Stargate Charter School Settles Federal Sexual Harassment and Disability Discrimination Complaints | Westword

Thornton Charter School Faces Sexual Harassment, Discrimination Complaints

"It's not like he had sex with [the players]."
Stargate Charter School in Thornton is part of Adams 12 Five Star Schools. The charter school has received multiple complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination through the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
Stargate Charter School in Thornton is part of Adams 12 Five Star Schools. The charter school has received multiple complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination through the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. Stargate Charter School
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Parents at Stargate Charter School in Thornton, the largest charter school for gifted and talented students in the state, are outraged at what they say has been the school's total disregard of its legal obligations to protect and serve all students.

For the past two years, the K-12 charter in Adams 12 Five Star Schools has been battling numerous civil-rights allegations and complaints of mismanaged student records.

Six complaints against the school were sent to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in 2017, two in 2016. Stargate is setting records for the number of civil-rights complaints filed in Adams 12 Five Star Schools while racking up bills to pay out family settlements and legal fees.

The most glaring complaint is the allegation of a high school volleyball coach preying on teenage students. The coach wasn't let go until early last year, several months after allegations surfaced. The Stargate community and the general public would never have known about the issue had it not been for a federal complaint filed last year, which concluded in December with an agreement by the school to make reforms and undergo monitoring through this year.

"The reports that I got via face-to-face conversations with parents was that he was abrasive, yelled and used curse words at practice, and I addressed that immediately with him," says Josh Cochran, executive director at Stargate, about initial complaints about the coach, adding that after he received student complaints of sexual harassment, he opted not to renew the coach's contract in January 2017.

Sexual harassment allegations against the coach first arose in July 2016 when the school was notified by a parent of his potentially inappropriate conduct toward a student at an off-campus volleyball tryout, alleging that he said "I love you" to her, kissed her and made disparaging remarks about her outfit. A month later, a Stargate teacher complained to Cochran that the coach made sexually inappropriate comments to her, including calling her "sexy" and saying, "You look good in yoga pants."

Stargate interviewed students regarding the coach's conduct, and the results were alarming. Still, the coach was allowed to stay on. In November 2016, several students came forward to complain that the coach was slapping players' butts, kissing them on the cheek, grabbing them by the hips and waist "full hands on," addressing players with "Hey, beautiful," making sexual innuendos and mandating that the girls wear skin-tight clothes to practice, according to a report that included testimony given to the school's human resources director by at least ten ninth- and tenth-grade students. One student was reported to have jumped in the coach's arms and straddled him around the waist.

Cochran told investigators that, at the time, he didn't think the coach's conduct was so egregious that it would trigger Stargate's sex-discrimination policy or require him to call Child Protective Services to report potential child abuse. Cochran told investigators that because there was some giggling in the recorded testimony given by students to the HR director and that most of the testimony was anonymous, he decided not to report the incident to CPS.

To top it off, the coach was allowed to keep his contract through the season's end, in January 2017, and was able to rent Stargate's facilities for his private volleyball club through March 2017. Cochran's justification? "It's not like he had sex with [the players]," he told federal investigators.

Stargate is now under federal monitoring as part of an agreement it made this past December, which includes outlining procedures for handling sex-discrimination complaints, training staff, and revealing any complaints it receives to the USDE. Federal monitoring is expected to end in early 2019.

Investigators claimed that Cochran "did not appear to understand the school's own obligation to respond appropriately to such reports" and that he didn't understand how to comply with Title IX, which prohibits discrimination.

The school paid nearly $55,000 in legal fees in 2017, and between 2014 and March 2018, sixteen civil-rights complaints were filed in Adams 12 Five Star Schools, with the lion's share — nine— at Stargate. But the district says it can't intervene in Stargate's operations because it is a charter school.

"Stargate [Governance] Board [of Directors] is ultimately responsible for operations there, from school finances to conduct of staff to compliance with legal requirements and the safety of students,” says Adams 12 Five Star Director of Communications Joe Ferdani. "In terms of the [Office of Civil Rights] complaints, it is a concern to us that there have been, as of late February, five OCR resolution agreements entered into by Stargate in a single year. That is concerning.”

Other federal civil-rights complaints against the school include discrimination based on disability, employee retaliation and failure to promptly respond to sexual harassment by a student. Additionally, a Colorado Department of Human Services investigation into Stargate's after-school program last year showed that the school had not maintained student files for the requisite three years as mandated by state law.

