Sunday, May 17, 2009

PA: School firm hired to run Philly schools has ties to centers where 5 students died

PHILADELPHIA School District officials are reviewing the background of a company with $13.1 million in contracts to run three alternative schools, after a city councilman raised concerns about the firm's ties to treatment centers at which five students died.

The company, Camelot Schools of Pennsylvania, also had ties to Brien N. Gardiner, founder of the Philadelphia Academy Charter School, who had been under federal investigation when he committed suicide yesterday.

On Tuesday, during budget hearings at City Hall, Councilman James Kenney asked the district to reconsider renewing its contracts with Camelot Schools, saying that he had heard reports that the firm was managed by some of the same executives who once ran problem-plagued centers for troubled children.

Five students at those centers died after being physically restrained, according to a Texas teachers' union official.

"When you're talking about issues related to child safety, I just want them to make sure they look under every rock," Kenney said yesterday.

In 2000, a 9-year-old Nevada boy died of a heart attack a day after he was held facedown by employees at the Laurel Ridge Treatment Center, in San Antonio, Texas, for throwing a temper tantrum, the San Antonio Express-News reported at the time.

Laurel Ridge was run by the Brown Schools, a now-defunct company that operated 11 treatment centers in several states for children with emotional and behavioral problems, according to Gayle Fallon, a top official of the Houston Federation of Teachers.

Camelot Schools has contracts worth $13.1 million to run the Excel Academy, an alternative school for "over-age" high school students on Bustleton Avenue, near Harbison, in the Northeast; and two disciplinary schools, Daniel Boone, at 26th and Jefferson streets, Strawberry Mansion, and Shallcross, at Woodhaven Road near Knights, in the Far Northeast.

Todd Bock, Camelot senior vice president for education services, said yesterday that he and others had been officers of both firms, but adamantly denied that his firm was the latest incarnation of Brown Schools, which went bankrupt in 2005.

"Camelot Schools is not Brown Schools," Bock said yesterday. "That's like the difference between IBM and Apple. They never have been affiliated.

"Whoever is putting that piece of information out clearly does not have the facts correct . . .

"We've been a partner with the School District of Philadelphia for over five years, we have an impeccable reputation in the city . . . and we went through a competitive-bid process just like other nationally recognized [firms]."

Asked if any Camelot officials also had run the Brown Schools, Bock said that he had worked for Brown Schools in Houston for five years and that John Harcourt, president of Camelot Schools, had been chief executive officer for Brown Schools.

Camelot Schools got its first contracts with the school district in 2004-05 to operate the Boone School and Excel Academy, Bock said. It won a contract to operate Camelot at Shallcross for the 2005-06 year, he said.

A federal probe into Gardiner's financial dealings found that he had helped Camelot Schools win its first contracts in Philadelphia in 2004.

Gardiner was not paid to help Camelot get that contract, the Inquirer reported last year. After it won the contract, Camelot paid Gardiner's consulting firm, Charter School Development Associates, a $108,000-a-year consulting fee, the newspaper reported.

Yesterday, before news of Gardiner's suicide, Bock told the Daily News that he took issue with any implication that Gardiner had smoothed the way for Camelot Schools to do business in Philadelphia.

"I wouldn't say that he helped us get a contract," Bock said.

The Inquirer article - published on May 14, 2008 - quoted Bock as saying: "The arrangement was, 'If you can help us negotiate with the school district and get us in front of the right people to pitch our program, we will enter this contract with you to provide services to Camelot.' "

Yesterday, Cecilia Cummings, a spokeswoman for the school district, told the Daily News in a statement that the district "is investigating the allegations raised against Camelot Schools that were first brought to our attention by City Councilman At-Large James Kenney during the May 12th City Council hearing. We take these allegations very seriously and will conduct an uncompromised review."

From 1999 to 2005, dozens of allegations against Brown Schools, including fraud, and physical and sexual abuse of students, were reported in several newspapers in Florida and Texas.

In 2001, Matt Leary, director of a Brown Schools residential center in Beverly Hills, Fla., was arrested for failing to report child abuse.

One Brown Schools case was profiled on the television show "Dateline NBC" in July 2005:

In 2002, Chase Moody, 17, died after he was restrained by counselors at the On Track wilderness program run by Brown Schools near Austin, Texas.

The program said that Chase was the fifth child to die of a prone-type restraint at a Brown facility and the 16th to die from such a restraint in Texas since 1988.

Although Texas regulators alleged that an improper restraint was used at the program, a grand jury later concluded that no criminal charges were warranted, the program said. But within weeks of Chase's death, Texas officials cancelled the lease with On Track, and Brown Schools closed its campsite program.

Moody and his ex-wife accepted a settlement from the Brown Schools.

Ironically, the newscast noted, Chase Moody's father, Charles, had been an attorney for the Brown Schools, defending it against a lawsuit brought by a woman named Judy Chandler, whose son, Brandon, 16, died in 1988 while in the care of a Brown Schools facility in Austin.

But that case never went before a jury. After seven years of legal maneuvers and skyrocketing legal bills, Chandler agreed to a settlement from the Brown Schools, which never admitted fault in her son's death.

After Moody's son died in the wilderness program run by Brown, Judy Chandler wrote Moody a letter saying how sorry she was for his son's death. *

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