Probe: Staff mishandled Kennedy Metro students

Allison Ross
Louisville Courier Journal

Some staff at Kennedy Metro Middle alternative school inappropriately put their hands on students, mishandled the use of seclusion and failed to report physical altercations, according to a district investigation of the recently closed school.

The investigative report was obtained by the Courier-Journal through a state open records request originally made in February.

Many of the staff members mentioned in the Jefferson County Public Schools investigation continue to work in JCPS schools and do not appear to have been significantly disciplined. JCPS officials said only that all employees named in the investigation have undergone additional training in safe crisis management.

"To substantiate an allegation and to bring it to the level of prosecution or punishment may be two different things," JCPS spokeswoman Bonnie Hackbarth said.

The investigation, which was dated Nov. 17, 2014 — but was only released to the Courier-Journal in recent days — was started at the request of Chief Equity Officer John Marshall.

The investigators interviewed a number of students who had attended the alternative middle school in the 2013-2014 school year or prior, as well as several staff members.

It found that "several students and a staff member recounted instances where (a) staff member has rammed (students') heads into the wall, pinned students with their body weight and repeatedly smacked their fingers."

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Among those accused in the report by students and staff of having inappropriate physical contact with students was assistant principal Ronald Anthony Johnson, who now works as an assistant principal at Ramsey Middle. He did not return a phone call Wednesday asking for comment.

Paul Jarrell, an in-school security monitor at the time, also featured prominently in the investigation. He is listed on King Elementary's website as being on staff in a security role. He also did not immediately return a voicemail left for him Wednesday evening.

The investigation found that staff inappropriately implemented Safe Crisis Management techniques in dealing with students, including the use of a "calming room."

The calming room, which was used for seclusion, had a door that students could not open from the inside, the report said, noting that regulations require that seclusion settings have an unlocked and unobstructed door.

The report also notes that some staff used inappropriate holds to escort students, grabbing them by their back pant loops and by the neck, "which is not an appropriate (Safe Crisis Management) maneuver."

Some of the staff interviewed in the report noted concerns with the way students were handled; when Phillip Pettus, a safe crisis management assistant, was "asked if he thought Kennedy Metro Middle School was a safe place for students, he stated, 'no,'" the report said.

The report also substantiates an allegation that staff did not properly report physical altercations, saying that "neither the principal or assistant principal knew the procedures for reporting as mandated" by state regulations.

Then-principal Don Reid is now an assistant principal at Jeffersontown High; earlier this year, a JCPS spokeswoman said Reid asked for the voluntary demotion. When reached by phone Wednesday, Reid declined to comment, saying a reporter had to get clearance through the district first. The district said it preferred all questions go through its spokeswoman.

Kennedy Metro was closed at the end of last school year to make way for a new elementary school at that location on Taylorsville Road.

Students from the alternative school were moved to the new Minor Daniels Academy as part of a JCPS plan to restructure its alternative schools system.

Hackbarth said the efforts at Minor Daniels — which is in the former Buechel Metro High building and houses both alternative middle and high schoolers — are part of a "process" to "really create a culture change."

Minor Daniels has its work cut out for it and is being closely watched by many in the community to ensure that students in that school are getting the proper supports and environment. JCPS named a brand-new principal to lead the school, Don Dillard, who was named only weeks before the start of school.

Hackbarth said the Kennedy Metro investigation was part of the reason JCPS decided to change the way it works with alternative school students, saying the new Minor Daniels Academy was created to "give students who exhibit serious behavioral issues a new pathway to success."

Indeed, at least one school board member says his vote to approve JCPS' alternative schools plan was influenced by the Kennedy Metro investigation or by hearing firsthand stories about problems at that alternative school.

Board member Chris Brady said JCPS let him see a copy of the investigation just days before the board voted to approve the funding allocation and merger of Kennedy Metro and Buechel Metro High into one location. "My initial reaction was, we have to do something about this right now," he said.

Brady said he has concerns about how the new alternative schools plan is working this school year, saying there doesn't seem to be a solid plan in place. After reading the investigation he reiterated that he decided "we as a board were failing students if we allowed that, what I'd just read, to continue on."

Board member Lisa Willner also said she was influenced by concerns she'd heard at Kennedy Metro. Willner, who ended up voting against the merger of Buechel and Kennedy Metro, said she has questions about how the new arrangement is working out, noting questions she had about how JCPS was deciding where to place students.

When asked about JCPS' response to the investigation findings, Brady said he found it "absolutely infuriating" if no one was disciplined for the things found in the report. However, he said that board members can't interfere with personnel decisions.

Reporter Allison Ross can be reached at (502) 582-4241. Follow her on Twitter at @allisonSross. Follow the Courier-Journal’s education team on Facebook at