Published: April 30, 2016
By Miranda Katz
Students in the hallway at Harlem Success Academy. (Getty)
Ever since word got out that Success Academy in Fort Greene was systematically forcing out struggling and disabled students listed on a now-infamous “Got to Go” list, the controversial charter network has been on the defensive. In January, Success Academy was hit with a civil rights lawsuit filed by 13 parents, along with politicians and advocates, and shortly thereafter, a damning video emerged showing a teacher punishing a first grader for struggling with a math problem. Now, as the charter network fights the city over its pre-kindergarten program, those parents are pushing forward with more criticism.
The suit names Candido Brown, principal of the Fort Greene school, as well as Success Academy itself, and argues that Brown, in keeping with Success Academy’s policies and practices, led a campaign to force out students with disabilities (or those perceived to have disabilities), failing to accommodate them as is mandated by federal law.
“After years of claiming that Success provides a path forward for Black and Hispanic children, the experiences of our clients lay bare the contempt that Success Academy has for their wellbeing,” attorney Arthur Schwartz said in a statement. “The approach on display at Success Fort Greene, which is about test scores and not educating children, was, I am sure, not created by principal Brown, but came right from the top. It has no place in public education.”
Two of the plaintiffs on the case are Shawn Lawton and Gina Johnson-Lawton, whose son, a five-year-old identified as I.L., was a student at the Fort Greene school from September 2014 to February 2015. I.L. has a speech impediment and ADHD, and, according to the suit, was as a result put on Brown’s “Got to Go” list. I.L.’s ADHD was diagnosed after her began attending the school, and the school called his parents multiple times every day during his first month there, informing them that he was violating the Code of Conduct by not sitting up straight and being inattentive, the suit alleges. Administrators would allegedly call Lawton and Johnson-Lawton and tell them that if they could not pick up their son early, he would be suspended.
“The school treats children like robots,” Lawton said. “I couldn’t believe this was happening to my child, or that his school principal planned to kick him out of the school once he saw that my child was having a hard time.”
The suit makes a host of other allegations: in one instance, Success Academy called the police on a six-year-old during a trip to the Museum of Natural History because he wanted to spend more time at an exhibit than his chaperones allowed, according to the suit. His parents had to pick him up from the psychiatric unit at St. Luke’s Hospital. In another, administrators allegedly suspended one student 30 times in kindergarten and first grade.
A Success Academy spokesperson said that “in the same week we learn the teachers union is under investigation for corrupt activities involving city officials, we shouldn’t be surprised the union’s law firm is recycling a months’ old lawsuit that generates scary headlines but has no basis in fact.” The lawsuit’s plaintiffs are represented by New York Lawyers for the PubIic Interest, Advocates for Justice Chartered Attorneys, and Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. The latter also represents the United Federation of Teachers, the labor union that has called for a moratorium on new Success Academy schools.
Charter network head Eva Moskowitz held a press conference outside City Hall just after the suit was filed yesterday, but for an unrelated matter: Success Academy is currently fighting the city over its pre-kindergarten program, and says that the city can’t force it to grant the Department of Education oversight over its pre-K. Moskowitz reportedly refused to take any questions.