An initial probe into an allegation of sexual abuse against the co-founder of the KIPP charter school network was “unable to confirm or substantiate” the claim, documents obtained by Chalkbeat show.
Just two months after that preliminary review into Mike Feinberg’s behavior, a new independent investigation was launched into the same allegation and two additional complaints of sexual harassment — a review that concluded in Feinberg’s firing in February.
The letters between KIPP Houston and Feinberg, obtained through a public records request, shed new light on his high-profile firing, which shocked many in the charter school movement.
KIPP officials have in the past described the outcome of the first probe as inconclusive. One letter, though, said the matter was “closed” and any restrictions placed on Feinberg’s communication with students or school visits during the probe were then lifted (though he had not regularly worked in schools for a number of years). “KIPP and I consider this matter to be officially closed,” the letter concluded. “Mike, thank you for your professionalism and understanding while we investigated this matter.”
A subsequent letter said that “questions remained” after the initial inquiry and described both Feinberg and the alleged victim as “credible.”
Feinberg has denied all three claims made against him, and, through his attorney, Christopher Tritico, declined to comment for this story. In a brief interview with Chalkbeat Monday, Tritico said that the first investigation had “cleared” Feinberg and that his client had no opportunity to respond to the findings of the second investigation.
KIPP officials dispute Tritico’s characterizations of the investigations.
“KIPP terminated Mr. Feinberg earlier this year after an independent, outside investigation found credible evidence of abuse and harassment that was incompatible with KIPP’s values and unwavering commitment to student well-being,” said a spokesperson for the charter network. “At no point was he cleared.”
According to the letters, three allegations were made against Feinberg: one by a minor student in the late ‘90s and two by adult KIPP alumni who were also employees. One of the latter allegations resulted in a financial settlement by KIPP in 2004, according to the letters and KIPP’s public statements. The second investigation, the letter said, could not confirm the allegations but found them credible; that’s consistent with how KIPP has described the matter publicly.
Chalkbeat also filed a public records request for the underlying investigations, but, at KIPP’s urging, the Texas attorney general recently ruled that that report is exempt from public disclosure under attorney–client privilege. KIPP has not made public further details about either investigation.
Last week, Chalkbeat reported that Feinberg has since started a new organization to help individuals, including KIPP alumni, create and grow schools.
KIPP sent Feinberg four letters over the course of nearly a year
The earliest letter that Chalkbeat received, dated April 21, 2017, said that an allegation of “sexual impropriety” had been made against Feinberg by a former student and promised “a full and thorough investigation.”
The brief letter also directed Feinberg not to have any contact with current or former KIPP students and not to visit a KIPP Houston school with children present, unless accompanied by someone from the network’s executive team.
The second letter, dated August 28, 2017, stated that the investigation, conducted by KIPP’s attorney, a partner at a Houston law firm, was complete and that the restrictions on Feinberg were lifted.
“Other than what the former student alleges, now almost 20 years after the alleged acts, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing,” wrote KIPP Houston superintendent Sehba Ali.
But the matter was soon reopened, as a Nov. 6 letter, sent just two months later, shows. Except for the date, this letter is identical to the one opening the first probe — briefly stating the allegations and putting in place restrictions on Feinberg — and does not reference the previous letters or indicate why a new investigation was launched.
The last letter arrived on Feb. 22, 2018, the same day Feinberg’s firing was publicly announced. Signed by KIPP Houston board chair Bill Boyar, the letter provided notice of Feinberg’s dismissal, saying, “Your actions are incompatible with the leadership qualities that are central to KIPP’s mission.”
The letter does not explicitly say why a second investigation was opened, but said that “questions remained” after the first one.
It noted that the initial investigation was triggered by a KIPP Houston student who said that Feinberg engaged in “inappropriate sexual misconduct” with a family member two decades earlier. (Chalkbeat is withholding the precise relationship between the alleged victim and the student in order to protect their identities.)
The letter also claimed that Feinberg “repeatedly violated KIPP’s technology usage policies,” though it didn’t specify how.
In February, Tritico, Feinberg’s lawyer, told the New York Times that the initial investigation had found the allegations not to be credible. In fact, though, the most recent letter sent to Feinberg said the first investigation concluded that both he and the alleged victim were “credible.” (The second letter, closing that investigation, does not address this question.)
The rest of the final letter is in line with what KIPP has said publicly about Feinberg’s dismissal. The second investigation, the letter said, could not confirm the allegations but found them credible. “The evidence shows that, at a minimum, you put yourself in situations in which your conduct could be misconstrued,” Boyar wrote.
In a statement in February, Feinberg denied the claims that led to his firing. “I do not condone, nor have I ever condoned, or engaged in, misconduct of this kind,” he said.