Muscogee County School Board members are mostly mum about allegations of student abuse against the company to whom the superintendent wants to award a $6.4 million contract to run alternative education programs.
The Ledger-Enquirer reported those allegations after Thursday’s specially called work session, where Muscogee County School District superintendent David Lewis and his administration chiefs presented the board their plan to contract with Camelot Education of Austin, Texas.
Lewis wants the board to vote on the contract during its next meeting, 6 p.m. March 27. The plan includes closing the Edgewood Student Services Center and reopening the vacant Marshall Middle School to house those programs and more.
John Thomas of District 2, Naomi Buckner of District 4, Laurie McRae of District 5 and Cathy Williams of District 7 are the only representatives on the nine-member board who shared with the L-E some of their opinions about this issue — and even most of them didn’t reveal much.
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Thomas told the L-E in a text message Saturday, “I have reviewed the information that has been provided to board members, and I am not swayed either by the allegations of abuse in another state. Obviously, there was an issue in Pennsylvania, and the company admits that. It appears they have had successes in other areas, but the bottom line for me is nothing about this is right for Muscogee County.
“I have a lot of issues with everything on this issue, number one, what is the rush? How can we be expected to exercise due diligence in the 11 days (between the presentation and vote) on such a sweeping change? Why is so little time being provided for feedback from the public?”
Thomas noted this coming week is MCSD’s spring break, giving even less time for public feedback while many folks are out of town.
Lewis has said the district needs board approval this month for the renovations at Marshall to be done by the time next school year starts.
Thomas also criticized the proposal for being a “no-bid contract.” All of which prompted him to decide, “I’m voting no.”
He is the only board member to tell the L-E how he will vote on this plan.
Buckner said Saturday in an interview with the L-E that she hadn’t read the Slate.com or L-E stories about the allegations that the L-E emailed to board members Friday evening, so she declined to comment about them, but she did say they will be “part of my conversation with the superintendent. … We need all the available information before we make a decision on spending that amount of money.”
She also expressed concern about a private, for-profit company running alternative education programs for a public, nonprofit organization.
“I know it still will be a public school, but, to me, even though it might technically be a public school, it’s a backdoor way — well, not a backdoor way — but it’s trending toward money going away from the public,” Buckner said. “I don’t want anything to reinforce that we can’t do the job.”
McRae told the L-E in an email Saturday, “I am still in the process of reviewing all the information and will be asking questions in the coming week. How I vote will depend on the answers I receive.”
Williams said Saturday in an interview with the L-E that she is aware of the allegations against Camelot, but she declined to share her reaction.
“I’ve still got people I need to talk to,” Williams said. “I’m still doing my own research, so it’s just way too premature.”
Those people are “different stakeholders” inside and outside Muscogee County, she said.
As for how important the accusations are in shaping her opinion of the superintendent’s proposal, Williams said, “I wouldn’t say they’re going to affect my vote, but they certainly did provoke questions and deliberation.”
Williams added, “I do think it’s up to every one of us to do research. That’s why the public hired us … to come up with our own judgment, and that’s what I intend to do. This is an incredibly important decision the board has been asked to make, and I intend to take the requisite time.”
MCSD’s proposed one-year contract with Camelot is worth $6,436,098 and renewable for up to three years. The plan would create the Marshall Learning Center at the former middle school and would comprise:
▪ The AIM program (Achievement, Integrity and Maturity) currently at Edgewood, annually serving 400-500 students in grades 3-12 temporarily removed from their assigned school because of severe violations of the district’s behavior code. It would be called the Transitional School at Marshall with a capacity for 250 students in grades K-12 at one time and adding grades K-2.
▪ The Woodall Program currently housed at Davis Elementary School and Carver High School, serving 44 students with severe emotional and behavioral problems. It would be called the Therapeutic Day School at Marshall with a capacity for 75 K-12 students.
▪ A new program that would be called Excel Academy at Marshall, with a capacity for 125 over-age students in grades 6-12 who have fallen behind their peers.
▪ Catapult Academy, the dropout recovery program with a capacity for 120 students in grades 9-12 currently at Edgewood and 300 on the waiting list. A different contractor, not Camelot, would continue to run Catapult.
An article posted March 8 on Slate.com mentioned allegations of abuse at Camelot-run schools in five cities: Reading, Pa., Lancaster, Pa.; Philadelphia; New Orleans and Pensacola, Fla.
In its 17-page response to Slate’s questions, Camelot wrote, “With the exception of an isolated incident in Reading, PA in which we immediately investigated and terminated multiple employees, Camelot has had no founded child abuse cases or lawsuits involving our students over the last decade. Your narrative is formulated using fewer than 10 incidents from the almost 5,940,000 daily interactions over a period of 10 years.”
Lewis told the L-E after Thursday’s work session that he is satisfied with Camelot’s response.
“We did our own search on this and looked at this,” Lewis said.
He said he spoke to the Philadelphia superintendent, one of the districts cited in the article, who disputed the allegations that were reported.
“They had nothing but a good experience with them from their perspective,” Lewis said.
He didn’t call the other superintendents, Lewis said, “because I don’t know them. You don’t always get truthful information, but if you have a relationship with somebody who you see twice a year (serving on the College Board’s superintendent advisory committee), he’s going to be pretty honest with me.”
