by Sarah Carr, Francesca Berardi, Zoë Kirsch, and Stephen Smiley · March 8, 2017
This article was reported by the Teacher Project at Columbia University School of Journalism with support from ProPublica.
Teenagers at Paramount Academy sometimes came home with mysterious injuries.
An alternative school for sixth- through 12th-graders with behavioral or academic problems, Paramount occupied a low-slung, brick-and-concrete building on a dead-end road in hard-luck Reading, Pennsylvania, a city whose streets are littered with signs advertising bail bondsmen, payday lenders, and pawn shops. Camelot Education, the for-profit company that ran Paramount under a contract with the Reading School District, maintained a set of strict protocols: no jewelry, book bags, or using the water fountain or bathroom without permission. Just as it still does at dozens of schools, the company deployed a small platoon of “behavioral specialists” and “team leaders”: typically large men whose job was partly to enforce the rules.
Over six months in 2013 and 2014, about a half-dozen parents, students, and community members at Paramount Academy—billed as a “therapeutic” day program—complained of abusive behavior by the school’s staff. One mother heard that staff restrained students by “excessive force” and bruised the arms of a female student, according to email exchanges between Camelot and the district. Another mother, Sharon Pacharis, said she visited the school to complain about manhandling and was told, “That’s just what we do.” Camelot’s own written reports to the district documented one incident in which a teenager was scratched and another in which a bathroom wall was damaged. Both resulted from “holds”—likely a reference to Camelot’s protocol for restraining students during physical encounters.
Camelot tended to blame the students in its weekly reports to the district, calling them “out of control”; school officials referred several to police. It was, after all, a place partly for students whom the district had deemed too disruptive for traditional school settings.
But an incident on April 24, 2014, abruptly shifted the focus to Camelot’s staff.
Ismael Seals, a behavioral specialist, walked into a classroom with several loud and boisterous students and commanded them to “shut the fuck up,” decreeing that the next one who talked would get body slammed through the door, according to a subsequent criminal complaint. Moments later, Seals fulfilled his promise. After 17-year-old Corey Mack asked and received permission from his teacher, Teresa Bivens, to get up to sharpen his pencil, Seals pushed him repeatedly against a door and then shoved him into the hall, where a school surveillance camera recorded most of the rest of the incident. Seals, 6 feet 4 inches tall and 280 pounds, lifted Mack, 5 feet 8 inches tall and about 160 pounds, by his shirt and swung him into the wall headfirst, later pinning him to the ground as other staff members arrived, according to court documents.
Mack later showed a string of bruises and scratches on his back to a program director at a center for children with behavioral and mental health challenges. The program director called a juvenile probation official, who contacted the police.
Reached by telephone last fall, Mack struggled to remember the details of his altercation with Seals, including what he had said just before the behavioral specialist shoved him and the precise sequence of events. But he was clear on the essential point: “He beat me up,” Mack said.
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The Seals incident is the best-documented example of staff-on-student violence at facilities run by Camelot, a company dogged by allegations of similar abuses. Thirteen Camelot students have alleged in interviews or documents that they were shoved, beaten, or thrown—assaults almost always referred to as “slamming”—by Camelot staff members, usually for the sin of talking back, in separate incidents that span 10 years and three states. (Six of the students were interviewed in 2009 in New Orleans.) Two additional students, and five Camelot staff members, say they have personally witnessed beatings or physical aggression by staff.
The abuse allegedly occurred in Camelot programs in Reading; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Philadelphia; New Orleans; and Pensacola, Florida. Jandy Rivera, for instance, a former teacher at Camelot-run Phoenix Academy in Lancaster, says that on multiple occasions staff members, including administrators, “baited kids so they could hit kids.” For the most part, staffers who allegedly assaulted students have faced no criminal charges or internal discipline; some have even been promoted.
A 13-year-old says he was slammed to the floor by a behavioral specialist at Camelot Academy last week, causing the injury near his eye. Camelot says the injury was an accident.
