The nation’s top child well-being official said this week that reading her agency’s report about abuse and neglect of young children in Jefferson County Public Schools made her ill.

Ann Linehan

“These are kids who are being slapped, pushed, shoved, yelled at, thrown on the floor. Reading those violations make one sick to one’s stomach,” said Ann Linehan, acting director of the Office of Head Start.

“I can’t sugarcoat the message this evening,” she said. “This is a five-alarm fire, and we need every hand on deck.”

Linehan made the comments Tuesday at a work session of the Jefferson County Board of Education. Insider obtained an audio recording of the event. JCPS said its new leaders took the initiative to address abuse problems even before the Head Start report.

The Administration of Family and Children, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and administers the Office of Head Start, had issued a report recently that uncovered within JCPS’ early childhood education program a culture of child abuse and neglect. The report had listed 13 incidents of abuse in just over seven months beginning around Halloween 2016, two incidents in which young children were left unsupervised and seven incidents in which the district failed to notify authorities on a timely basis. Seven of the initial 13 incidents involved teachers.

The agency said the district had failed to implement proper procedures to prevent child abuse and neglect, and had not even followed the inadequate existing procedures.

“This is a systemic failure of management,” Linehan said.

The local district’s early childhood education program serves about 3,600 students, including about 1,500 in Head Start and Early Head Start programs, and employs about 900, about 600 of whom are paid through federal funds, with the remainder coming from state and local funds and tuition. The district is providing early childhood instruction in 223 classrooms in 61 locations.

The abuse allegations have prompted JCPS to fire seven employees, update procedures and increase staff training. By Oct. 27, the district has to file with ACF a plan that shows how JCPS will address the problems.

Marty Pollio

Acting Superintendent Marty Pollio said this week that he and other administrators were making clear to all employees that abuse and neglect would not be tolerated.

“We acknowledge that improvements are needed in systems and oversight that have led to concerns,” Pollio said this week at a meeting with Linehan and the school board. “These specifically detail employees’ actions toward children, lack of significant consequences for those actions and … a lack of reporting these incidents in a timely manner.”

“We are all committed to doing things differently,” Pollio said.

Despite those steps and assurances, Linehan expressed doubts about their effectiveness.

Since the agency issued its report in August, at least seven additional incidents of abuse or neglect have occurred, she said.

“It’s not something that feels like is abating,” Linehan said.

“This is a five-alarm fire, and we need every hand on deck,” she said.

Long-term consequences

Linehan said that the district’s failure to remove teachers from classrooms after alleged mistreatment of children astounded her.

“What message are we giving to our parents?” she asked.

Even worse, however, is the impact on children, Linehan said, and not just those whom teachers are abusing directly.

Every 4-year-old who watches a classmate being force-fed will suffer trauma, possibly for many years, Linehan said.

“This is very emotional … This is about little kids,” she said. “And we know research tells us that if they’re not in a nurturing, loving environment, these are the kids that are going to end up at 13, 14 dropping out of school, having poor peer relationships and later on in life having poor health outcomes.

“One experience of maltreatment by your teacher can impact that child forever, and every child in that classroom,” she said.

Linehan also questioned whether, given the frequency of abuse reports, the district was adequately supervising its teachers and providing enough training.

Some schools suffered multiple incidents of abuse, she said, reflecting a lack of leadership.

“We know that principals set tone and culture,” she said.

“I know these things are going on probably every day because people don’t understand that it’s bad behavior and it’s harmful to children. These teachers are doing this, because they think it’s OK,” she said.

JCPS has not responded yet to Insider’s public records request seeing copies of the termination letters sent to the seven employees who were let go as a result of incidents of abuse or neglect. District spokeswoman Allison Martin told Insider that none of the fired employees were in a management position.

She also said that one allegation of abuse prompted a staff member to retire immediately, while in another incident, a substitute teacher resigned. Three other employees received disciplinary reprimands that involved training to remediate their unacceptable behavior.

District investigations of two incidents are still pending, and six were found to be unsubstantiated, Martin said. Louisville Metro Police Department did not respond to Insider’s inquiry about whether any of the incidents were being investigated for criminal violations. Martin said no lawsuits had been filed against the district as a result of the abuse incidents.

Pollio: ‘Committed to safety’

Martin emphasized that the district’s new leaders themselves took the initiative to address abuse problems even before the Head Start report.

Martin told Insider that when Rina Gratz, the district’s director of early childhood education, looked at the number of abuse incidents — which JCPS officials report to federal authorities — she took action and sought support from within and without the district.

Rina Gratz

Gratz said Tuesday that when she came on board in December, “we immediately understood that there were issued that needed to be addressed.” Based on recommendations she received from Head Start, JCPS examined and strengthened policies over the summer and initiated staff training.

Those steps included strengthening the district’s disciplinary actions when incidents are substantiated to align its response with Head Start expectations, Gratz said.

In the same meeting, Carmen Coleman, who was named chief academic officer this summer, said, “Everyone at this table was pretty horrified by (the Head Start) report.”

“Incidents had occurred on the second day of school, and so it became very apparent … that there’s a systemic message here, there’s a bigger message than even the incidents … about a lack of systems, a lack of structure, a lack of communication,” she said.

Coleman said that the district already had changed how it responds to incidents of abuse. For example, she said, when an incident of potential harm to children is reported, the employee is removed from the classroom immediately until the investigation has been completed.

The firing of seven employees, she said, “is sending a very strong message across the district about this being a new day.”

In addition, she said, employees have undergone additional mandatory training, conducted by Gratz, who said that the district also had changed the way that the incidents were reported and included notifications to additional administrators.

JCPS also is exploring the expansion of early childhood centers, which, Gratz said, would increase oversight, monitoring and accountability and maximize the use of resources.

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, told Insider via email Friday that the safety and well-being of students was the union’s top priority.

“We believe this is a particularly important issue for our youngest students because they have the least capacity to advocate for themselves,” he told Insider via email. “JCTA is committed to working with the JCPS administration and the US Department of Health and Human Services to implement all the changes needed to ensure a safe and nurturing learning environment for all our early childhood students.”

Pollio said in Tuesday’s meeting that the district was committed to safety of its students, especially the youngest. While the district is making progress toward that goal, he acknowledged that work needed to continue.

“We have some culture that we need to change throughout our organization,” he said. “We’re well on the way of doing that (but) we still have a ways to go.”

Pollio was named acting superintendent in May, following the resignation of Donna Hargens, whose leadership had come under fire from board members and teachers, especially after a report by the Kentucky Department of Education identified 23 “significant deficiencies” related to matters including low academic achievement, student-on-student sexual assault and physical restraining of students.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.