Education

Muscogee County School Board to answer controversial $6.4 million question

Camelot Education CEO disputes allegations of staff abusing students

Camelot Education president and CEO Todd Bock, after Tuesday's forum in the Muscogee County Public Education Center, responds to accusations that staff members have abused students while restraining them.
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Camelot Education president and CEO Todd Bock, after Tuesday's forum in the Muscogee County Public Education Center, responds to accusations that staff members have abused students while restraining them.

It’s the Muscogee County School Board’s controversial $6.4 million question, and it is scheduled to be answered Monday evening:

Should the board approve Muscogee County School District superintendent David Lewis’ recommendation to hire a for-profit, private company to run alternative education programs -- a company boasting a 14-year history of success in educating students with disabilities and behavior problems but also defending allegations of abusing students.

MCSD’s proposed one-year contract with Camelot Education of Austin, Texas, would be for $6,436,098 and renewable for up to three years. Lewis wants the board to vote on the contract during its called meeting Monday, starting at 5 p.m., before its monthly work session.

The board convinced Lewis during the March 27 meeting to delay the vote and conduct two public forums to give the public more time to have questions answered about the proposal and Camelot.

The plan, designed to improve alternative education in the district, would close the Edgewood Student Services Center and reopen the vacant Marshall Middle School to create the Marshall Learning Center, which would house:

▪ 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, adding grades K-2 currently not served.

▪ 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 called Excel Academy at Marshall, with a capacity for 125 students, for 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, would move into Marshall but continue to be run by a separate contractor, not Camelot.

Administration’s rationale

MCSD special-education director Mary Lewis, not related to the superintendent, said during Thursday’s public forum that she has heard critics of the plan say the district is trying to “give away” students with special needs. But the proposed Marshall Learning Center run by Camelot will better serve such students, she said.

“They need a place where they can be successful,” she said. “… I would put our classes up against anybody’s in the state of Georgia — our teachers, our staff, our training. But sometimes those kids, they grow out of their meds, sometimes things happen at home, and they need additional support for a short period of time until they can really get things back together.

“One of the reasons why I’m so passionate about this is that I have staff being hurt. I have staff who love their kids, who don’t file workman’s comp. I have staff who won’t let kids be suspended or disciplined because it’s not their fault — it’s a manifestation of their disability. I have staff with scratched scars on their faces. We’ve got to find a place for kids who need more, even if it’s for just a short time, before they go back to their school.”

Students attending Camelot would remain MCSD students, district officials said, and the staff would be accountable to the same evaluation from the same central administrators, just like any other school in the system. They would be taught the same curriculum, based on Georgia Department of Education standards, and would receive the same high school diploma if they graduate. MCSD officials also said they would equip the school with the same resources and technology as any other school in the district.

Mary Lewis, assistant superintendent Rebecca Braaten and student services chief Melvin Blackwell are the MCSD administrators who toured Camelot schools in Chicago.

“What I saw was amazing,” Braaten said during Thursday’s forum.

In some of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago, they heard students tell them “over and over and over again,” Braaten said, “they love me here. They care about me here. They want me to be here. They want me to do something with my life. The minute you walk into a Camelot school, they prepare you for your future.”

Camelot demonstrates that philosophy even outside of its schools, Blackwell said. He recalled staff members “observing the kids as they approached the building. They were watching the kids for what we call body language: ‘Are you ready for school?’ ‘Are you ready to learn?’ ‘What are some concerns that you have?’ … He will pull that child aside, talk with that child, find out what’s wrong before they even go inside the school. That was so impressive to me.”

Braaten also was impressed with the way staff members de-escalate potentially violent discipline situations. “They walk around and they listen for what’s going on,” she said. “They’re instantaneously called to classrooms when there’s a problem. … That’s one thing we typically fail to do as educators. We get into power struggles with kids.”

Camelot’s chief strategy officer, Ray Rodriguez, admitted he initially was uncomfortable with Camelot schools requiring those who enter to go through a metal detector, which MCSD uses at its AIM program. But students told him they like the policy because it helps them feel safe, he said during Thursday’s forum, especially considering students at some Camelot schools say they have been shot.

