names of any employee accused of sexual misconduct.” He did not clarify how this response aligns with his prior statement that “school communities are informed of such incidents as they occur.”

When asked to comment on his rationale for keeping the school names private, Kihn wrote that “while we are committed to being transparent in keeping families and community members informed of incidents that have been reported, we are respectful of victims’ feelings and rights, as well as of due process and employee confidentiality.”

Kihn went further, saying that they feel “a public list of schools could easily fan flames in those communities and put people on the spot. Rumors in such cases are often much worse than the substantiated claims, and we don’t feel right contributing in any way to circumstances that might negatively impact victims, o[r] lead to speculation and gossip that could be generally harmful to school communities.” Moreover, he added, “such a list might chill future complaints by victims if indeed such a spotlight is shone on schools, and creates unhelpful speculation and gossip about both victims and perpetrators.”

He referenced a 2017 order from Mayor Muriel Bowser that sexual harassment complaints and investigations be kept as confidential as possible for these reasons, among others, and says “we want to honor the spirit of the Order.”

“It’s disappointing that public officials don’t trust the public as deserving to know the facts on important subjects like student safety in school,” says Mulhauser, adding that access to public records in D.C. is governed by the Freedom of Information Act, not by individual officials using a personal risk-benefit calculus.

Danica Petroshius, a Capitol Hill Montessori parent who has been leading efforts since June to improve policies on school sexual misconduct, contends the lack of transparency not only “breeds distrust” but also sends a friendly signal to predators.

“The lack of adequate data and sharing means that predators know we have a weak system,” she wrote in a letter to Kihn, dated Sept. 7. “Data and transparency are a key part of a strong preventative system.”

In an interview with City Paper, Petroshius says she believes taking proactive, transparent steps does not inherently conflict with protecting student privacy.

“I don’t believe it at all when [Kihn] says it’s about the victims,” she says. “It’s that they don’t want to be transparent, they want to protect from lawsuits, they want to shield information because they’re terrified.”

Petroshius is now serving on a newly formed D.C. Public Schools Student Safety Task Force. It had one meeting in September, and has two more scheduled for this fall. “I do think DCPS is trying to fix this. I wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t think we could actually move forward,” she says. “I really worry for all of our charter parents, and I think we should have one citywide policy to cover all our kids.”

Mulhauser says the D.C. Open Government Coalition will appeal their two FOIA responses, and ask the mayor to do a more rigorous records search. “Appeals of incorrect or limited searches are among the most common topics of litigation in public records issues around the country,” he adds, suggesting that could be an option for them down the line.

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