There's a rift in the Stargate community between those who feel that their trust has been shattered and those who believe that Stargate leadership is making changes to mend broken bridges. Some concerned parents have created a Facebook group and a website to put pressure on the Stargate board to make reforms and completely replace school leadership, including Cochran. The school board has publicly supported renewing Cochran's contract, including at a parent town hall on March 19.

"They don't want any of this stuff coming out because they're worried about this precious reputation that they have, and so now, I feel like they're doing more damage because they're not being transparent," says Curtis Kowalski, who says he was attracted to the school after an orientation where it positioned itself as an expert in educating twice-exceptional students: those who are both gifted and have a disability.

Stargate is the only charter school in the state that requires an IQ test as part of its admission process. All Stargate students are required to score in the 95th percentile of test takers, which tends to be a score of at least 125 on the Stanford-Binet IQ scale. As a charter, Stargate is independently governed by its own board of directors, although almost all of its funding comes from district taxpayers. And while Adams 12 provides no oversight or authority over Stargate's operations, non-compliance with any federal mandates could put federal funding at risk for the entire district.

Kowalski's elementary-age child attended Stargate until last year. He learned that his son was being abused by another student during Stargate's supervised after-school program, which led to his discovery that the school had not been filing or keeping student records in accordance with state statute and had not reported the abuse to CPS. That raised a red flag, and Kowalski pulled his son out in early 2017 on the advice of his lawyer. He says the school was dismissive of the abuse.

"I pulled him out with six weeks left to go in 2016-2017," Kowalski says, adding that he wanted to keep the details of the abuse private to protect his son. "This alarmed me so much, that they wouldn't simply make a call to CPS. ... It completely freaked us out. [Cochran] was just very dismissive of everything."

Another parent, who asked to remain anonymous because her children are still at Stargate, called the school "a manifestation of my worst nightmare." She was sold on the school's focus on twice-exceptional students. And while she loves the teachers who work with her kids and the Stargate community she has known for years, she has fought tooth and nail to get her sons services for their disabilities. At first she was told that the school couldn't provide the same level of services for students with disabilities as a district-run public school, which she later found out is not true, as all public schools — charters included — must provide services to eligible students.

"Because it was a charter school, I thought I didn't have the right to demand the level of support services as [at] a regular school," she says.

The responsibility for identifying students with disabilities also falls to the school, but this parent says she had to spend thousands of dollars to bring a diagnosis to Stargate. After years of fighting, she finally got her youngest child on an Individualized Education Program, which outlines specific services like speech or occupational therapy a student is entitled to receive under federal disabilities law, for the 2017-2018 school year. Even with the legally binding plan, she learned that her child hadn't received services until months after the year started.

She says that she and her husband have talked about moving their children to another school. But before settling on Stargate several years ago, her youngest child had attended three other schools, so she's torn by the thought of taking her children away from their friends and a community that understands what it's like to raise twice-exceptional students.

"It's really hard as a parent to think the school is failing my children. When my older son started at Stargate, he was so happy he had people he could talk to. He's so bright, and he was so lonely at the other school. I honestly have kept them there because of the students, because my children benefit from being around that demographic of kids. And with my younger child having autism and being fairly happy at school — they've had a consistent group of friends — I'm very torn," she says, holding back tears. "These things shouldn't be happening. I shouldn't have to move my kids and disrupt their education if the school were following the law. I want things to get better. I don't want any other family to go through what we've been through, and ours isn't even the worst story out there."

When her youngest child was denied services last year, more than a year had passed since Stargate was supposed to reform its process for handling twice-exceptional students. A 2016 federal civil-rights complaint alleges that Stargate had not complied with its service plan for a nine-year-old student with disabilities and had retaliated against the family for insisting on services. That alleged retaliation, as documented in the federal complaint, included calling the child names, yelling at the parent and making the child go without food. The case was eventually closed by the USDE after the parent and Stargate voluntarily came to a "resolution agreement," which included staff training on students who are both gifted and disabled.

Under another civil-rights complaint that was resolved in July, Stargate agreed to more rigorous training for all teachers and staff who work with students regarding disability discrimination, including everything from how to spot a student who may have an unidentified disability to implementing service plans for students with identified disabilities.

"I think we were under-prepared for the amount of students [with disabilities] that we would serve and understaffed for it, and I think, at times, that left us vulnerable," Cochran says. "And then what you see with the OCR our processes for how we identify a student for special education. ... We didn't have a formal documented process for that at Stargate specifically.