Except for the cafeteria workers still being MCSD employees, all the other staff at the proposed Marshall Learning Center would be Camelot employees. The total of 53 MCSD employees in the AIM and Woodall programs wouldn’t lose their jobs or their seniority, officials said, if they transfer to any of the MCSD vacancies where they qualify. They also could apply for jobs in the Camelot programs.

It would cost MCSD “a quarter of a million dollars more,” superintendent Lewis said during Thursday’s forum, for the district to duplicate the least expensive Camelot program. And even if MCSD could afford to provide such services, he added, the district’s staff isn’t trained to deliver them.

Opposition

The Columbus branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced Tuesday its opposition to MCSD’s plan. Columbus NAACP branch president Tonza Thomas cited the March 8 story titled “That Place Was Like a Prison” on the website Slate.com, which reported allegations of Camelot employees abusing students with overly aggressive discipline in five cities: Reading, Pa.; Lancaster, Pa.; Philadelphia; New Orleans; and Pensacola, Fla.

“Abuse is failure,” Thomas said.

The Ledger-Enquirer tried to contact officials at the five school districts where Camelot staffers allegedly abused students. Two were reached for comment, 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, “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.”

Vickie Mathis, the alternative education director for the Escambia County School District in Pensacola, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email, “I do strongly recommend Camelot Education.” She didn’t explain why, however.

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.”

Thursday, Camelot Education CEO Todd Bock forwarded to the Ledger-Enquirer an endorsement from Pensacola NAACP branch president Rodney Jones. In his letter to the principal of Camelot Academy in Pensacola, Jones called the program “phenomenal” and wrote, “I applaud you and staff for your community contributions by working so diligently with our at-risk youth in Escambia County. … It is quite satisfying to know and to have personally witnessed you and key staff members go above and beyond what is required to help change the lives of your students.”

More allegations

The proposal to hire Camelot Education in Muscogee County also has sparked renewed attention to the company’s connection with the now-defunct Brown Schools, noted on the flier that District 8 representative Frank Myers and the mother of a special-needs child distributed outside the Muscogee County Public Education Center before Tuesday’s public forum, the first of two this past week.

John Harcourt, who was CEO of Brown Schools from 1995-99, acquired the company that became Camelot in 2002 and was its CEO until 2011.

A 2009 story on the website SchoolsMatter.info quotes a 2005 article in the Austin American Statesman, which reported, “In recent months, three Austin lawyers say, Brown Schools Inc. offered to settle claims by their clients for everything from sexual abuse by its employees to deceptive business practices.”

A 2005 story by Dateline NBC reported allegations that five students in 15 years died after being physically restrained at Brown Schools. One of them was the son of a lawyer who had been defending the company against abuse claims.

Rodriguez said those accusations prompted him to question whether he should join the company in 2013.

“After sitting and having an exhaustive conversation with both Todd and other folks … I understand the answer to the question, that those two, Camelot and Brown Schools, are not at all related,” Rodriguez said during Thursday’s forum.

Bock, who succeeded Harcourt as Camelot CEO in 2011 and has been with the company for 14 years, worked at the Brown Schools for five years (1998-2003). He said during Thursday’s forum he was “a site manager for one specific school that I was responsible for. I was never an officer of the Brown Schools. I was never someone that was authorized to sign contracts.”

The only other connections between Camelot and the Brown Schools now, Bock said, are five additional former Brown employees, three in the back office and two in technology, among Camelot’s staff of more than 1,200.

“None of those folks have any relationship with the behavioral health care side of that organization that had these issues,” Bock said. “… We partner with almost 250 school districts across 43 campuses in six states. If there was anything that was even remotely true about kids being hurt in the program that we were responsible for, we wouldn’t be standing here right now.”

Bock’s bio on the Camelot Education website says he was “Director for Public Education for the Brown Schools, responsible for all public educational programs throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico.”

Noting the way he described his role with the the Brown Schools is different in his bio compared to what he said during the forum, the Ledger-Enquirer asked Bock which is correct. In an email Friday to the L-E, Bock wrote, “I started working for Brown in August of 1998 as a site manager for an education program that served court adjudicated boys. I was promoted a few times over my employment term. My last position was National Director of Public Education. The education division of TBS (The Brown Schools) was a very small portion of the overall TBS operation, as more than 95% of the total business was behavioral healthcare residential treatment facility's. That is where the issues that the public is concerned about happened, most of them prior to me even coming on with TBS. Bottom line is that I was never an officer of the company and was really a mid level operations person in a small part of the overall operation. I knew nothing of the incidents that occurred, had no oversight over any aspect of those issues and neither have the other people that work for Camelot and previously worked for TBS.”

