A California school district’s threat to shut down a charter school for allegedly inadequately training teachers on their legal responsibilities to report suspected child abuse, highlights the challenges districts have in overseeing charter schools.

The issue has stirred controversy in West Contra Costa Unified — a district in the San Francisco Bay Area that serves Richmond and surrounding communities — along with passionate pleas from school supporters. It comes at a time when districts around the state are under more pressure to exercise greater oversight over charter schools.

West Contra Costa Unified threatened to shut down John Henry High School in Richmond on grounds that administrators put students in danger because teachers allegedly were not trained properly to spot and report suspected child abuse.

The district argued that if teachers do not report their suspicions that a child has been abused, that presents a “severe and imminent threat to student safety.” Under state law,that is one of the grounds for revoking a school’s charter.

As mandated reporters, teachers must report to authorities any time they suspect a child has been abused by anyone. The district’s allegations related to improper training of John Henry High teachers did not include any reports of child abuse inside the school. However, during a training session in 2017 an administrator allegedly referred to a child who in 2012 claimed he had been abused at home. The administrator investigated the claim and determined it was unfounded.

That incident was allegedly used to illustrate why teachers should investigate child abuse allegations before reporting them.

Attorney Lisa Corr, of Young, Minney and Corr, said the school follows state law and the administrator’s alleged comments did not reflect the other training and policies in effect at the time.

According to the California Department of Education, no charters in the state have ever been revoked for posing a “severe and imminent threat to student safety.” Charters are typically revoked for poor academic performance. In this case, John Henry High’s average scores on the state’s 2018 Smarter Balanced tests in 11th grade math and English Language Arts were higher than those for most of the district’s high schools.

The vote on whether to revoke the charter has been put off until at least next month to allow attorneys for both the district and Amethod Public Schools, which operates six charters schools including John Henry High, to come up with a settlement that assures the district that the school is following the law. Amethod Public Schools operates three schools in Richmond and three in nearby Oakland. The name “Amethod” refers to its goal of serving each of its schools with a unique method or approach.

West Contra Costa has experienced a rapid expansion of charter schools over the past four years. There are currently 14 charter schools that enroll about 5,500 students out of the district’s total enrollment of about 32,000. Students attending charter schools make up about 15 percent of the district, up from less than five percent in 2014-15.

The expansion has been controversial, in part because of fears that more charter schools will cost the district state aid, since districts lose state money for every student who opts to attend a charter school.

Debates over whether California’s charter school laws need to be revised prompted state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in August to create an “Action Team on Charter Schools” to recommend updates to the 1992 laws.

According to state law, charters can be revoked for violating the charter’s own rules, failing to meet students’ academic goals identified in the charter, fiscal improprieties or mismanagement, or for violating any provision of law. However, even if districts find there is “a severe and imminent threat to the health or safety of the pupils,” academic achievement must be considered “as the most important factor in determining whether to revoke a charter,” the law states.

Madeline Kronenberg, a school board member for 12 years, said she hopes the state task force will review whether academic achievement should be the most important factor in decisions to revoke a charter even when a district determines that there is a “severe and imminent threat to student health and safety.”

The increasing role of charter schools in the district has also become an issue in the upcoming Nov. 6 school board election.

At the Oct. 3 meeting, some speakers suggested that the board action was politically motivated. Board president Valerie Cuevas responded by defending her initial vote on Sept. 26 to start the revocation of John Henry High as motivated solely by her desire to protect children.

The district earlier this year moved against another charter. The board voted to deny a charter to Rocketship Charter School, after finding that it was unlikely to successfully implement its proposed educational programs and did not adequately describe the programs it would offer in its petition. The Contra Costa County Board of Education and the California State Board of Education both denied Rocketship’s appeals.

The board’s threat to close John Henry High is only the second time the board has considered revoking a charter. In 2012, the board revoked a charter for West County Community High School based on the poor academic performance of its students. The county board upheld the denial on appeal.

Normally, it takes several months to revoke a charter. Usually, a district will issue a Notice of Violation related to issues of concern and give the charter school time to address them.

West Contra Costa moved quickly to revoke the charter at John Henry High after the board received signed affidavits from former teachers claiming that administrators failed to properly train staff in their legal obligation to report suspected child abuse or neglect.

The former teachers said an administrator told them to “investigate the matter themselves before determining whether to fulfill their mandated reporting obligations,” according to the district’s Notice of Revocation.

The district’s threat to shut down the school drew a standing room only crowd of more than 200 supporters to the Oct. 3 board meeting wearing yellow T-shirts with the Amethod Public Schools acronym “AMPS” and slogan: “Honor Hard Work.”

More than 50 people spoke passionately about the school’s rigorous academic program and nurturing teachers.

“John Henry High is producing college-bound students,” said Erik Munoz, a senior at the school. “I am, they are, and we are the future of the city of Richmond. If you close the school, you’ll be sending over 300 college-bound students to other schools.”

In arriving at a settlement, both sides will have to agree that John Henry is complying with state law related to teacher training in mandatory child abuse reporting.

Both attorneys said that attempts to revoke charters based on a “severe and imminent threat” to student safety are extremely rare and they disagreed over what that means.

“I think the law is unclear,” said Edward Sklar, of the Lozano Smith law firm, who represents the district. “The courts haven’t looked at this issue.”

Attorney Edward Sklar of the Lozano Smith law firm prepares to speak to the West Contra Costa school board on Oct. 3, 2018. (Photo by Theresa Harrington, EdSource Today)

Corr said students at John Henry High are not in imminent danger. She disputed Sklar’s assertion that the district could bring the revocation back for a vote at a future meeting.

“You can’t table a severe and imminent threat,” she said.

Story originally published by EdSource.