The Ledger-Enquirer tried to contact officials at the five school districts where Camelot staffers allegedly abused students. Two were reached for comment by Monday, and both expressed only positive comments about the company.
Asked whether and why the Lancaster School District would recommend Camelot, communications coordinator Kelly Burkholder told the L-E in an email Friday, “We work closely with Camelot, including monitoring their performance. Camelot is meeting the specific needs of our student population and we recently renewed their contract in a unanimous vote by our board.”
The Slate story quoted Jandy Rivera, a former teacher at Camelot-run Phoenix Academy in Lancaster, who said that staff members on multiple occasions “baited kids so they could hit kids.”
Asked whether the allegations in Lancaster are true, Burkholder wrote in her email to the L-E, “We have no evidence that this specific action in the allegation occurred. We would never condone such actions nor do we believe our local Camelot team would permit such behavior or actions.”
Vickie Mathis, the alternative education director for the Escambia County School District in Pensacola, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Tuesday, “I do strongly recommend Camelot Education.”
Mathis, however, didn’t answer the L-E’s request to explain why she recommends Camelot. She also didn’t answer whether the following allegation is true:
The Slate story reported in its March 8 article, “The Florida Department of Children and Families, which investigates reports of child abuse, is looking into an incident last week at Camelot Academy in Pensacola in which a behavioral specialist, while breaking up a fight between students, allegedly knocked a 13-year-old to the ground, causing a bloody abrasion and bruising near the teenager’s eye.”
Camelot runs 43 alternative schools in six states, and MCSD would be the first district in Georgia to hire the company. Lewis told the board during Thursday’s work session that he “contacted several superintendents” about Camelot, “and all of them came back with very favorable recommendations and references. One worked in Camelot for 10 years and said, ‘The best testament I can provide is that I would send my own children to this program.’”
MCSD assistant superintendent Rebecca Braaten and student services chief Melvin Blackwell visited Camelot schools in Chicago.
Blackwell said he saw “a couple of kids have meltdowns, and we watched how the adults de-escalated the behavior.”
Braaten said Camelot has “an expectation of treating students with dignity and respect.”
Administrators said during their presentation to the board that this recommendation stems from MCSD not having the staff and resources to deliver the type of alternative education needed. It would be more expensive for the district to upgrade such services on its own or send these students to residential treatment facilities, they said.
MCSD executive director of special education Mary Lewis, not related to the superintendent, said the district already has spent $745,000 in workman’s compensation claims this school year for staff members injured by aggressive students.
“Even special-ed teachers aren’t prepared to deal with some of this,” she said.
“We have a hole in our continuum, as good as our continuum is compared to the rest of the state,” superintendent David Lewis said. “This is for those kids who need additional support and therapy. … To me, this is a moral and ethical imperative.”
For example, Mary Lewis said, a special-ed student with “self-injurious behavior” ran out of a classroom until two male staff members restrained the student in the middle school’s rotunda, where a sixth-grader witnessed the incident and “goes home crying and tells mom, who tells the principal. I’m not saying restraints will never happen in (regular-education) schools, but we need a place where students who don’t fit can get extra help and then transition back.”
MCSD’s current places for these services have had costly problems this past year:
▪ Monday, MCSD and seven other defendants were sued for $25 million in a personal injury complaint resulting from an incident in the AIM program at Edgewood. The lawsuit was filed in Muscogee County State Court on behalf of the Lawanda Thomas, the mother of Montravious Thomas, whose right leg was amputated below the knee after a contracted behavioral specialist with Mentoring & Behavioral Services of Columbus body-slammed the 13-year-old boy multiple times Sept. 12.
▪ The Woodall Center is among the nine out of 24 facilities in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support that the state determined last year to be unfit for those programs. The MCSD board unanimously approved in August the superintendent’s recommendation to transfer the Woodall Program to Davis Elementary School, complying with the state’s order to immediately move those students from the Woodall Center because it was declared unsafe and unhealthy.
If the board approves creating the Marshall Learning Center, the administration would try to sell Edgewood, which was appraised at $1.3 million and would more than cover the estimated $780,000 cost of renovating Marshall, the superintendent said. He added that he has spoken with a potential buyer, whom he declined to name.
The money for the $6.4 million contract with Camelot would come from state and federal funds already allotted to the district, administrators said.
Superintendent Lewis said the administration considered “four or five” other companies to provide this service, “but they didn’t have the face-to-face programming that this provides,” meaning the others rely more on students learning through tutorials on computers. “We’re looking for something with more of a relationship piece.”
Camelot is the only company Lewis said he is aware of that provides “this scope of services.”
The staff who would work at the Marshall Learning Center would be Camelot employees except for the school nutrition workers, Lewis said. No MCSD employees would lose their job because of this proposal being implemented, administrators said. In fact, Lewis said, “We can place all of these people and still have vacancies.”
Combined, the AIM and Woodall programs total 53 MCSD employees. They could apply for the Camelot positions or other openings in the district, administrators said.
Editor’s note: Board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1, vice chairwoman and countywide representative Kia Chambers, Vanessa Jackson of District 3 and Mark Cantrell of District 6 didn’t respond to the L-E for this story. Frank Myers of District 8 refuses to speak on the record to reporter Mark Rice, whom he says shouldn’t be covering education because his wife is employed as a school secretary in the district.