Courtesy of the family via The Teacher Project
The Florida Department of Children and Families, which investigates reports of child abuse, is looking into an incident last week at Camelot Academy in Pensacola in which a behavioral specialist, while breaking up a fight between students, allegedly knocked a 13-year-old to the ground, causing a bloody abrasion and bruising near the teenager’s eye. The youth posted a graphic photo of his swollen face on Facebook. “I do not like this way of disciplining kids,’’ said his mother, Pauline Ball. “You can give him a permanent injury.” Camelot said the specialist “had to intervene to protect other students” and that the injuries were an accident: “The staff member and student tripped over each other’s feet and both fell.”
Despite such allegations, Camelot has continued to expand. It contracts with traditional school districts to run about 40 schools across the country—schools that serve kids who have gotten into trouble, have emotional or behavioral issues, or have fallen far behind academically. In 2015, Camelot reported more than $77 million in revenue, more than a third from contracts with the school districts of Philadelphia, Houston, and Chicago. The company also maintains a large presence in some heavily Hispanic old factory towns of Pennsylvania.
About half a million students in the United States attend alternative schools, which are publicly funded but often managed by private, for-profit companies such as Camelot. Camelot’s story illustrates the risk that for-profit schools, which are favored by the Trump administration and new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, may put earnings ahead of student welfare. It also exposes the dismal educational options available to some students who traditional high schools don’t want to serve, because they are disruptive, severely disabled, years behind in school, or have criminal backgrounds.
In a 17-page response to written questions, Camelot and its chief executive, Todd Bock, denied any claims of systemic abuse across its programs and said it provides effective and supportive services to thousands of the country’s most challenging and needy students. The company cited a student survey that found 23 percent of its students were homeless or had been homeless, 78 percent did not have fathers living in their households, and 45 percent said violence in the schools they attended before Camelot impeded their success. The company also maintained that it has a long record of academic success and that it does not place profits over its students’ well-being. It cited a 2010 study by the Mathematica Policy Research organization that found that students at a couple of Camelot-run programs in Philadelphia accumulated more credits and were more likely to graduate than their counterparts in competing programs. While student and staff confidentiality prevented the company from going into details, it said, “immediate action is taken in the very rare instance” of allegations of physical abuse. In regard to student safety, the company said the incidents in Pennsylvania, Pensacola, and New Orleans “were handled with the utmost diligence and care.”
Camelot also questioned why some teachers and former teachers—who are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse—would wait months, or years, to express their concerns. “With the exception of an isolated incident in Reading, PA in which we immediately investigated and terminated multiple employees, Camelot has had no founded child abuse cases or lawsuits involving our students over the last decade,” the statement read. “Your narrative is formulated using fewer than 10 incidents from the almost 5,940,000 daily interactions over a period of 10 years.” (A daily interaction is one student going to a Camelot school for one day.) Indeed, very little is known about the vast majority of the daily interactions across Camelot’s schools, partly because they face almost no scrutiny, at every level. School district officials, desperate to farm out the students most likely to depress their test scores and graduation rates, have repeatedly failed to investigate allegations of mistreatment at Camelot schools.
Moreover, state officials in Pennsylvania have designed the accountability system in a way that obscures the academic results of the state’s alternative programs. Test scores of thousands of alternative students are never tagged to a school; instead they count only toward the district’s performance, making it virtually impossible to gauge and compare the quality of individual schools. In 2013, the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center filed a statewide complaint alleging that the Pennsylvania Department of Education fails to adequately monitor its alternative schools, which the center says too often have subpar, insufficient academic programs. The complaint is pending.
Add it all up, skeptics say, and the Camelot experience starts to resemble the nation’s incarceration system: racially biased, isolated, punitive, unnecessarily violent, and designed, above all else, to maintain obedience and control.
That’s how Camelot’s Phoenix Academy felt to Jose Muriel. There, he argued with a staff member, who held him against a door and then pushed him to the ground, bruising his arm, the Spanish-speaking Muriel said through an interpreter. Camelot denied that he was restrained or mistreated. After the incident, Muriel said, he saw a therapist, and skipped school for weeks, before finally graduating.
