April 23, 2024

Police left in dark about alleged abuse at IPS school, families question school culture

George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 is located on the near north side of Indianapolis. - Eric Weddle / WFYI

George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 is located on the near north side of Indianapolis.

Eric Weddle / WFYI

Law enforcement agencies weren’t informed by the Department of Child Services nor the Indianapolis Public Schools that a teacher filmed and encouraged the alleged abuse of a 7-year-old second grader with disabilities by a classmate. 

In a cell phone video recorded by the teacher, Julious Johnican, is heard encouraging another student to keep beating up the 7-year-old, who is sobbing, at George Washington Carver Montessori School 87. 

A lawsuit filed last week by the parent of the second grade student accuses Johnican of orchestrating a “fight club” style of discipline in his classroom, in which he “encouraged, instigated, and on at least one occasion recorded on his phone physical abuse” of the child by other students. 

Additionally, the suit claims that both the boy and his mother told school administrators and staff about the alleged abuse last September, but it was never investigated or reported. 

There are conflicting accounts of who first contacted DCS and when about the video in late October. The family’s attorneys and a statement from the IPS spokesperson offer differing events.

DCS began their investigation into the video incident in November and the report was completed in February. The investigation determined that Johnican neglected the students. A DCS investigator wrote in their report that Johnican “knowingly and willingly engaged in behaviors towards the victims that jeopardized their overall well-being while in his care as a teacher at IPS 87.”

Spokespeople for both the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the Marion County Prosecutor's Office say they received no information from DCS or IPS about the incident. DCS policy requires law enforcement to be alerted of reports of abuse and neglect and prosecutors be notified of substantiated claims. 

“Last week, when we were made aware of the allegations, we reached out to IPS Police and DCS. Shortly thereafter IMPD opened an investigation into the matter at our request,” wrote Micahel Leffler, communications director for the MCPO. 

Jeni O’Malley, a spokesperson for DCS, declined to comment on the specifics of their investigation due to confidentiality requirements.

She wrote in an email that “DCS conducts a thorough examination any time a question of compliance is raised to ensure protocols were followed and take action if appropriate.”

A spokesperson for Indianapolis Public Schools did not provide answers to questions about whether they informed their own district police force about the video and DCS investigation.

WFYI has been unable to reach Johnican for comment. 

Breakdown in communication

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said law enforcement should have been involved when the video and abuse first came to light last fall. 

“If it's proven to be true, a teacher not only allowing assaults to occur, but encouraging them, that's way over the line. And so that clearly has to be a circumstance where law enforcement becomes involved,” Canady said. 

Canady said it's important to begin such an investigation as soon as possible in order to preserve as much evidence. 

“Let's say there's visible evidence of that, you know, on someone's body, face, arms, whatever it is, you know, those bruises eventually heal up and we begin to lose evidence,” he said. “So it is critical, especially when we're dealing with physical evidence and protecting a child.”

Canady said DCS also should have notified law enforcement of their investigation. 

“That's an absolute yes for a breakdown in communication,” he said. “Was it intentional or unintentional? You know, those are important questions to get answered.”

Parents left in the dark

Parents of School 87 students also say they weren’t notified about the investigation or the claims of abuse until media reports were published last week. More than 400 students are enrolled at the school in Pre-K through 8th grade.

Brendan Maxcy, a parent of two students at the near northside school, said the lack of communication between the district and families and multiple state agencies reveals “multiple kinds of systemic failures.”

Maxcy says his family loves their sons’ teachers and he’s pleased with the experience they’ve had at School 87. 

“So we were stunned to learn that this was occurring in an adjacent classroom,” he said. 

And then to find out that the district knew about the video and the abuse allegations at least as early as October and still did not tell families of students is deeply frustrating, Maxcy said.

“Because I can only imagine how traumatic this was for that child but also for the others who were in that environment. And that this delayed the opportunity for them to get support,” he said. 

Maxcy said he and other School 87 parents met with IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson and IPS Board Member Nicole Carey last weekend to listen to their concerns. After that meeting, the district sent an email to families informing them that School 87 Principal Mary Kapcoe and Assistant Principal Finea Rent — both of whom are named as defendants in the lawsuit against the district and Johnican — will not be at the school while the district “continues to gather information regarding school climate.”

IPS’ executive director for schools, Adrienne Kuchik, will serve as school leader during this period, according to the email. 

Yadira Torres-Gomez, a parent of two School 87 students, said she’s happy that leadership has been removed from their positions for the time being. 

She said she’s had concerns about school culture and transparency in recent years, and that her son no longer wants to attend School 87. But watching the video filmed by a teacher of a child with disabilities being abused, and then not being notified by the school about the incident “was probably pretty much the nail in the coffin for me.” 

Torres-Gomez says their family has moved and plans to send their children to a different district next year. 

She says she was sick to her stomach when she saw the video.

“I was crying. Just to witness, to watch that, it was terrible. More because my daughter is in special needs. And it hit my core. It was terrible. I don’t understand how that could ever happen anywhere.”

‘Trust shattered’

Another parent, Jean, said she pulled her first grade daughter out of Johnican’s classroom a few weeks after the school year began last August. WFYI is not using Jean’s full name because she wants to protect her daughter’s privacy.

Jean says her daughter told her their class was forced to walk laps during recess and that some children were made to do push-ups and jumping jacks in the August heat. Jean says when she contacted school staff, they informed her that was against their policy. But she says she couldn’t get a straight answer as to who was responsible. She also asked if school staff planned to alert other parents whose children were made to exercise during recess in the heat.

“I was told, no, that nobody else was going to be informed that that particular policy breach had happened,” Jean said. “My trust was just completely shattered.”

Jean said what happened to the children in Johnican’s classroom is far more traumatic than a breach of recess policy. And she’s grateful she pulled her daughter out of the school. 

“I wish we had left earlier. And she wasn't even in that school for the amount of time that she was in it. But to even imagine that this was the type of thing that could have happened to her,” she said. 

Both Torres-Gomez and Maxcy have signed a petition calling for IPS to commission a third-party investigation into the allegations of abuse in Johnican’s classroom, to provide mental health services for students in that class, a comprehensive plan for a new administration, a town hall meeting for all School 87 parents, and an extension to the lottery deadline — which ended last Friday — for families who had planned to send their children back to School 87 but now no longer feel safe doing so. 

A spokesperson for IPS did not provide any comment on the petition. 

Maxcy said his family is committed to public schools and the teachers they adore at School 87. For that reason, he says he plans to send his sons back to the school this fall. 

“But we will be more vigilant both in terms of talking with them about what they're seeing, and what's going on with regard to their teachers, making sure their teachers feel supported, and with the other parents as well,” he said. “So it certainly has made us reconsider how we want to approach schools.”

Contact WFYI education reporter Lee V. Gaines at lgaines@wfyi.org.

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