LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, first became aware of issues regarding internal investigations at Jefferson County Public Schools during the 2012-13 school year as his and other groups prepared a civil rights complaint against 12 districts in the state.

Eleven of those responded and corrected issues raised in the complaint, but Brooks said JCPS was the lone holdout.

“That’s what got people looking at this issue,” he told WDRB News Thursday. “Why did these districts have disproportionate outcomes for kids of color? And when they got inside of that, what they found was besides suspensions and expulsions and those kinds of things, there were physical disciplinary measures.

“I mean, you look at the stories where special needs kids’ femurs were broken. That’s not subtle. That’s not like, ‘Whoops.’ A linebacker doesn’t break femurs.”

Interim Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis recommended the state manage operations at JCPS, and in a letter explaining his decision, he cited a three-page October 2016 report by retired FBI agent Carl Christiansen that examined 35 inquiries by the district’s Office of Compliance and Investigations and found “a multitude of deficiencies” and that “in some instances JCPS was unable to take appropriate disciplinary action due to the poor investigative effort.”

“It is essential that state intervention is used to ensure systems are in place to thoroughly investigate inappropriate and illegal actions of staff interactions with students, and that the findings are used to discipline and remove staff where appropriate,” Lewis wrote in his letter to JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and Jefferson County Board of Education Chair Diane Porter.

Louisville attorney Nick Naiser has been involved in numerous JCPS investigations while representing families who’ve accused district staff of wrongdoing.

In every OCI case, Naiser said he was bothered by how the inquiry was handled. Naiser says he’s seen instances when investigators failed to consider all pieces of evidence, interviewed every available witness or conducted follow-up questioning when he felt it was warranted.

“Every encounter that I’ve had with the Office of Compliance and Investigations, I’ve come away unimpressed with the quality of the investigation that has been done,” he told WDRB News. “I think Carl Christiansen’s letter is just dead-on in that they come to conclusions that are nonsensical.”

However, the district and others say JCPS has taken steps to improve its internal investigations.

Allison Martin, communications director for JCPS, says the district now requires a “significant” boost in training for its investigators and that they will be moved to the general counsel’s office under a reorganization plan passed by the school board.

That was a point emphasized by Linda Duncan, a school board member who represents District 5.

“I think probably that will be a very positive move and allow us to do a good job of monitoring what’s going on legally with those investigations,” she said.

Brooks, whose five grandchildren attend JCPS schools, said prior district administrations failed to provide “adequate safeguards” for students, but he’s been pleased with what he’s heard from Pollio since he took over for former Superintendent Donna Hargens in July.

Pollio, he said, “realizes that this is an urgent matter” and understands the complexities involved in improving the district’s investigative capabilities.

“The biggest hope that I have is totally the attitude that is different with Marty Pollio than Donna Hargens,” Brooks said. “You talk to Marty and he’s like, ‘Yeah it’s a problem, and it’s a problem for kids. It’s also a problem for us.’”

Duncan, who said she would support legal action to protect the school board’s authority at JCPS, said that a final version of Christiansen’s investigation, which was initiated by former JCPS Chief Business Officer Tom Hudson, was never presented to the board.

She questioned why the Kentucky Department of Education relied on Christiansen’s three-page letter, the findings of which the agency did not verify, as part of the audit.

“I would say that they were including everything that they could possibly use that contained anything negative, even a report that’s questionable,” Duncan said.

Christiansen's October 2016 letter can be viewed here:

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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