A D.C. Council member is calling for changes in oversight at Duke Ellington School of the Arts just days after a News4 I-Team investigation raised questions about how the school, the school district and police handled sex abuse claims against the same teacher years apart.
Ward 2 Council member Brooke Pinto, whose district is home to Duke Ellington School of the Arts, sent a letter to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, calling the handling of the sex abuse allegations "extraordinarily troubling."
Pinto said "attention must be paid to the systemic lapses" and changes must be made to ensure investigations of this nature are handled properly and documented with detailed records.
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"To allow our students to be exposed to this type of behavior and then not have a thorough investigation and follow up and accountability was so troubling and disturbing, and I knew that there was more that needed to be done," Pinto told the I-Team in an interview Tuesday.
She said hearing the two young women allege they were groomed by their writing teacher, Mark Williams, for a sexual relationship nine years apart was hard enough. But the added questions about how the school's unique relationship with the school district may have helped Williams avoid scrutiny made a bad situation even worse.
"I want to honor that independence because it is such a unique place," said Pinto. "But there have to be protective mechanisms in place so that when something like this happens, there is an objective third party to participate in the oversight, in the investigation and in ensuring that our kids are kept safe."
In the letter, cosigned by Ward 2 State Board of Education member Allister Chang, Pinto calls for a formal review of the school's board structure and the addition of an objective person who is a trained Title IX expert. The school is currently governed by its own board and not DCPS, despite being a public school.
"There were systems breakdowns at every level, which is part of the reason one of the requests we made is to maintain a centralized system through DCPS of all personnel files and make sure that there are updated recordkeeping for these types of allegations and complaints," Pinto said.
A school spokesperson told the I-Team both cases were reported to DCPS for investigation, but DCPS told the I-Team it has no records of ever investigating the allegations.
Because Williams was an employee of the school and not the school district, DCPS had no personnel file for him. The school also acknowledged recordkeeping failures prior to launching a new system in 2017.
"It's unacceptable. It's absolutely unacceptable, which is why we addressed this letter to OSSE, because this requires leadership and oversight above DCPS to make sure that recordkeeping is maintained," Pinto said.
OSSE told the I-Team it had no records on Williams because Duke Ellington's teachers are not required to be licensed. Williams taught there for 18 years before resigning in 2019 while under investigation. He did not return the I-Team's repeated calls and emails seeking comment.
Pinto also forwarded her letter to D.C.'s mayor, police chief and the new commander of the Youth and Family Services Division, which is now reexamining both cases, since both women told the I-Team they were never formally interviewed by school district investigators or police at the time their cases were reported. Williams was never charged.
"We will be following that investigation closely using both our oversight responsibilities on the Judiciary Committee and working with MPD (Metropolitan Police Department) to see if they are following through on what they say they will," Pinto said.
Pinto said she hopes her letter leads to a broader conversation about how these kinds of cases are handled at Duke Ellington and other schools.
A Duke Ellington spokesperson said the school welcomes ideas for improving the protection of its students and better recordkeeping and said the school is open to allowing all personnel files to be shared with DCPS.
OSSE has not responded to the I-Team’s request for comment.
"We hope that OSSE responds seriously and diligently, and we'll continue the discussion," said Pinto. "And if legislative solutions are required to keep our kids safe, then that is absolutely something that we will consider and pursue."
Statement from Duke Ellington:
“Duke Ellington thanks Councilmember Pinto and Ward 2 Education Board Member Chang for their interest in how we can make improvements that increase the protection and wellbeing of our children, and have communicated our interest in discussing their ideas. The DESAP board often has board members with extensive experience in Title IX, and we are open to making sure that Title IX experience is a skill set represented by new board members. We also welcome suggestions related to record keeping, as Ellington overhauled employee record-keeping immediately following the 2018 allegations referenced in the NBC4 reporting. We are very open to recommendations for continued improvements, including allowing all of our personnel files to be shared with DCPS for their retention.”
Statement from DCPS:
"DC Public Schools is committed to the safety and well-being of every student. We support our students who raise concerns and recognize the courage and strength it takes for those impacted to speak out and share their stories.
"In 2020, DCPS directed the Duke Ellington School of the Arts to implement multiple protocols to strengthen the prevention and reporting culture around allegations of sexual misconduct. This included partnering with the DC Rape Crisis Center to conduct trainings for staff and students, creating a committee to elevate student voices, and conducting quarterly empathy interviews with students and families on school culture. DCPS will continue to intensely monitor these protocols.
"As a district, DCPS has robust steps in place to prevent sexual misconduct with required background screenings for all employees, mandatory trainings for staff, and implementation of a strict reporting protocol to MPD and CFSA when we are made aware of incidents or allegations."
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.
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