Parents worry about student safety in IPS after classroom ‘fight club’ video emerges

A  white and blue school sign stands on a green lawn in front of a large, tan, brick building.
Some parents at George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 are withdrawing their students from school after news of a lawsuit alleging that the abuse of a student was encouraged by a teacher. (Scott Elliott / Chalkbeat)

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Parents are demanding more transparency from Indianapolis Public Schools following news of a lawsuit alleging that a former teacher at George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 encouraged “acts of violence” against a 7-year-old student with a disability.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Marion Superior Court by Corrie Horan on behalf of her minor son identified as “O.D.,” claims that first-year IPS teacher Julious Johnican orchestrated a “fight club” style of discipline in which he encouraged and recorded physical abuse that O.D. suffered at the hands of other students.

Sparking parent concern is a video included in news reports in which one student is on top of and hitting O.D., who eventually begins crying as the other student says “don’t mess with me” repeatedly. (The story was first reported by Fox 59.) Attorneys for Horan believe the video is of an incident recorded in September.

“That’s right,” says a teacher, who is identified in the lawsuit as Johnican, in the video. “You get him.”

Attorneys for the student framed the lawsuit as an attempt to eradicate abuse in Indiana’s schools, and emphasized the importance of teacher training and oversight. Some School 87 parents, meanwhile, say it adds to longstanding concerns they’ve had about teacher turnover, behavioral problems, and communication — and that they are planning to withdraw their students from the school next year.

Johnican, who resigned from his position in early November and no longer works in IPS, could not be reached for comment.

IPS said in a Thursday statement that it does not tolerate the type of behavior alleged in the complaint and takes complaints of potential neglect and abuse seriously. The district did not respond to questions from Chalkbeat about concerns raised by parents about issues like teacher turnover and transparency.

“When IPS learned of the teacher’s conduct, the Department of Child Services (DCS) was immediately notified, and the teacher was removed from the classroom and suspended,” the district said. “The teacher had no further contact with students.”

But the lawsuit claims that the school’s vice principal, a substitute teacher who witnessed the attacks against the child, and a school behavioral specialist in whom O.D. confided all failed to report the abuse that O.D. began recounting as early as the first month of school.

Parents at School 87 say they were not made aware of the allegations against the teacher when he resigned in November and found out through the news on Wednesday.

“My trust in the school was betrayed,” said Samantha Engdahl, whose daughter was in Johnican’s class at the beginning of the year. She said the school did not send out notice of Johnican’s departure until Nov. 21, weeks after his resignation.

“You think that your kid is going to school and that that’s a safe place,” Engdahl added.

Lawsuit claims repeated concerns about abuse were dismissed

O.D. came home reporting abuse as early as the first few weeks of school, according to the lawsuit. O.D’.s mother also reported concerns of her child being attacked and bullied in the classroom to Johnican beginning in August.

“His teacher, Johnican, dismissed these accounts when he was repeatedly contacted by the parent as behavioral issues and indicated that O.D. was lying and/or mentally ill,” the complaint states.

Johnican inadvertently showed O.D.’s parents a video of one attack during a parent-teacher conference that took place around Nov. 1, when he was trying to show them a video of the classroom environment, according to the lawsuit. O.D.’s mother reported the video to the school secretary, and the Department of Child Services later opened an investigation, per the complaint.

During the DCS investigation, O.D. reported two other instances in October — one in which Johnican held him down while a first grade student hit him in the face, and another in which he said Johnican held his shoulders while another student punched him in the stomach and kicked him in the legs.

“The environment created by IPS manifested in escalating symptoms of anxiety and depression, deeply affecting this disabled seven year old’s educational journey,” the complaint states.

The district said in its statement that it was unaware of any fights sanctioned or encouraged in this way until the parent emailed the principal at 6:58 p.m. on Oct. 30. Upon reviewing the email the next morning, Principal Mary Kapcoe contacted DCS and IPS human resources, the district said. Johnican was removed from the building that day.

Personnel records show Johnican resigned Nov. 2, the day the district said it interviewed him as part of its investigation.

“The employee resigned during that meeting before IPS could initiate termination proceedings, which the district was prepared to do based on the information received from the internal investigation,” the district said.

On Thursday, IMPD said there is an open investigation of a teacher at School 87 allowing students to fight and filming it.

IPS stresses commitment to student safety

In emails sent to School 87 parents on Wednesday evening, both Superintendent Aleesia Johnson and Kapcoe stressed that student safety is a top priority.

“I share your outrage at this video, and assure you that IPS schools maintain an unwavering commitment to keeping our students safe,” Johnson said in the email.

In her email to parents, Kapcoe said administrators took immediate action when they first learned about the incident on Oct. 31.

“Student safety is a top priority at George Washington Carver School 87 and at all Indianapolis Public Schools. We expect all IPS employees to ensure the well-being of all students,” Kapcoe said in her email to parents. “Our teachers remain committed to ensuring all our kids feel loved and cared for at school. Our hearts go out to the families involved.”

But the messages have not been enough to quell concerns from parents, some of whom plan to speak about the issue at the IPS school board meeting next week.

Some parents say they’ve brought other concerns to administration in previous months over behavior and teacher turnover at the school that have not been addressed.

On Thursday, School 87 parent Megan Kriebel was trying to decide where to send her two younger children next school year. (Her children were not in Johnican’s classroom.)

“I know so many families that have met (with staff over concerns) about their kid’s classroom and they were kind of gaslit. My heart just breaks for that family,” Kriebel said.

Laurie Pierce said she had just made the decision to pull her kids from School 87 right before news broke of the incident.

Pierce said she also met with the principal last school year to express concerns about teacher turnover, as well as the lack of staff attention and behavioral issues she saw while volunteering at the school one morning. Those concerns were also not addressed, she said.

Like other parents, Pierce was concerned about the lack of communication.

“She did not detail anything that she did for the children. That’s what is so hard,” she said about Kapcoe’s Wednesday email. “I feel like it’s all about policy and protocol and test scores and we’re never hearing about how we’re taking care of the children. What was done for this classroom immediately after this happened? Were those parents communicated with?”

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

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