KIPP filing details sexual assault, harassment allegations against fired co-founder Mike Feinberg

A former student alleged that KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg sexually assaulted her under the guise of a medical exam, and a former KIPP employee said he offered her money in exchange for sex, according to a court filing by the KIPP charter school network.

The filing offers new details on the sexual harassment and abuse allegations that led to Feinberg’s firing last year, a move that shocked many in the charter school movement. The motion, filed in November, asks for the dismissal of a defamation suit Feinberg filed against KIPP, the country’s largest nonprofit charter network.

Feinberg has denied the allegations, and has since announced the creation of a new organization to help people start charter schools. The Houston Business Journal reported last month that Feinberg had been tapped to co-run two high schools and a daycare that will be opened by Gallery Furniture, a Houston-area business.

“KIPP has repeatedly threatened Mike with further damage to his reputation in an effort to prevent him from filing his lawsuit,” Feinberg’s lawyer Mano DeAyala said in a statement. “This motion is just another attempt to achieve that goal.”

KIPP first launched an investigation of Feinberg in April 2017 after a student made a comment that he had raped her cousin. The initial probe was unable to substantiate the claim, and Feinberg was reinstated. But a second, more detailed investigation, conducted by the law firm WilmerHale, led to KIPP firing Feinberg in February 2018.

In announcing his dismissal, KIPP said investigators had deemed the accusations “credible” and described them without providing details. Now, KIPP’s motion — along with a sworn declaration by the lead investigator from WilmerHale — does so for the first time. (KIPP has declined requests to release these investigations in full, citing the accusers’ privacy. A KIPP spokesperson also declined to elaborate on the filing.)

Regarding the claim of sexual abuse in the late 1990s, a former student told investigators that Feinberg had twice taken her to his office when she was 12 and touched her inappropriately under the pretext of a medical examination. The former student’s mother told WilmerHale investigators that her daughter told her about the alleged assault immediately afterward. The student was also able to accurately describe Feinberg’s office at the time, according to the investigation.

In interviews with investigators, Feinberg denied this claim and said “he could not recall any events that could have been misconstrued,” according to the filing.

The investigators concluded that both Feinberg and the former student were credible, but that “on balance we found the victim to be more credible.”

Investigators reviewed another allegation. This one came from a woman who began working at the network in 2004 and was then a recent KIPP graduate. She described a close relationship with Feinberg, viewing him as a father figure. But several months after the start of her employment, she said he proposed offering her financial support in exchange for sex, which he described as a “tradition in the North.”

She then began to record some of her conversations with Feinberg, recordings she later provided to WilmerHale. In one, Feinberg suggested they meet up to run an errand and then return to his empty home.

“The young woman asked Feinberg to confirm that ‘this is a tradition,’ to which he said yes,” according to the investigator. “The young woman responded that she thought the tradition was ‘bullshit’ and that she did not want to do it. Feinberg responded in turn ‘that’s totally fair’ and that he ‘didn’t want to make her uncomfortable.’”

The filing does not include a transcript of the recordings.

The woman eventually hired a lawyer and reached a financial settlement with KIPP Houston, which led to a brief suspension for Feinberg. (Feinberg’s lawsuit said he had opposed the decision to settle the case.)

Feinberg told investigators that the incident was a misunderstanding. “He admitted, however, having at least put himself into a situation that could be misconstrued,” wrote the WilmerHale investigator. “He was also unable to explain various statements he made in the recorded conversations, despite being provided with the opportunity to do so.”

The WilmerHale investigators said they did not find Feinberg’s denial on this count credible.

The third allegation was from a woman who came forward around the same time as the second one, with “a similar accusation against Feinberg,” according to the investigation. She did not pursue legal action and also declined to speak to investigators. But Feinberg did pay her several thousand dollars, the investigators said.

Feinberg filed a defamation lawsuit against KIPP in August focused on KIPP’s statements to the news media and the public after his dismissal. “I’ve filed this lawsuit as my only other path toward being able to defend myself and restore my reputation,” he told Chalkbeat at the time.

His suit also claims the WilmerHale investigation was unfair. “Critical information about the allegations against Mike were never disclosed to him, and he was afforded no opportunity to respond or refute those career- and life-destroying allegations,” Feinberg’s suit says.

KIPP’s filing noted that WilmerHale investigators conducted two lengthy interviews with Feinberg. KIPP argues that his defamation suit should be dismissed because “KIPP’s public statement on his termination contains no false statements.”

“Feinberg asserts that he brought this lawsuit to ‘tell his side of the story’ and redeem his reputation,” KIPP’s motion concluded. “Neither of those things required him to invoke formal legal process against KIPP: he was free to hold a press conference and tell his story as he saw fit at any time.”

This story has been updated to include the fact that Feinberg has been chosen to co-run three schools that will be opened by a local business in Houston.