School officials at Rocketship Rise Academy Public Charter School presented security and communication changes to protect their students in light of an attempted kidnapping last month.
On Oct. 11, Antonio Burnside, 30, walked into the Southeast D.C. school and interacted with a 9-year old student. He led the boy and his 6-year old brother outside before being stopped by a school employee, according to D.C. Superior Court records.
Burnside, a registered sex offender, was arrested that day on a separate arrest warrant and then charged on Oct. 22 with kidnapping, according to The Washington Post.
School officials did not alert their school community about the incident until the day after the mother of the two boys testified before the D.C. Public Charter School Board on Oct. 28, sparking community outrage at the school for the lack of communication.
School officials say they are now collaborating with city professionals and police and retraining their staff to ensure incidents like this will never happen again.
“I know that we all think about what could have happened here, had the unthinkable happened,” said Joyanna Smith, regional director of Rocketship Public Schools, at the D.C. PCSB’s monthly meeting on Nov. 18. “Our relationships with our families are built on trust, and our failure to communicate in a timely manner represented a breach in that trust.”
Smith said that the school did not share the details of the incident before the mother testified because they were advised by their General Council not to disclose information about the investigation to the public.
But as soon as the mother testified, she said, the school saw the need to take action –– first holding a meeting to hear the concerns of parents and then coming up with multiple security measures to be put into place moving forward.
These measures included terminating their contract with aftercare provider Springboard Education, hiring additional campus security, and enforcing mandatory identification checks. School officials also met with Ward 8 community leaders, retrained all Rocketship school’s principals in security protocol, and met with two security consultants to undergo security assessments –– which will include audits on Dec. 2 and 3, Smith said.
However, she emphasized that the school has always had comprehensive security and their offense in this situation was lack of timely communication. Smith said it was not the school but the aftercare provider, Springboard Education, that released the children to a stranger –– ignoring dismissal protocol and neglecting to provide an immediate incident report.
She also said that the off-duty MPD officer did not follow security protocol, and that the circumstances of school not being in session and parents coming in and out for parent teacher conferences meant that incident did not occur under normal circumstances.
“What our team did do wrong in this situation –– the people sitting before you here –– is that we did not provide timely communication to our families,” Smith said. “But this moment of failure does not negate the transformational outcomes that Rocketship Rise is delivering for students in one of the most underserved communities in the District.”
A parent at Rocketship Rise Academy with children in the Springboard Education aftercare program who had spoken during the public comment session said that while she was upset with the initial lack of communication, she believed the meetings with parents showed that the board was taking ownership.
Additionally, she said she was pleased with the school’s text and email notifications that updated everyone on the incident, as well as their enhanced protocol for signing in parents.
“There have been really long lines in the lobby to sign in every morning and evening,” Dogadu said. “But I would rather have that than any future situations and problems with my two children.”
However, some D.C. PCSB members expressed dissatisfaction with the school officials’ explanation and said the school should not be diverting blame onto other organizations like MPD.
D.C. PCSB member Naomi Shelton asked why the school didn’t terminate their contract with Springboard Education sooner. The D.C. public school system terminated its relationship with Springboard after finding that the company did not conduct proper background checks on its employees, according to an August article for The Washington Post.
Josh Pacos, Rocketship’s Director of Schools, said they wanted to create their own in-house aftercare program before the school year began but they did not have the licensing or ability at the time, so they made the decision to keep Springboard Education.
Other D.C. PCSB members criticized school officials for the time it took them to notify families, which did not happen until after the mother came to speak, 17 days after the incident.
“I just have to tell you I am astonished it took as long as it did for you to report this to families,” D.C. PCSB member Jim Sandman said. “You don’t need to have a complete investigation –– what you can say is, ‘we are investigating, a safety incident occurred’…that’s what’s so outrageous about this.”
Saba Bireda, vice chair of D.C. PCSB, echoed Sandman, noting that she “can’t believe the level of disrespect” the school maintained by not notifying families.
Bireda also took issue with claims from the officials that no children were harmed, speaking of the trauma that could result from an attempted kidnapping. She, along with D.C. PCSB chair Rick Cruz and treasurer Steve Bumbaugh raised concerns about Rocketship opening a third campus in D.C., a plan that D.C. PCSB has already approved.
“Please do not refer to this being some incident where children weren’t harmed because I have no doubt that those children were harmed and that children who were there that day were harmed and that families that heard about this were harmed,” Bireda said. “My confidence is shaken in your organization.”
Rina Samara Johnson, the senior director on the regional board for the school, responded that she understands their feelings about Rocketship’s wrongdoings.
“When you know your families and you know your folks, you get comfortable,” she said, “you think that someone else is going to pick up the ball, and the ball was dropped.”