Kennedy High School Litigation Update


JOHN F. KENNEDY HIGH SCHOOL LITIGATION

The formal name of this lawsuit is Darnette Daniels, et al. v. State of Louisiana, et al., Civil District Court, Parish of Orleans, Civil Action No. 19-6895, Division “G”. It is pending before the Honorable Robin Giarrusso. The Bagneris Firm represents parents of students and students of John F. Kennedy Senior High School in New Orleans, Louisiana, who claim to have suffered damages, including, but not limited to, economic losses, emotional distress, loss of opportunity, loss of quality of life, and other damages, as a direct result of the negligent educational mismanagement of the high school. More specifically, claimants are from the graduating classes of 2019 through 2023.

BACKGROUND

In March 2019, news reporter David Hammer broke a story regarding students’ grades being changed at John F. Kennedy High School (hereinafter called “Kennedy”) in New Orleans, Louisiana. The grade fixing allegations surfaced after Runnell King, a former data director, alleged he was wrongfully terminated for alerting the board that employees at Kennedy had manually changed grades for several students who took former-Kennedy teacher Gloria Love’s Algebra III class. King accused employees of changing F’s to D’s and D’s to C’s on the students’ records. Love had left her position before the allegations were made public. After the initial news report, more allegations came up when seniors who thought they were graduating learned they couldn’t because of falsely inflated grades.

On April 1, 2019, Defendant NEW BEGINNINGS suspended CEO Michelle Blouin-Williams with pay and empowered Board President Raphael Gang to hire an educational management service. He entered into a contract with consulting group Defendant TENSQUARE on April 11, 2019. NEW BEGINNINGS also hired investigators with the law firm Adams and Reese to look into the allegations about grade-changing and a questionable bus contract.

In mid-April, Defendant NEW BEGINNINGS’ administrator Lauren Coleman told Defendant TENSQUARE’s staff that the network’s internal deadline for a graduate list was May 3, 2019. In an April 26, 2019 email, Meghan Turner (employee of TENSQUARE) told Brian Gibson (employee of NEW BEGINNINGS) the team still needed information. “As you can see below, we are missing several reports needed to identify seniors’ graduation status and incomplete items.” Brian Gibson then forwarded the email to his team at Kennedy. “Guys please give me an update on your parts of this. I need this behind us.”

In early May 2019, one month after the board hired Defendant TENSQUARE, Meghan Turner (employee of TENSQUARE) and Laney French (employee of TENSQUARE) identified nine distinct issues at Kennedy that had to be dealt with in order for seniors to graduate. On the same day, May 8, 2019, Kennedy Assistant Principal Nicole Cooper sent an all-staff email at 1:32pm titled “URGENT: Senior teachers – grade verification sheets needed by 2 pm.”

In a lengthy email, Meghan Turner laid out the problems. The school would need to address students with failing grades and others who had incorrect coding for their classes. Some students’ transcripts failed to note they had previously made up coursework in Kennedy’s remedial program, GradPoint. Others were still actively making up course work. Some students who transferred to Kennedy mid-way through high school had incomplete transcripts.  Other students lacked final grades from previous semesters or were waiting on final grades in the spring semester.  Some were waiting for results from end-of-course exams. Students are required to pass three end-of-course exams to graduate in Louisiana. They must pass English, Math and either Social Studies of Science. Internal emails indicate that there was confusion regarding who would serve as testing coordinator and have the difficult task of talking to seniors about their test scores. Additionally, some students had exceeded the state’s absence limit. Internal emails indicate that Kennedy’s policies on makeup seat time were unclear.

On May 9, 2019, one week before graduation, Kathy Padian, a TENSQUARE Partner who opened the company’s New Orleans office in 2015, emailed Brian Gibson to explain how senior certification was progressing. “Due to the sudden departure of your counselor and her apparent lack of completion of many tasks prior to leaving, I asked Meghan and later Delaney French to assist” in certifying seniors for graduation, Padian wrote. “We have concerns about the lack of data for many students and even though we are very late in the game, with graduation happening next week, we must do everything possible to confirm which students have and have not met the requirements.” That day, Brian Gibson asked the team to focus on transcripts and graduation eligibility for the top 15 students.

