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Troubled Ky. School District Gives Up Head Start Grant After Abuse Allegations

School officials in the Jefferson County, Ky. district, dealing with multiple allegations that children were slapped, shoved, force-fed, and left unattended by child-care aides and teachers in the Head Start program it oversees, recently voted to give up its $15 million Head Start grant after 30 years.

Now, district officials say, Jefferson County—which merged with the city of Louisville 15 years ago—will spend $8 million of its own funds and start a district-run early-childhood program, focusing on getting preschoolers academically prepared for kindergarten. That program will have certified or "properly credentialed" teachers in all classrooms, a district spokeswoman said, and will be housed in early-childhood centers to improve oversight.

The school district had 1,319 Head Start slots and 232 slots for Early Head Start, which serves infants and toddlers under the age of 3. The children were served primarily in district elementary schools. The district said it will seek a partner to serve the infants and toddlers who were enrolled in Early Head Start. 

The board of the 101,000-student district voted May 30 to relinquish the funds, a day before a federal Office of Head Start letter cataloging incidents of alleged abuse of children in the program. That was the second time in a year that the district had been cited for abuse allegations. District officials said they had been told that even one additional substantiated incident could result in grant termination. Some of the incidents in the second letter had been reported to federal officials by the district's leadership. 

Long List of Abusive Behaviors

In August 2017, federal Head Start officials catalogued a long list of disturbing allegations, which included: a teacher wrapping a child in her arms and legs and forcing him to eat a mixture of fruit and milk after the child refused to stop pouring his milk into the fruit; parent reports that a teacher dragged a child to a cot; a parent report that a child was taken to a restroom and slapped in the face; a teacher lifting a cot vertically to wake a napping preschooler; and a 3-year-old in "timeout" who was left alone for 10 minutes when the rest of his class went to the cafeteria for lunch. 

The school district implemented a corrective action plan after that report, but the most recent letter from federal officials, dated May 31, described more incidents, which included a child whose diaper was not changed the entire day; multiple reports of teachers grabbing and yanking children, and a self-report from an aide who said she swatted a child in the back of the head, causing the child to fall, hit a piece of furniture, and bruise her lip. 

Federal Head Start officials said that it gets a small number of grant relinquishments annually, so Jefferson County choosing to give up its grant is not unheard of. But the chaotic Head Start situation is just the latest controversy embroiling Kentucky's largest school district, already under scrutiny by the state for its high rate of restraint and seclusion for students with disabilities, and other significant deficiencies. 

Kentucky Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who says the state needs to take over the school district, said the board vote to give up Head Start "raises serious questions for me about the district's current capacity to keep children safe and to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars."

This isn't the first time that an educational agency has lost Head Start money after allegations of abuse. In 2016, Prince George's County, Md. had its $6.5 million Head Start grant revoked after a number of abuse and neglect incidents. In one case, two children were forced to hold objects over their heads as punishment. 

In such cases, the Office of Head Start has an interim provider who can take over programs until a new grantee is chosen. Federal officials said they plan this fall to solicit applications for a new Head Start grantee in Jefferson County.  


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