LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- An internal auditor says JCPS employees and administrators underreported the number of times JCPS students were either physically held down or confined to a room by a "significant amount" last school year.

And in outlining a number of serious concerns to the Jefferson County Board of Education during a work session Tuesday night, it prompted at least one board member to question the district's leadership under Superintendent Donna Hargens.

Jim Tencza, director of internal audits with Dean Dorton, a full-service CPA firm, told the school board on Tuesday that "some administrators and employees were motivated to not report all seclusion and restraint incidents."

"Principals and assistant superintendents were rewarded for having good results at their schools," according to Tencza's preliminary report, which is dated May 2 but was not publicly released until 5 p.m. Tuesday. "Some principals stated that it would look bad on them or their school if they had a lot of seclusion or restraint incidents."

According to internal data kept by the district, JCPS students were restrained or secluded 4,403 times during the 2014-15 year, but the district only correctly reported 174 of those incidents to the Kentucky Department of Education.

The discrepancy, was initially reported by The Courier-Journal in March, which is when Hargens sent a letter to Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt informing him about the problem.

According to a 2013 Kentucky regulation, restraint and seclusion techniques may only be used if a student's behavior poses imminent danger or physical harm to themselves or others. It also states that all physical restraints and seclusions shall be documented by a written record of each use of seclusion or physical restraint and be maintained in the student’s education record. 

Hargens said two years ago, the state asked for the seclusion and restraint data to be put into Infinite Campus -- the state's online data reporting and collection system.

"This created a situation where you had an internal database that was not communicating with an external database," Hargens said in March. "The solution at the time was to have the reports entered into the two separate systems."

Tencza told board members that while having to input the data into two systems was the primary reason for the discrepancy, another significant contributing factor was the overall culture.

He said he believes the district has done a good job trying working internally and with the state to fix the problem, but upon interviewing a number of district staff, he noted some very serious concerns, including a "code of silence" being used among some in the district when it came to reporting restraints and seclusions.

Some principals stated that some assistant superintendents in the past have "encouraged them to take steps to reduce the number of seclusions and restraints reported," the report reads, adding that the "culture and code of silence around seclusions and restraints has been a nationwide problem but the nation has moved to transparency and JCPS is lagging behind."

Tencza said they had one employee who "would not talk with us at work because he/she didn't believe they could talk truthfully and feared they would get in major trouble for telling us the truth."

Another individual told auditors they were given a verbal directive to stop reporting student behavior incidents.

Yet another employee sent an email saying they will be "leaving JCPS due to the unhealthy culture."

When asked by school board members if students were mistreated in restraint or seclusion, Tencza said no, but quickly reiterated that he is a CPA and his audit was not focused on mistreatment.

The 10-page report prompted a series of comments and concerns from school board members.

"(This) makes me question Dr. Hargens, your leadership," said board member Stephanie Horne. "I am unclear and I am uncertain of it."

"This is just one example that I believe now as I sit here could be indicative of other things," Horne said. "And it makes me very uncomfortable to sit on (this) board."

Board member Lisa Willner questioned why the discrepancy wasn't dealt with immediately and whether other data the district maintains and reports is reliable.

"It’s a moral conflict to serve on the board...when I don’t feel the data is trustworthy," she said.

Board member Chris Brady said the fact that district staff felt they could not talk to internal auditors for "fear of retribution is a huge red flag and is very alarming."

Hargens said she notified the state as soon as she found out about the discrepancy and told media on Tuesday she is "concerned" that she wasn't made aware of the problem earlier.

"We are looking into why wasn't that dealt with," she said.

The report states that district management has "taken certain steps to begin to change and improve the culture but additional strong steps need to be made."

Tencza's report will recommend that the district use "better processes" to track the use of restraint and seclusion and that more employees be trained on how to document and report the data.

He expects to have a final report, with recommendations, by the the end of July.

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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