On May 14, 2019, three days before graduation, Laney French said 95 seniors were eligible to graduate, 30 had not met requirements, and she had 50 left to verify.” On May 16, 2019, a contractor reviewing Kennedy’s student transcripts sent an email to administrators at Defendant NEW BEGINNINGS including lists of 15 “pending” graduates and 12 “non-grads.” It said, “Please tell me asap if I am wrong about any student’s status,” wrote Laney French (employee of TENSQUARE). That email, obtained by The Lens through state public records law, is one of dozens that show how administrators and contractors at the charter network scrambled to audit seniors’ graduation eligibility in the weeks leadings up to- and even after- the school’s May 17, 2019 graduation ceremony, which amounted to a complete farce for many graduates. The emails also show rising Defendant NEW BEGINNINGS’ employees and Defendant TENSQUARE’s employees as the contractors discovered more and more problems.

The task, dubbed “Senior Graduation Project,” was a multi-faceted audit that required reviewing grades, attendance, transcripts and state exam scores among other things. The 690-student school had 168 seniors in the official state count taken on February 1, 2019. These are necessary steps to determine a student’s graduation eligibility, though many steps, like tallying credits from freshman, sophomore and junior years, can happen earlier.

To add to the problems facing Kennedy, the high school’s counselor resigned with two weeks to go in the school year, and contractors found multiple problems throughout students’ records. In some instances, students had received two credits for a one-credit course. In other instances, there were wrongful acts of grade-inflation where administrators were accused of improperly changing some student’s grades from failing to passing. In other instances, students who were encouraged to take online classes in a program called “grad point” were not properly supervised by certified teachers, which resulted in no credit being applied for the work. Piling onto the problems, in the aftermath of these discoveries, the CEO Blouin-Williams and five administrators “resigned.

In the days leading up to the graduation ceremony, seniors and their parents were advised that most of the class would not be receiving diplomas at graduation because they had credits to make up. At the “graduation ceremony” held on May 17, 2019, the school’s blue-and-gold graduation program lists 155 names under the heading “John F. Kennedy High School Class of 2019.” Then-principal Brian Gibson advised that students were not going to be issued diplomas; instead, they were advised that their diplomas could be picked up at the school the following Monday. At 9 p.m. that night, six hours after graduation, a contract employee told Brian Gibson diplomas could not be issued on Monday. “No diplomas will be issued until everything is verified and resolved,” she wrote. On graduation day, emails show that determinations of ineligibility to graduate were still occurring. The foregoing email shows that one hour and twenty minutes before the graduation ceremony, the school staff were emailing back and forth about a student who was missing an English III end-of-course test.

Three hours before graduation, on May 17, 2019, Assistant Principal Nicole Cooper wrote to Lacy French (employee of TENSQUARE) about her concern over how the valedictorian and salutatorian’s grade point averages were calculated. “I don’t know what to advise,” French replied. “Historical grade data is riddled with errors that might be affecting the GPA, but I can’t be certain because this is not something I’ve dealt with before.” French advised waiting until the audit was complete but acknowledged that couldn’t be achieved by 3 pm when the graduation ceremony began.”

On May 18, 2019, Brian Gibson (former Kennedy Principal) wrote to contractors asking why administrators had lost access to PowerSchool, Kennedy’s online gradebook.  The records obtained by The Lens did not explain why employees were cut off from the platform.

Students had been told to pick up diplomas from Kennedy on May 20, 2019, the Monday after graduation. But, the date to pick up diplomas kept getting pushed back, with one lame excuse after another being offered to parents and students. Diplomas were not issued the week of May 20, or for several weeks beyond that date. At a NEW BEGINNINGS Board Meeting, students and parents were begging for diplomas, transcripts and information. At the meeting, Board President Raphael Gang said the group was working as hard as it could.  On May 21, 2019, Kennedy had still not cleared up the status and confusion over GradPoint credits, transfer transcript corrections and updates on class credits for Spanish courses. In an email that day, French wrote, “There are massive inconsistencies with grades and attendance.” On May 22, 2019, Turner asked for a list of students who needed summer remediation or to make up end-of-course tests.

On June 28, 2019, for the first time since allegations of grade tampering at Kennedy, the Orleans Parish School Board Superintendent addressed students and parents about the situation saying: “First and foremost, on behalf of this District, I would lie to apologize due to the careless and reckless actions of adults they trusted at John F. Kennedy. You were undeserved and misled. You should be celebrating your senior graduation this month, but instead you have been forced to question the certainty of your future.”

