D.C.'s attorney general filed a lawsuit Wednesday against a Hebrew preschool previously accused of ignoring allegations that a teacher was sexually abusing children, saying the school created an "environment ripe for abuse."
Attorney General Karl A. Racine said in a release the Washington Hebrew Congregation routinely ignored D.C. laws designed to protect children.
The Northwest D.C. synagogue placed children in the care of "unqualified, unsupervised staff, operating in violation of its license, and misleading parents about the safety of its programs," the Office of the Attorney General claims.
In August 2018, parents with children at WHC's Edlavitch-Tyser Early Childhood Center received an email disclosing that there had been allegations of sexual abuse at the child care center.
Several families filed suit against the synagogue in 2019 alleging the school ignored signs that one of its teachers was sexually abusing children. The lawsuit said the teacher took at least seven 3- and 4-year-old children to remote areas on campus and sexually abused them.
Parents claimed the abuse happened for more than a year, although complaints of inappropriate behavior were brought to school officials soon after his hiring in March 2016.
“Washington Hebrew Congregation repeatedly ignored District child safety laws and failed to protect children in its care—and as a result, fifteen children have reported abuse,” Racine said in a statement Wednesday. “Our lawsuit against Washington Hebrew seeks restitution for these children and their families."
The assistant teacher, who was employed at the center from about March 2016 to August 2018, was never criminally charged.
The Office of Attorney General claims WHC violated D.C.'s Consumer Protection Procedures Act by ignoring the law requiring child care centers to have at least two staff members always present with children and hiring assistant teachers who failed to meet the minimum requirements for experience and education for childcare providers.
"WHC hired college students who did not meet the minimum required credit hours in early childhood education to work as assistant teachers, and individuals who held only high school degrees and lacked certification, training, or experience in early childhood education. On multiple occasions, OSSE gave warnings to WHC for not conducting required background checks," the OAG said.
In addition, the synagogue allegedly dismissed dozens of concerns and complaints from teachers about the assistant teacher later accused of abuse.
"One teacher spoke to the head of the childcare center more than twenty times about her concerns. Instead of documenting the complaints or taking corrective action, the head of the center stated that any staff member who complained about this assistant teacher would be reprimanded or fired," the OAG said.
Washington Hebrew Congregation placed early childhood education Director Deborah "DJ" Schneider Jensen on paid administrative leave soon after the 2019 lawsuit was filed.
Racine's office also claims WHC advertised to parents that its staff met or exceeded the District’s minimum legal requirements, falsely claiming on its website that “[a]ssistant teachers also exceed basic requirements. All of our assistant teachers are degreed or have several years of early childhood education training and/or experience working in an early childhood setting.”
The attorney representing Washington Hebrew Congregation gave the following response to the lawsuit:
"Washington Hebrew Congregation vigorously denies the allegations in the Complaint and will defend against them. The Complaint is replete with misleading statements and material omissions. Among them:
- The Complaint fails to mention that the DC Metropolitan Police Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced in January 2020 that after an 18-month exhaustive investigation, they terminated their investigation without any arrest and without any further action against the named alleged perpetrator.
- The Complaint paints a picture of widespread regulatory violations, when in fact our ECC is licensed, was re-licensed, after all the facts alleged in the AG’s complaint were already known, and remains in good standing with its regulator, DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), and has fully met every safety requirement requested by OSSE.
- The Complaint – which focuses on false advertising -- even purports to quote from the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s website, but actually quotes from another, unaffiliated Jewish organization’s website – The Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center.
- The Complaint alleges we failed to report allegations of sexual abuse, when in fact it was Washington Hebrew that self-reported the allegations on August 15, 2018, the same day we learned of the allegations.
Our commitment to child safety and compliance with all DC regulations, and our support of all in our community, has been steadfast. We will take all necessary steps to defend our congregation and our school against this misleading and inaccurate lawsuit."