Washington, D.C.'s acclaimed Duke Ellington School of the Arts admits it failed to keep personnel files or human resources records on its teachers prior to 2017, which may have hindered how it handled two sex abuse claims against the same teacher a decade apart, an investigation by the News4 I-Team found.
The school has a unique arrangement with D.C. Public Schools under which its arts teachers are not required to be licensed and are not considered school district employees. DCPS told the I-Team it has no records of two separate investigations of Mark Williams, conducted in 2004 and 2018, after others reported alleged sexual relationships between Williams and his students.
"I don't think he should be in a classroom. I don't think he should be near young people," said one of the women, now 25.
She first considered Williams a mentor when she joined his Literary Media and Communications Department and says she kept silent for years once the relationship with her writing teacher turned sexual. The News4 I-Team tracked her down while investigating another woman's very similar story.
"All of that hurt and just absorbing all of it really made it impossible to live a fulfilling life, live a normal life," said that woman, now 34.
The I-Team confirmed the school placed Williams on administrative leave during both investigations, in 2004 and 2018. But what's unclear is who did the investigating and what those investigations found.
Williams returned to Ellington later in the 2004-2005 schoolyear but resigned during the second investigation.
"Predators don't strike once, they don't strike twice, they strike many times, and so it just makes me go like, 'How many students were missed?'" said Cerstin Johnson, a Duke Ellington graduate who returned to teach in the writing department in 2013.
Johnson says upon her return to the school, no one ever trained her on how to spot or report abuse.
"I needed training, no question. And I needed to know what the protocol was for being a mandatory reporter," Johnson said.
A teacher is a "mandatory reporter" under Title IX, a federal civil rights law to protect students from sexual discrimination, abuse or harassment. It's supposed to offer protections for victims. For example, not returning them to a class where they'd be in contact with an alleged abuser, or in the 2004 case, students who adored Williams and blamed his accuser for his absence.
"He was on administrative leave and then he wasn't, and I was back in his classes," she said. "I had even tried to get out of the department entirely."
The school's principal from 2004, Mitzi Yates, canceled a scheduled on-camera interview, but told the I-Team she reported Williams to DCPS for investigation.
In a 2020 Facebook message to the former student, she wrote "the investigation resulted in an inconclusive decision" and that she "was not happy that he was allowed to return." She told the I-Team she removed Williams from leading a senior production and as department head anyway.
"It made me question sort of why he had been able to come back," said the 2004 student. "If you knew, why didn't you do something?"
In 2018, when the second young woman's case came to light, the school district also investigated. The I-Team obtained emails from other students documenting contact with an investigator.
But she says no one ever reached out to speak with her.
"There is a responsibility that you have to children and to students," she said. "It doesn't seem like people cared."
A spokesperson for the school told the I-Team Williams resigned in January 2019 while under investigation. Despite 18 years teaching in D.C., the I-Team found, he never held a teaching license; that's not required of Duke Ellington's "arts" teachers.
"The teachers there are held to a different standard from other DCPS teachers," said the 2004 student.
That's because while Duke Ellington School of the Arts is a public high school, it is not governed by DCPS. Instead, it's managed by its own nonprofit board, of which Mark Williams was a member. The Kennedy Center and George Washington University also partner with that board.
"I just always had the feeling that people in those buildings were only after keeping their jobs at all costs and keeping up the reputation of Ellington, no matter what it took," said Johnson.
In a written statement to the I-Team, the school's current principal confirmed "any Title IX investigations are conducted by DCPS." But in response to a Freedom of Information request, the school district told the I-Team it has no records of any investigations of Mark Williams.
"I question how seriously they take them if they don't have the proper recordkeeping, and then, of course, if they haven't done a thorough investigation," said Shiwali Patel, who runs the Justice for Student Survivors program for the National Women's Law Center.
Patel says teenage victims are often reluctant to participate in investigations and may not want to be interviewed, but that schools and districts still have a responsibility to search for other evidence to corroborate allegations.
Emails from former students show Williams frequently used a personal email address and cellphone to communicate regarding schoolwork. It's unclear whether investigators ever checked the contents of those messages.
A spokesperson told the I-Team school leaders never identified the second young woman when her allegations surfaced in 2018 because police asked them not to question students or teachers.
In a statement to the I-Team, DCPS reiterated Mark Williams was "not a DCPS employee."
"Even if he's not technically an employee of the district, they still have an obligation to ensure that he is not abusing other students," said Patel.
A DCPS spokesperson told the I-Team the 2018 case was reported to MPD and D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency. That agency houses D.C.'s central reporting line to receive all reports of child abuse and neglect, but the agency's investigative mandate is limited to caregivers, meaning parents and guardians.
A CFSA spokesperson told the I-Team teacher/student abuse allegations are not investigated by that agency and any reports would have been forwarded to MPD for further action.
Plus, the agency only handles cases involving children up to age 21, and the student from that 2018 case was already 21 at the time the alleged abuse was reported.
Records show the school also directly reported Williams to police on both occasions. He has never been charged.
"The Title IX requirements on schools and school districts to investigate are very separate from what the criminal system requires," said Patel, adding that both are essential.
The 2013 student was already in college when her case was reported in 2018, but she wonders had the earlier case been handled differently, would hers even exist?
"It's only the school's fault when the school does nothing," she said.
Mark Williams did not respond to the I-Team's repeated calls and emails requesting comment. Records show he sold his home in Northern Virginia in 2020 and his wife accepted a job based overseas.
The 2004 student is now pursuing a Title IX lawsuit, saying Williams, the school, its leaders and the district all failed to protect her.
"She is still suffering to this day. She is unable to have relationships. She's unable to trust people of authority," said the young woman's attorney, Dawn Jackson.
Jackson hopes any other students who have experienced or witnessed abuse have the courage to come forward and applauds those who already have.
"I think victims should have voices and I do believe that now they're understanding that they do," Jackson said.
Her client told the I-Team she hopes her pursuit of the case inspires other victims of abuse and creates better accountability and oversight at Duke Ellington.
"Kids come there wanting to be seen and understood and appreciated for their talent, and I think that makes it a playground for predators. So that needs to be fixed," she said.
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The current principal, Sandi Logan, said some fixes have already been made. She declined the I-Team's request for an interview but sent a statement saying Duke Ellington hired its own Title IX coordinator this year to "supplement and accelerate" the school district's response to these kinds of allegations.
The school has also held training sessions for faculty and staff and developed an app for students to report inappropriate behavior.
"It's been heartbreaking to hear stories come to light of past traumas that some students have quietly and painfully held in their hearts all these years,” Logan added. “I have hope that they are coming into the open now because of a safer and more welcome environment."
Reported by Jodie Fleischer; produced by Katie Leslie; shot by Jeff Piper, Steve Jones and Katie Barry; and edited by Jeff Piper. Rick Yarborough also contributed to this report.