David Lewis has said fellow superintendents in districts with Camelot schools have assured him of the company’s quality.

“Let’s be real clear about this: There is no perfect program,” he said in his concluding remarks during Tuesday’s forum. “There is good. There’s better. But there is no perfect.”

Lewis has said his administration considered other providers, whose names he declined to disclose, but he insists Camelot is the only one that can deliver these three programs in the format MCSD seeks and at a price it can afford. The others rely more on computers instead of teachers to instruct, Lewis has said.

Bock acknowledged after Tuesday’s forum that although MCSD would be the first school district in Georgia to hire Camelot, his company has answered requests for proposals from Clayton, Fulton and Gwinnett counties and Atlanta Public Schools but hasn’t been awarded a contract in this state yet.

In his concluding remarks during Thursday’s forum, Lewis said he wouldn’t make this recommendation if he wouldn’t put his own child in a Camelot school.

“My staff and I knew this would be something perceived as controversial,” the superintendent said. “I was brought in (from Polk County, Fla., in July 2013) to make improvements. … I’ve served for 38 years (in public education). I feel like the last 3½ to four years, the recommendations we’ve made have improved our system, and the metrics bear that out. All I’m asking for is the opportunity to do something better for our children, that we assure we serve all children, and all means all.”

Evidence of success

Bock said during Tuesday’s forum, “There’s a lot of negative things floating around about Camelot Education. What about the good stuff?”

Camelot documents present the following evidence of success:

▪ Although 100 percent of the students in Camelot’s accelerated program failed the ninth grade at least once, which is why they are in the program, 59 percent of them graduate with their four-year cohort, meaning they caught up academically to the peers with whom they entered high school before failing ninth grade.

▪ Approximately 5,200 Camelot students have graduated high school since 2005.

▪ 99 percent of Camelot students leave with a postsecondary education plan.

▪ Camelot students in the accelerated program grow an average of two years in literacy and numeracy during one school year.

▪ All the other Camelot students, meaning those not in the accelerated program, grow an average of 1.5 to two years in literacy and numeracy during one school year.

▪ Camelot students have made these achievements despite the demographics against them, according to a survey of its approximately 3,300 current students, which shows 28 percent of their mothers and 40 percent of their fathers are unemployed, 23 percent are or have been homeless, 78 percent don’t live with their father, and a majority have seen two to 20 acts of violence per week in their previous schools and neighborhoods.

▪ That survey also showed 81 percent of Camelot students feel more connected to Camelot than their previous schools, 94 percent say the Camelot teachers care about and respect them, and 91 percent say they care about and respect the Camelot teachers.

Board’s opinions

The Ledger-Enquirer has tried to assess how the vote is shaping up. Only one of the board’s nine members, Naomi Buckner of District 4, responded to the L-E’s request emailed Thursday, although Myers has made his opposition clear.

Buckner, who has been a swing vote on controversial recommendations, flipped her opinion about hiring Camelot Education.

“Initially, I was leaning toward ‘no’; now I’ll probably be voting ‘yes’,” wrote Buckner, a special-education teacher in Chattahoochee County, in an email Friday to the Ledger-Enquirer. “I was concerned about a ‘for profit’ organization in charge of our students where profit clearly is the goal for these schools. I felt we should be able to educate our own students. I was also concerned about the lingering negative allegations against Camelot. Dr. Lewis addressed my concerns.

“I emailed him two pages of questions and the follow up questions. The bottom line or question for me was why we couldn’t operate or duplicate these programs ourselves. He explained that it would cost the district far more to operate the three programs than to contract with Camelot and we wouldn’t be able to secure the specialized personal to function. I know we currently have problems with specialized personnel. Even when offering a bonus to special education teachers, there remains a constant shortage. Dr. Lewis also says that our students will be safe and taken care of. The district can monitor this.”

Costly problems

MCSD’s alternative education sites have had costly problems this past year:

▪ On March 13, 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 has 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 have said.

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