School 87 parents share prior worries about building’s culture in wake of ‘fight club’ lawsuit

A person stands at a podium in front of a row of people sitting at a long desk with people sitting in the foreground.
Ashley Fields was one of several parents who addressed the Indianapolis Public Schools board on Thursday and criticized the district's handling of alleged student abuse and other issues at School 87. "It has eroded trust," Fields said. (Amelia Pak-Harvey / Chalkbeat)

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Parents of George Washington Carver Montessori School 87 students demanded more accountability from school board members on Thursday, after sharing that the school’s administration had dismissed concerns about safety and staff morale for months.

Board members for Indianapolis Public Schools on Thursday also agreed to create a special task force that will review each school’s emotional health and culture.

The concerns follow a lawsuit alleging that a teacher encouraged and allowed other students to abuse a 7-year-old student with a disability. The lawsuit references a video of one student attacking another until he begins to cry, with a voice — identified in the lawsuit as that of School 87 teacher Julious Johnican — encouraging the fight. That video has sparked widespread community anger.

The lawsuit refers to the situation as “fight club” discipline. It also alleges that the school’s administration, a substitute teacher, and a behavioral specialist failed to report the abuse that the child repeatedly suffered dating back to August.

Parents at the school board meeting called for mental health services for the students in Johnican’s class who witnessed the alleged abuse. They also brought up multiple instances in which they said concerns over their child’s safety were dismissed, highlighting a problematic culture at School 87.

Kiya Isom, whose daughter was in Johnican’s class, said she reported constant bullying of her daughter to the principal, vice principal, and staff, yet never got any follow-up. Last year, she said, her daughter was pushed on the playground and had to have surgery.

“I’m very upset and I’m disgusted because my job as a parent is to protect my child,” said Isom, who eventually pulled her daughter from the school after another incident. “And I did not do that sending her to School 87.”

Kristen Phair, president of the school’s parent-teacher association, said she saw firsthand Principal Mary Kapcoe’s lack of respect for staff.

“This fall, after HR complaints from parents regarding staff attrition, she pulled me into our office and told me parent negativity was harming our school,” Phair said. “She made it clear that parents’ complaints were irritating and not something she took seriously.”

Over 1,000 people have signed an online petition calling for Kapcoe’s removal.

“As a former public school educator myself who was once a first-year teacher like Johnican, I do not believe this would have happened if we would have had competent school leadership properly supporting, supervising and training our teachers and staff members,” parent Kelly Mosesso told board members.

IPS said in a statement that DCS was notified immediately when it became aware of the behavior alleged in the lawsuit, and that it takes reports of potential abuse and neglect seriously. Kapcoe did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

But as community outrage spread over the past week, the district announced the creation of a student safety task force, a review of policies, clarification on how staff should communicate incidents at school, and an external review of the culture of School 87.

The principal and vice principal will not be on campus during this review, which will feature input from families, the district told families in emails this week.

IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson also sent a direct apology to School 87 parents in an email before the meeting on Thursday.

“You should not have heard about the appalling incident in Mr. Johnican’s classroom from the news — you should have heard it from IPS,” she said in the email. “This apology is long overdue for all of you, but especially for those of you whose children were in Mr. Johnican’s class last fall.”

Johnson outlined other steps that IPS is taking, including a year-long focus group that will help the school transition from K-8 to K-5 and create a positive school climate.

The special task force approved by the board Thursday will be led by independent community leaders and mental health professionals, board member Hope Hampton told parents after their comments.

“The idea is simply to find out the temperature in every building so we don’t find it out another way,” she said, standing to face the parents directly. “And to set a course for how to address what we find.”

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

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