Edison School of the Arts staff, students call for resignation of executive director

A woman in a red shirt at a podium addresses a row of people sitting behind a table in a school cafeteria. In the foreground are other people sitting and listening to her comments.
Staff, students, and parents spoke against the administration at Edison School of the Arts in Indianapolis on Tuesday in an emotional meeting. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Chalkbeat)

Dozens of students, parents, and staff members at Edison School of the Arts assailed the independent public school’s executive director and administration for allegedly maintaining a culture of fear and toxic work environment, in an emotional meeting Tuesday night.

Several staff claimed that fear and mistreatment by the administration have driven away their colleagues. Students said the administration silenced their voices. And parents and students called for the resignation of Executive Director Nathan Tuttle. 

Allegations that Tuttle used a racial slur against a student Thursday had prompted the Edison board to call a public meeting. The board has placed Tuttle on administrative leave and contracted with the law firm Barnes and Thornburg to investigate. The board didn’t respond to allegations about the school’s environment during the meeting.

Edison is one of the few Innovation schools in Indianapolis Public Schools not run by a charter operator. Instead, it is run by a nonprofit and is overseen by its own board.

In a phone call with Chalkbeat ahead of the meeting, Tuttle denied the allegations and said multiple witnesses will prove they’re false. He said he was speaking to a student who used a racial slur and told that student not to do so. 

“I did in no way ever, nor have I ever, used a racial slur toward a child,” he said. 

But on Tuesday night, parents and staff claimed that Tuttle said the slur repeatedly to Black students when trying to explain what they should not say. They said he should not have repeated the word. 

The incident has prompted dozens of students and staff to speak up about what they described as longstanding climate and culture problems. 

“I have watched members of this staff walk out of offices, women, in tears. Tears,” said teacher Cinnita Sayles, who said staff members have been afraid to come to board meetings. 

After the meeting, Tuttle did not respond to requests for comment about allegations by speakers. Principal Amy Berns, whom several staff at the meeting described as supportive, also declined to comment about the remarks made at the meeting.

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Some students Tuesday called for Tuttle’s resignation or at least a public apology.

“When Mr. Tuttle is around this school, it is like everyone is being silenced and walking on eggshells trying not to start problems by accident or even hurting his feelings,” said Zaria Perry, the eighth grade student body president. 

Eighth grader Zaria Perry addresses the board of Edison School of the Arts in Indianapolis in a meeting on Tuesday. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Chalkbeat)

Parents, students, and staff also expressed concern with the administration. 

“I have my daughter’s best friend in tears. Tears. Teachers, in tears,” said parent Michelle Johnson. “Are you not seeing this? Everybody is fearful in this school.”

Kitty Clemens, a seventh grade teacher, said she left the school two years ago, blaming treatment by Tuttle that caused her to doubt herself. She said she came back because of the students, Berns, and her colleagues. 

“Accountability requires not just an apology but an action to show the apology was sincere and that it will not happen again,” Clemens said. She called for  the board to press Tuttle to resign.

It’s unclear how long the school’s investigation may take. 

Edison’s arts program is key to the district’s Rebuilding Stronger initiative, which seeks to expand specialized academic offerings — particularly to more students of color. 

The IPS school board in December approved an agreement for Edison to run James Whitcomb Riley School 43 as a visual and performing arts school. 

In a statement, IPS said it was aware of the allegations that Tuttle used a racial slur. The district did not respond to a question on whether the incident would affect the planned expansion of Edison to School 43. 

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org.

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