The school is undergoing federal compliance monitoring for a second civil-rights case. A student with a disability was out of school for two and a half months in 2016 and did not receive any special-education services for most of that time, although he was entitled to. The child was initially suspended for a month after making a death threat against another student, according to a highly redacted report from the U.S Department of Education. The child who was suspended had had a known disability for the previous five years that caused a long list of behavioral and disciplinary issues, but the school did not provide special-education services. Even after the school finally developed a service plan in 2016 during the child's suspension, Cochran told the family that the school does “not have the ability to service these disabilities,” according to the report.

The report also showed that Cochran "unilaterally" provided two restrictive options to the family after the mandatory one-month suspension: Keep your son at home, or comply with a restrictive re-entry plan that includes a backpack check every morning, restrictions on accessing certain parts of the campus, no lunch on campus or recess, and a shortened school day. If the family didn't like those options, they could opt to send their son elsewhere. They decided to hire an attorney and push back against Stargate.

"At Stargate, it seems like they're above the law. They've been above the law,” says Jacque Phillips, a Thornton City Council member and an attorney who filed the federal civil-rights complaint against the school for allegedly denying her client special-education services during her son's exclusion from school.

The third and final complaint that requires ongoing federal monitoring through this year is for alleged sexual harassment that happened between two students off-campus. While the issue occurred off-campus, Stargate is responsible for determining whether a hostile environment exists and seeing that the issue is fully investigated and redressed.

The subsequent investigation was not "thorough" and lacked federally mandated documentation under Title IX. Moreover, it took the school more than a week after learning of the sexual harassment to implement "interim measures" such as counseling, campus escort services or restrictions to ensure that students involved don't cross paths on campus, while the investigation takes place. The district was unaware of the sexual harassment until more than two months after the allegations surfaced. And after measures were put in place at Stargate — whatever they may have been, since the report is highly redacted — investigators say they were "problematic," "inadequate," and weren't effectively communicated to staff. Stargate even reportedly contributed to the hostile environment and did not take steps to prevent retaliation against the victim, according to another highly redacted USDE report from December.

"The legal process is not fast; it's not what you see on TV, and that was the biggest challenge of that case," Cochran says. "It was a very sensitive one. We were trying to do right by the victim while not accusing the perpetrator until they were charged. Once the legal process was finished, we were able to work with the district to conduct an administrative transfer, [which] gives us that ability to remove a student once convicted of a sex crime, and then we put systems in place after that to support students. Before, we were really well-versed on threat assessments, but this was something that for us was, you know — it never happened before. We never had to go through that. ... Luckily, there was no contact between the students [on campus]."

So how did Stargate get to this point? Cochran says that, unlike a traditional public school, a charter school is on its own to provide adequate resources without leaning on district support. To top it off, the new K-12 campus that was completed nearly two years ago almost doubled the school's population. (Prior to that, Stargate was only K-8.) The new campus makes Stargate the largest charter school for gifted and talented students in the state, and the $51 million campus makes it the second-largest charter-school project in the U.S. Cochran admits that the complaints put a spotlight on the school's sore spots and revealed that it was under-prepared for its student growth, not adequately trained on Title IX, didn't have a formal process for handling special-education students, and didn't have adequate recordkeeping.

Stargate considers the investigations "a blessing in disguise," Cochran says, and an opportunity to "home in on the deficits" to make Stargate an even better choice for families. As of December last year, the school had resolved all prior complaints, implemented new policies and safety procedures, and added an on-campus Title IX officer.

"While we are certainly not proud of the high level of [U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights] complaints, as a board and administration, we see this check and balance as a systems audit that we welcome to make our school the best it can be moving forward," reads a statement from Stargate. "We have seen growth and change this year as we implemented all of these new policies for the betterment of our students and the strengthening [of] our overall community."

Some parents don't believe change is happening fast enough, though, and there may be some truth to that claim. The latest civil-rights complaint was filed on March 16.

Some parents have suggested that Adams 12 Five Star Schools should not renew Stargate's charter; the board is expected to make a renewal decision early next year and could potentially take Stargate over as a district-run school. The district has only once revoked a school charter, and that was in 2004, for Pinnacle Charter School, which still operates today through the Colorado Charter School Institute.

"I want Adams 12 to take over Stargate. I don't want Stargate to close," says councilmember Phillips. "You have to have people there who know the law and know how to run a school, and at Stargate, you clearly don't have that, as indicated by multiple violations. To have this many [OCR] violations in one school — I think it might be a state record. We've never seen anything like this."

Parents can also participate in this year's board election: Members of the governance board and the accountability committee are up for re-election this May. Candidate nominations are being accepted from April 1 to 14.
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