In a memo, Success Academy lawyers warn staff of ‘mistakes’
Success Academy's legal team is hoping to help the charter school network get a handle on its public image with a new list of twenty "mistakes" the charter network's staffers should be careful to avoid.
The common pitfalls described in the memo include providing any information — even seemingly innocuous facts — to journalists or politicians, engaging in arguments with parents over text message or email and informing the network's legal team too late about accusations against teachers or students.
The memo, which was circulated to staff and dated as having been revised this month, was obtained by POLITICO New York.
Success, the city's largest charter network, has faced a series of embarrassing leaks recently, resulting in an unusually negative spate of coverage. The press leaks have largely come from current or former employees concerned about practices within the schools.
Success has already rotated through a familiar cast of public relations professionals in an attempt to shift its delicate public image. Now, the network's internal legal team is getting involved.
Under the header "top 20 mistakes schools make," the advisory team writes that one of them is "providing information to lawyers/press/electeds/government reps."
"Leaders must call advisory if these individuals are requesting information or are in their buildings. Lawyers and press/government may appear to be asking simple questions, but there can be broader implications," the document reads. "Leaders must not provide sensitive information, such as demographic info or projected enrollment, to third parties without consulting with advisory."
Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Success, told POLITICO that what the memo outlines is important to keep staff on the same page. "With 11,000 scholars and 1,700 staff/faculty, these common sense procedures ensure we have a coordinated way for responding to inquiries from important members of the community," he said in a statement.
The memo also specifically instructs school leaders not to allow parents to become the sources of leaks to journalists or government officials.
"Letting parents get away with threats to go to the press/police/elected official" is listed as number eight on the list of twenty mistakes.
"If a parent makes this threat, contact advisory. Advisory can help diffuse this situation," the memo reads. "But we cannot let parents 'get away' with these threats. Feel confident in pushing back on these and telling parents that threats are not a productive way to resolve conflict or build the relationship."
Success recently drew condemnation after the New York Times published an interview with the mother of a homeless child who was berated in front of her classmates for struggling with a math problem. The mother said she was misled by Success executives and was only encouraged not to speak with the press.
The memo instructs employees not to "battle" with parents over text messages or email.
"Many of our parents text/email leaders serious accusations," the memo reads. "It is almost never productive, efficient, or in your best interest to battle over text/email."
Heightened concern about legal liabilities comes amid a rare moment of vulnerability for the charter network, which has some of the highest standardized test scores in the state and is deeply involved in education lobbying in New York.
Aside from the press, Success CEO Eva Moskowitz has battled with a variety of local elected officials, most prominently Mayor Bill de Blasio. Members of the New York City Council and New York State Assembly have also sharply criticized the network for its disciplinary practices in particular.
In the memo, Success's legal team also instructed school leaders to properly document all problems with the Department of Education — which Moskowitz has criticized routinely for years — and Administration for Children's Services.
If a member of the DOE's Committee on Special Education "shows up late, does not act professionally, does not listen, you must document it ... and escalate," the memo reads.
And there are a number of other legally problematic actions school leaders are reminded not to take part in.
Staffers should not, according to the memo, take videos of "scholars in crisis."
Teachers should not "physically restrain" students, except when they are in imminent danger.
And employees should not prevent students from using the bathroom, according to the memo.
Success's legal team also instructs staff to keep clear documentation of student suspensions. Suspensions have been particularly publicly contentious for the network, following reports that Success suspends children as young as Kindergarten and that it suspends students at a higher rate than district schools or other charters do.
"Suspension letters are legal documents that may end up in expulsion hearings, litigation, and investigations," the memo reads. "It is problematic when we cannot show that we prepared and delivered a suspension letter for each suspension."
And the memo instructs staffers not to perform their own legal research when a question arises.
"Your legal/regulatory/tricky question is likely not novel," the document reads.
Success is planning to open five new elementary schools and two new middle schools this August, part of its plan to grow to nearly 50 schools over the next two years.