“That place was like a prison,” he said.
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After Ismael Seals’ assault on Corey Mack, a cover-up began almost immediately. In a detailed write-up of the incident, Seals described Mack as the instigator. But the surveillance footage of the hallway contradicted key details in Seals’ account, according to court documents.
Seals wrote in his report that he led Mack from the room using a technique he described as a “one arm upper escort.” According to court documents, the video showed him pulling Mack from the classroom by his shirt before pushing him against a wall. Seals also wrote that Mack became aggressive and threatening, swinging his hands wildly at one point. The video showed that the student remained silent, with his hands at his sides—except for when Seals picked him up and threw him headfirst against a wall. Finally, Seals reported that his glasses were knocked off by Mack during the tussle, while the video showed Seals’ glasses falling off as he threw Mack toward the wall, according to court documents.
Teresa Bivens, the teacher who gave Mack permission to sharpen his pencil, initially told police that Mack had been disruptive and caused the fight. She also wrote an internal school report implicating him. But four days after her initial police interview, Bivens confessed to authorities that she had lied at the urging of unnamed “higher-ups” who wanted to cover up the incident. Bivens also reported that she had conspired with Seals and a “supervisor” about how to write the reports to put the blame on Mack, not Seals. At the time, Camelot administrators denied pressuring Bivens to lie, and prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to charge more senior employees of Camelot. Camelot provided a different version of events in its response for this article, claiming the company “immediately investigated” and reported the incident to authorities before firing Seals and Bivens.
Bivens pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making a false statement to authorities and was sentenced to two years of probation. Seals pleaded guilty to assault, conspiracy, and making a false statement; he served 17 days in prison. His is the only case we found in which a Camelot staff member has been convicted of beating a student.
In a tearful interview, Seals told us that he deeply regretted what had happened. He said he had been drawn to working with troubled students largely because of his own tough background: He spent some of his boyhood in foster care and group homes. Seals recalled fondly the staff-student bonding events that Camelot sponsored, including a Thanksgiving dinner and a basketball game. Part of his job at Camelot was to “de-escalate” potential conflicts, he said. “It worked to some extent.”
He declined to comment on the assault —on the advice of a lawyer, he said—but offered an apology: “I realize I made a mistake and got to be accountable for it,” he said. “I really miss those kids.”
A moment later, he added, “Man, I messed up.”
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Before there was Camelot, there was the Brown Schools, a for-profit company that ran treatment centers for young people with severe emotional and behavioral needs. In some cases, parents signed their children up for Brown facilities; in other cases, school or juvenile justice personnel referred them to the programs. Over 15 years, five children and teenagers died in Brown’s care. One was a 9-year-old boy who died of a heart attack after being held face down by employees. Another time, a 17-year-old choked on his own vomit after three Brown staffers allegedly pinned him to the ground. Ironically, the 17-year-old victim’s father, attorney Charles Moody, had represented Brown in an earlier restraint-related death at one of its facilities. “They certainly did not train and/or hire particularly qualified people,” Moody said in an interview.
John Harcourt served as chief executive officer of Brown Schools from 1995 to 1999. In 2002, after his noncompete agreement expired, he acquired the alternative school company that became Camelot. In a 2009 letter to a Philadelphia city councilman, a Camelot official wrote that while allegations regarding Brown Schools’ treatment of children “may have basis in fact,” they related to the period after Harcourt left Brown. Harcourt remained chief executive of Camelot Schools until 2011.
Camelot would employ other former leaders of Brown, which effectively shut down in 2005. Todd Bock, now the president and chief executive officer of Camelot, was director for public education at Brown Schools. We identified eight other Camelot employees, including two vice presidents and the leader of business development, who previously worked at Brown.
Camelot said it isn’t an outgrowth of Brown. “While it is a fact that … current Camelot employees worked for the Brown Schools, one organization has nothing to do with the other,” it said in its statement.
Still, the association with Brown has at times dogged Camelot’s pursuit of new contracts.
