This story was co-published with Slate.
The Muscogee County School Board in Columbus, Georgia, dealt another blow to embattled Camelot Education when it voted Monday night to delay for three months a decision on whether to hire the company to run its alternative education programs.
The delay in awarding the $6.4 million annual contract comes in the wake of a recent report by ProPublica and Slate that more than a dozen Camelot students were allegedly shoved, beaten or thrown by staff members — incidents almost always referred to as “slamming.” The for-profit Camelot runs alternative programs across the country for more than 3,000 students, most of whom have emotional or behavioral difficulties or have fallen far behind academically.
“The abuse allegations were one of many red flags for me,” said Muscogee school board member Frank Myers, one of five board members who supported postponement, while three were opposed. If the district is going to privatize such an important service, he said, “You ought to have an outfit that has a pristine record.”
The board bucked the wishes of school district officials, including Superintendent of Education David Lewis, who pushed to hire Camelot. “There was no transparency,” Myers said. “They wanted us to rush this thing.”
Instead, a community advisory council will be created, and additional public hearings will be held. The council is expected to report back within three months.
Efforts to reach Lewis were unsuccessful. Camelot spokesman Kirk Dorn said in an email that the company often encounters delays when it enters new partnerships. The company expects to meet with the community later this month “and will continue to ensure that those who still have questions get answers,” Dorn said. “We know from experience that the more a community learns about how we help students succeed the more reassured they become that we will be an asset.”
Camelot has faced recent setbacks in other states as well. On March 9, the day after the report was published, the Houston school board voted unanimously not to renew its contract with Camelot, instead bringing management of its alternative program in house. And a Philadelphia city councilwoman called for more information about the city’s alternative schools, including their disciplinary practices.
About half a million people in the United States attend alternative schools, which are publicly funded but often managed by private, for-profit companies such as Camelot, which was founded in 2002. They frequently serve as a last resort for struggling low-income and minority students.
The Columbus branch of the NAACP announced last week that it opposed hiring Camelot, citing the Slate and ProPublica investigation. “Abuse is failure,” branch president Tonza Thomas told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.
“Our community has competent educators that assist our children with challenges daily,” the organization said in a news release. “Yet they were not consulted before a decision was made to introduce an out-of-state, for profit, security-corporation to our school district.”
Abuse allegations made by teachers and students against Camelot span ten years and four states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida and Louisiana. For the most part, staffers who allegedly assaulted students have faced no criminal charges or internal discipline; some have even been promoted.
In written statements, Camelot and its chief executive, Todd Bock, have said it provides effective and supportive services to thousands of the country’s most challenging and needy students, and have denied any claims of systemic abuse across its programs.
“The idea of ‘slamming’ a student is offensive and counter to Camelot’s values, culture and procedures,” the company said on March 22. “Camelot does not currently practice nor has it ever practiced ‘slamming’ kids.”
Monday night’s decision in Muscogee County, located in western Georgia, was the second delay for Camelot there since Superintendent Lewis recommended hiring the company. On March 27, the school board postponed its vote for two weeks so that residents could attend two public forums about the proposal.
At those forums, both Camelot executives and Lewis touted the company’s potential benefits, according to Fife Whiteside, a local attorney who served on the Muscogee school board from 1993 to 2008. Lewis told community members that hiring Camelot could help the district save money by cutting staffing costs.
At the start of one forum, Marianne Young, the parent of a child with special needs, tried to hand out fliers that were critical of Camelot. Young said in an interview that a security guard initially told her she couldn’t distribute the fliers.
Another parent called a school board member to complain, Young said. Lewis then allowed Young to give out the fliers, she said. “I have a lot of concerns” about this contract, Young said, including “the abuse allegations, and the lack of oversight that our district has for these situations.”
Whiteside, the former school board member, said he was surprised that the board opposed the superintendent. The reports of abuse allegations played a role in turning some board members against Camelot, he said. “The board rarely fails to support the superintendent in his initiatives,” Whiteside said.