The Jefferson County Public Schools Head Start program is the only one among 1,600 nationwide that is facing possibly emergency suspension, putting in jeopardy $15 million in annual federal funding, 600 jobs and early childhood education for hundreds of local children.

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 the 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 of abuse or neglect in which the district failed to notify authorities on a timely basis.

Ann Linehan

Head Start Acting Director Ann Linehan last week said reading the report made her sick to her stomach. Carmen Coleman, chief academic officer for JCPS, said the report left district leaders “horrified.”

The frequency of the abuse prompted the ACF to prepare a draft of emergency suspension. The agency told Insider that among the nation’s 1,600 Head Start programs, only JCPS is facing such possible sanctions.

“The types and frequency of the deficiencies revealed a systemic failure of management on many levels within the Jefferson County Board of Education (BOE) Head Start program,” the agency told Insider via email. “Certain practices, like simply moving a teacher who had abused a child to another classroom (is) not an appropriate remedy to change teachers’ behaviors or keep all children safe.”

JCPS “will need to review all of its policies and procedures and determine where changes are necessary. The BOE must assure there is a system of oversight and accountability that holds all staff responsible for adhering to procedures and policies that result in safe, nurturing and rich learning environments for all children.”

The local district has until Oct. 27 to send to the ACF a plan for how to correct the problems. JCPS leaders said they already had taken steps including firing seven employees, requiring more training and implementing new policies. Those policies include immediately removing from classrooms an employee once an abuse allegation has been made.

The ACF told Insider that it “will continue to provide technical assistance to Jefferson County Board of Education; however, it is the responsibility of the BOE to fully correct its deficiencies.”

“Once the corrective action period has ended, ACF will conduct an on-site follow-up review to determine if the deficiencies have been corrected,” the agency said.

JCPS provides early childhood education to 3,600 students, including 1,500 in Head Start and Early Head Start programs, which are funded by about $15 million in annual federal funds that, among things, pay for 618 JCPS employees. Early childhood education in the district takes place five days a week in 223 classrooms in 61 locations, including 10 early childhood centers and 51 schools.

To monitor performance and accountability of Head Start programs, the ACF over the last year has conducted 891 monitoring reviews, of which about 10 percent identify deficiencies, the agency said. The JCPS report indicated three areas of deficiency. According to The Courier-Journal, the ACF in 2014 had identified a deficiency related to improper documentation about whether “students with known or suspected health problems had received required follow-up from a certified health professional.” In 2015, the agency said that no corrective action was needed.

Rina Gratz

The agency told Insider last week that it “was not aware of any incidents of alleged abuse at that time. If ACF were aware, an investigation would have occurred.”

JCPS has said its new leaders — the superintendent, director of early childhood education and Coleman all were appointed within the last year — took the initiative to address abuse problems even before the Head Start report.

Rina Gratz, director of early childhood education, said in a meeting last week that the district has, among other things, strengthened its policies related to allegations of abuse and initiated more staff training.

School officials also have said that the firing of seven employees sent a clear message that child abuse would no longer be tolerated.

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.