Sexual Abuse in DC Schools: Parents and Locally Elected Officials Demand Answers

by Denise Rucker Krepp and Danica Petroshius

We’re writing at the request of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools to illustrate how communities can address adequate data on sexual harassment and assault in public schools.  Because K-12 schools aren’t required to provide this data to the public, locally elected officials and parents in Washington, DC are working together to create greater transparency in public, private, and charter schools.

Local DC reporters have reported over the past ten years about sexual harassment and assault in elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. But Washington, DC schools didn’t officially start tracking sexual harassment and assault complaints in K-12 schools until January 1, 2018; and very little about these complaints is made public.

In June 2019, parents at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan (CHML) were notified that an aftercare employee had been let go and aftercare was cancelled. Parents scrambled to find alternative care for their children. DC Public Schools never mentioned that the employee was let go due to an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor.

Three days later, a local reporter published an article explaining the cancellation. Only then did parents find out that an aftercare employee had been accused of sexual misconduct against a minor student. Furious parents, led by Danica Petroshius, demanded answers. School and district leaders attempted to placate them with vague responses.  Refusing to accept the non-answers, CHML parents organized a city-wide sign-on letter that attracted over 300 signatures within 24 hours from parents and community members across the city asking for specific information and procedures to keep children safe.

The DC Council, the entity responsible for conducting oversight over the DC school system, refused to act. So 57 locally elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANC) and State Board of Education (SBOE) representatives sent a letter to the DC Mayor Bowser in June 2019 requesting information. Denise Krepp, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, organized the letter. As a former Maritime Administration Chief Counsel responsible for one of the five federal service schools, she utilized this experience to draft the questions sent to the DC Mayor.

The Deputy Mayor for Education acknowledged that sexual harassment and abuse had occurred at CHML and at other DC public schools but refused to share a list naming the schools wherein confirmed abuse occurred. Per the Deputy Mayor, he had not heard a compelling argument for why this information should be shared. He thought his response would end the questions.

Parents, refusing to be stonewalled, sent numerous follow-up emails and letters in the fall of 2019 to the Deputy Mayor, the Chancellor, and the DC Council. They made it clear that non-responsive answers were unacceptable. They demanded that the DC Council start engaging in the issue.  Parents contacted the press and media reports forced district leaders to be more transparent. Since that time, DCPS has begun to take a deep look at its policies and practices. But there is much more work to be done.

What we learned: we lack data transparency and strong policies to protect our students across our entire DC public school system.

Regrettably, Mayor and the Deputy Mayor still will not disclose where the sexual harassment and abuse is occurring in Washington DC schools.  We will continue to demand this information until the Mayor and Deputy Mayor provide answers.

We’re sharing our story because we want parents and community members, including our unpaid, elected ANC members, to understand that we all have the positional power to demand answers. We will continue to build on the current momentum for improving safety by demanding answers and better policies for keeping all students and adults safe in our public schools.

UPDATE December, 2020: After more than a year of FOIA appeals, DC Public Schools (DCPS) named the four schools where substantiated accounts of employee sexual misconduct took place.

Related media reports

Denise Rucker Krepp, a locally elected official, draws on her experience as a former federal agency chief counsel to hold Washington, DC leaders accountable for sexual abuse in DC K-12 schools.

Danica Petroshius is a parent at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan.