MSCS faces allegations of abuse, mistreatment in several Head Start programs, report shows

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A recent report by the Federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) uncovered allegations of abuse and mistreatment of students at several Head Start schools in Shelby County.

The report found claims of at least seven students at those centers reportedly abused or mistreated by staff members.

In some cases, school officials knew about these allegations but allowed the caregivers in question to keep their jobs, according to the report.

Three of the seven reported incidents happened at Hanley Head Start near Orange Mound.

ACF started its infestation in July 2021 and finished it in January.

Complaints ranged from caregivers hitting children in the head with rulers to teachers showing up to class under the influence.

Schools are supposed to be safe havens for children, but this report details stories of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of caregivers who are part of the Memphis-Shelby County Schools Head Start program.

Three of the seven incidents happened at Hanley Head Start.

In March 2021, a parent reported to a family service worker their four-year-old child was hit on the arm by a teacher.

One month later, in April, a parent told staff at the school that a teacher had hit their three-year-old child on the leg and buttocks.

In October 2021, two witnesses noticed a teacher at the school was slurring their speech and smelled of alcohol.

Medical assistance was called, and first responders determined that the teacher was intoxicated.

In May 2021, the report says a 5-year-old child at Levi Elementary School Head Start told their mother they were hit on the head with a ruler by their teacher when they could not write the letter “w.”

The principal also stated the teacher failed to report the incident timely per the school district’s policy.

In September 2021, a teacher at Willow Oaks Elementary School Head Start admitted she grabbed a 4-year-old child by the arm when the child did not follow verbal redirection.

In October 2021, the report says a parent complaint was submitted at the Douglass Head Start Center. A 4-year-old child told her grandmother a teacher grabbed her by the arm and placed a bug on her.

In January 2022, a teaching assistant at the Covington Pike Head Start Center reported a teacher responded to a child having a meltdown on the floor by kicking the child in the chest.

This report was sent to the Shelby County Board of Education leaders in April of this year.

The Board of Education was given 30 days to correct the issues.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools responded to the federal report Monday.

The district told FOX13 they investigated all seven of the complaints and said four of them were unfounded.

We’re still waiting on documentation from ACF to confirm that.

They said they are taking steps to ensure all staff members are properly trained to deal with challenging behaviors in the classroom and that complaints are investigated thoroughly.

“That is a 3- and 4-year-old telling a story to their parents, and so there were some communication issues around what actually happened,” Divalyn Gordon, the executive director of Pre-K for MSCS, said.

“A lot of times, the parent questioning the child about what was going on in the classroom, what happened there were some details that were left out, and it may not have been any malice intent,” she said.

Gordon said any time a parent reports an incident, it’s taken very seriously.

“We go out to the classrooms, we go out to the schools, we meet with the center directors, we meet with the principals to find out what has the principal or center director done to gather the information,” she said.

Since the report by ACF came out, Gordon said school board officials met to outline deficiencies and implemented a multi-step plan to ensure all teachers are trained properly and investigations are conducted thoroughly.

“We want to make sure we’re educating those teachers when those challenging behaviors show up in the classroom,” she said. “How do you mitigate through that, what supports do we have in place?”

ACF gave MSCS a 30-day deadline to fix the issues.

The school district asked to extend that deadline to October, so they could get feedback on their plan.

They also said they are adding more behavioral specialists to their staff to help teachers create strategies to develop behavior plans.

The district also sent FOX13 this additional statement:

Over the last two school years, Memphis-Shelby County Schools and Porter Leath have provided Head Start services to approximately 8,000 students in the District, and within that time, the Administration for Children and Families has investigated seven—dismissing four as unfounded—incidents at our centers. Given the behavioral and emotional issues that many of our 3 and 4-year-old students are exhibiting in the aftermath of the pandemic, the District and our Head Start Parent Policy Council, which consists of Head Start parents, have outlined additional support for our students and teachers.

Because the health and safety of our students is paramount, we now have more behavior specialists, more health services advisors, and more support and supervising personnel assisting in our classrooms. We also implemented professional development for our teachers last school year to address the pandemic-related behavioral issues our youngest students are presenting. We will continue our training and monitoring on this and other topics in school-year 2022-23.