Current Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney asked for a reconsideration of Camelot’s contracts there when he served as a city councilman eight years ago, citing Brown Schools. Responding to Kenney, the School District of Philadelphia compiled a five-page memo, based largely on paperwork submitted by Camelot itself. “While the allegations about Brown Schools and its affiliates may have basis in fact,” it concluded, “Camelot Schools is not a corporate or legal successor of Brown Schools.”
Camelot took in nearly $10 million this year from its Philadelphia schools. Through a spokesperson, Kenney declined to comment, referring all questions on the company’s performance to the school district.
In Millville, New Jersey, the school board voted last year to hire Camelot. Kim Carty, a school board member who opposed the hiring, expressed concern at the time about the company’s connection to Brown.
Financial considerations helped sway the board. Camelot promised to run the Millville alternative school for $8,000 per pupil, compared with the $15,000 per pupil the school district spent to run it on its own. “As a mom and taxpayer, I question how a for-profit company can promise such a large cost savings while also making a profit for their investors,” Carty said in an interview. “I worry that we are failing the kids who need us most by making their education someone’s profit.”
In a letter to district superintendent David Gentile after the school board hired Camelot, Bock wrote that his company felt “gratified to be able to save the school district a substantial amount of money compared to what you currently spend on alternative education.” But he devoted most of the letter to expressing his “enormous disappointment” that “the fictitious Camelot-Brown relationship is back in the Google search,” referring to a local news report that mentioned the alleged Brown tie. He asked the superintendent to share with board members his “extreme disappointment in the scurrilous attack on our reputation.”
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Phoenix Academy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Camelot and Brown certainly have one thing in common: They have both profited from the urgency felt by parents and public schools to find a place for troubled youth. But they filled different niches: While Brown specialized in residential treatment centers for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities, Camelot Education offers nonresidential programs and enrolls a broader range of students. A focus on serving kids whom school districts don’t want is a shrewd business strategy in an era when test scores, graduation rates, and other data-based outcomes matter greatly—and are frequently tied to funding—giving school districts incentive to shed the hardest-to-educate students from their rolls.
Public school districts typically contract with Camelot to run one of three types of programs: “transitional schools” for kids with behavior issues, “therapeutic programs” for those with special behavioral and emotional needs, and “accelerated programs” for students who have fallen far behind. Some of their sites, particularly accelerated programs such as Phoenix Academy in Lancaster, combine students from all three categories as well as other populations—pretty much any type of student the district doesn’t believe it can adequately serve, or doesn’t want to. In August, a federal judge ruled that the Lancaster school district, which was funneling some newly arrived refugees to Phoenix, had to allow them to attend the main district high school. The school district maintains that its support for refugee students is appropriate.
Most Camelot students share two characteristics: They are nearly all poor, and they are overwhelmingly people of color. In Lancaster, for instance, Phoenix Academy last year enrolled a significantly higher share of Hispanic students, and those with special needs, than the district as a whole. The school district says the population at Phoenix this year more closely resembles the district’s overall demographics. In Pensacola, black students comprise about two-thirds of the Camelot school’s enrollment, compared with a third of overall school district enrollment. Of the close to 900 students who attended Camelot schools in Chicago last school year, zero were white.
Some students are reassigned to Camelot because they committed serious disciplinary infractions at prior schools, such as possessing drugs or fighting. In other cases, the reasons are more nebulous. In interviews, several families described feeling pressured by school district officials to attend Camelot-run schools simply because their children were far behind academically, couldn’t speak English fluently, or had special needs the district didn’t want to meet. One mother said a district official in Reading simply told her, “We can’t deal with him anymore.”
The private equity firm Riverside has owned Camelot since 2011. A promotional video that Riverside created for Camelot praises the company’s benefits to taxpayers and students. It notes that Camelot spends an average of $12,000 per child in its alternative school programs, compared with $20,000 spent by a traditional school district. Without the company’s distinctive approach, the video contends, students risked “becoming a statistic.”