During the summer of 2019, approximately fifty-three (53) seniors, who had participated in the graduation ceremony, attended summer school in order to complete requirements necessary to obtain their diplomas. After completing summer school, there were continued delays associated with certifying students as “eligible” to graduate. During this time, students could not register for college courses, submit necessary transcripts for financial aid and scholarship eligibility, participate in summer orientation programs, or take other meaningful actions in pursuit of college placement. On August 6, 2019, at a hearing on a writ of mandamus, it was disclosed by witness, Jennifer Baird of the Louisiana Department of Education, that of the fifty-three (53) students who attended summer school only about twenty (20) were eligible to receive a diploma and certified transcript. Approximately thirty-three (33) students were provided with the wrong course work in summer school by Defendant NEW BEGINNINGS, or otherwise failed to meet requirements to graduate, despite going to summer school.

Throughout the summer of 2019, parents and students were demanding diplomas and transcripts from Defendants NEW BEGINNINGS and OPSB (an entity charged with oversight of NEW BEGINNINGS by statute and by contract). Defendant OPSB hid behind the excuse that they did not possess the transcripts and diplomas. Defendant NEW BEGINNINGS hid behind the excuse that the delay was caused by the LDOE’s process of reviewing each students’ eligibility to graduate. Defendant LDOE blamed the delay upon NEW BEGINNINGS’ failure to produce documents necessary to assess students’ eligibility to graduate. While the Defendants shifted blame to one another, the students lost educational opportunities. Failure to timely provide certified transcripts to four-year universities, community college and technical colleges, resulted in incomplete registrations, lost scholarships, and lost financial aid. Many students could no longer pursue the educational opportunities they had worked so hard to earn, but for the Defendants combined acts of negligence.

Throughout the summer of 2019, it also became apparent that the gross mismanagement that led to the seniors’ curriculum being deficient also plagued the lower classmen of Kennedy. As parents demanded transcripts to transfer their children to alternate high schools, they faced unexplainable delays in obtaining educational records. As a result, the parents missed deadlines to register their children at alternate high schools and were forced to return their children to Kennedy. The parents and children lost the ability to exercise “school choice.” Upon information and belief, the academic records of the underclassmen at Kennedy also bear deficiencies associated with use of GradPoint, and other negligence in the management of curriculum.

Despite the open and obvious failure of Defendant OPSB to exercise diligent supervision and oversight over Defendant NEW BEGINNINGS’ in the operation of a charter school, and despite the pathetic failure of NEW BEGINNINGS to meet the educational needs of the students at Kennedy, the Defendants LDOE and BESE empowered the OPSB and NEW BEGINNINGS to continue to ruin the lives of students by maintaining NEW BEGINNINGS’ charter to operate John F. Kennedy during the 2019-2020 academic school year. This action constitutes wanton, willful and reckless disregard for the students of Kennedy. It constitutes a breach of fiduciary duty by the Defendants OPSB, LDOE and BESE.

The doors of Kennedy opened on August 5, 2019, and most of the seniors of the Class of 2019, still did not realize that they should be re-registered for a second “shot” at senior year to complete requirements to be eligible for a diploma and transcript. To date, these students have still not been properly advised of their educational status.

NEW BEGINNINGS lost its charter to operate Kennedy for the 2020-2021 academic school year. To date, many 2019 seniors have not received diplomas and transcripts.

STATUS:

All of the Defendants filed Exceptions to the Plaintiff’s Petition for Damages. Among them were Exceptions of No Cause of Action. The Trial Court denied the Exceptions of NEW BEGINNINGS and the LDOE stating that the Plaintiffs had stated a viable cause of action against them and were entitled to proceed against them with the lawsuit. However, the Court granted the Exceptions filed by the OPSB and BESE and dismissed them from the case. The Plaintiffs filed a writ to the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal stating that Judge Giarrusso’s ruling dismissal the OPSB and BESE was wrong. NEW BEGINNINGS filed a writ to the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal stating that Judge Giarrusso’s ruling allowing Plaintiffs to proceed with the lawsuit against them was wrong. Thus far, the Fourth Circuit has issued a ruling denying NEW BEGINNINGS’ writ and stating that the Plaintiffs have stated a cause of action against it and can move forward. The parties are still waiting on the Fourth Circuit to issue a ruling on the writ filed by the Plaintiffs to see if the case can proceed against the OPSB and BESE.