Despite months of federal scrutiny and young children getting hurt, Jefferson County Public Schools’ Head Start program continued to fail to prevent abuse and neglect of its students, according to a follow-up report the Administration for Children and Families released Saturday.
Nearly eight months of continuing troubles, along with knowing that one more incident could jeopardize the funding, prompted the district to voluntarily give up its $15 million federal Head Start grant this week.
According to the new publicly available report, the district failed to correct two of the federal agency’s three focus areas: Local Head Start staff didn’t follow the program’s conduct standards, leading to continued incidents of abuse and isolation for some of the program’s more than 1,500 students.
JCPS did not ensure all Head Start staff followed the code of standards, such as refraining from “maltreatment and endangerment of the health and safety of children,” including not engaging in corporal punishment, using emotional or physical abuse, and “employing methods of discipline that involved isolation or the use of food as a punishment or reward,” the report said.
Much of the 11-page notice outlines many of the nearly 40 allegations made against the program since October 2016. The report lists 17 abuse allegations and four allegations of staff leaving students unattended in the 2017-18 school year.
JCPS did correct one of the focus areas: Incident reporting. The district updated its policies “to ensure it reported incidents,” and improved training of assistant superintendents and principals.
“The district has increased training for employees, swiftly dealt with alleged incidents and improved oversight for classrooms,” JCPS spokeswoman Allison Martin said. “While we have seen a decrease in incidents, we know this is a sustained effort over time.”
“I am deeply concerned and troubled about ongoing allegations of neglect and abuse of the children in the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) Head Start program and the district’s proposed solution, which is to walk away from $15 million in federal funds and associated scrutiny of the program,” interim state education commissioner Wayne Lewis said in a statement to WDRB Friday about the decision to give up the grant.
Federal Head Start Director Deborah Bergeron warned the district of its continuing problems in a letter she sent to Jefferson County Board Chairwoman Diane Porter Thursday.
“Based on the information gathered during our review a determination has been made that Jefferson County Board of Education is a grantee with at least one uncorrected deficiency,” Bergeron wrote, with the report attached.
The letter came one day after the JCBE sent a letter to say it would be relinquishing the $15 million Head Start grant, instead moving 3- and 4-year-old children, who are typically from lower income families, into the regular district childhood program. Instead of receiving $15 million in federal dollars to cover the program, the district will spend $8 million from its local taxpayer-supported general fund to cover the cost of the new program.
“With all of this talk about needing more funding, it just doesn’t make sense that JCPS would give up millions of dollars for an entire federal program, unless there’s something they want to get ahead of, or, even worse, hide,” Jim Waters, president of libertarian think tank Bluegrass Institute, said in a Friday news release about the decision.
In the last five years, only three of the nation’s roughly 1,600 Head Start districts have voluntarily relinquished their grants, and only one had clear abuse allegations tied to the decision, according to data federal officials provided to Insider.
Before voting on Tuesday to give up the grant, JCPS officials said that even one more incident of abuse or neglect could prompt federal officials to withdraw the funding. “Our board and administration moved proactively to relinquish the grant and focus the district’s efforts on providing safe and high-quality educational environments for three and four year olds to increase kindergarten readiness,” Martin said Saturday.
Records obtained by Insider Louisville show that there were two abuse reports in the two weeks leading up to the vote, bringing the total number of allegations since October 2016 to around 40.
In light of the allegations, at least eight Head Start employees in the district have been fired this year, and several more have resigned, a JCPS spokeswoman said earlier this week. Overseeing the program itself will allow the district to place “certified or properly credentialed teachers in all classrooms” and to improve oversight, Martin said.
Since JCBE relinquished its funding on its own, the deficiencies will not lead to program termination proceedings, the letter read. The letter did not say if the grant would have been terminated if the board had not given up the money.
JCPS has been working with the federal program to implement a corrective action plan since October, when allegations of physical abuse of students in the program came to light. Since, district officials said they had been working to change the program’s culture and to improve reporting methods.
The grant relinquishment is effective June 30, the letter noted.
This story has been updated with comment from the district.