Reprinted with permission from ProPublica. This story was co-published with Slate.
Teenagers at Paramount Academy sometimes came home with mysterious injuries.
An alternative school for sixth- through 12th-graders with behavioral or academic problems, Paramount occupied a low-slung, brick and concrete building on a dead-end road in hard-luck Reading, Pennsylvania, a city whose streets are littered with signs advertising bail bondsmen, pay-day lenders, and pawn shops. Camelot Education, the for-profit company that ran Paramount under a contract with the Reading school district, maintained a set of strict protocols: No jewelry, book bags, or using the water fountain or bathroom without permission. Just as it still does at dozens of schools, the company deployed a small platoon of “behavioral specialists” and “team leaders”: typically large men whose job was partly to enforce the rules.
Over six months in 2013 and 2014, about a half-dozen parents, students, and community members at Paramount Academy — billed as a “therapeutic” day program — complained of abusive behavior by the school’s staff. One mother heard that staff restrained students by “excessive force” and bruised the arms of a female student, according to email exchanges between Camelot and the district. Another mother, Sharon Pacharis, said she visited the school to complain about manhandling and was told, “That’s just what we do.” Camelot’s own written reports to the district documented one incident in which a teenager was scratched and another in which a bathroom wall was damaged. Both resulted from “holds” — likely a reference to Camelot’s protocol for restraining students during a physical encounter.
Camelot tended to blame the students in its weekly reports to the district, calling them “out of control”; school officials referred several to police. It was, after all, a place partly for students whom the district had deemed too disruptive for a traditional school setting.
But an incident on April 24, 2014, abruptly shifted the focus to Camelot’s staff.
Ismael Seals, a behavioral specialist, walked into a classroom with several loud and boisterous students and commanded them to “shut the fuck up,” decreeing that the next one who talked would get body-slammed through the door, according to a subsequent criminal complaint. Moments later, Seals fulfilled his promise. After 17-year-old Corey Mack asked and received permission from his teacher, Teresa Bivens, to get up to sharpen his pencil, Seals pushed him repeatedly against a door and then shoved him into the hall, where a school surveillance camera recorded most of the rest of the incident. Seals, 6 feet 4 inches tall and 280 pounds, lifted Mack, 5 feet 8 inches tall and about 160 pounds, by his shirt and swung him into the wall headfirst, later pinning him to the ground as other staff members arrived, according to court documents.
Mack later showed a string of bruises and scratches on his back to a program director at a center for children with behavioral and mental health challenges. The program director called a juvenile probation official, who contacted the police.
Reached by telephone last fall, Corey Mack struggled to remember the details of his altercation with Seals, including what he had said just before the behavioral specialist shoved him, and the precise sequence of events. But he was clear on the essential point: “He beat me up,” Mack said.
The Seals incident is the best-documented example of staff-on-student violence at facilities run by Camelot, a company dogged by allegations of similar abuses. Thirteen Camelot students have alleged in interviews or documents that they were shoved, beaten, or thrown — assaults almost always referred to as “slamming” — by Camelot staff members, usually for the sin of talking back, in separate incidents that span 10 years and three states. (Six of the students were interviewed in 2009 in New Orleans.) Two additional students, and five Camelot staff members, say they have personally witnessed beatings or physical aggression by staff.
The abuse allegedly occurred in Camelot programs in Reading; Lancaster; Philadelphia; New Orleans; and Pensacola, Florida. Jandy Rivera, for instance, a former teacher at Camelot-run Phoenix Academy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says that on multiple occasions staff members, including administrators, “baited kids so they could hit kids.” For the most part, staffers who allegedly assaulted students have faced no criminal charges or internal discipline; some have even been promoted.
The Florida Department of Children and Families, which investigates reports of child abuse, is looking into an incident last week at Camelot Academy in Pensacola in which a behavioral specialist, while breaking up a fight between students, allegedly knocked a 13-year-old to the ground, causing a bloody abrasion and bruising near the teenager’s eye. The youth posted a graphic photo of his swollen face on Facebook. “I do not like this way of disciplining kids,’’ said his mother, Pauline Ball. “You can give him a permanent injury.” Camelot said the specialist “had to intervene to protect other students,” and that the injuries were an accident: “The staff member and student tripped over each other’s feet and both fell.”
Despite such allegations, Camelot has continued to expand. It contracts with traditional school districts to run about 40 schools across the country — schools that serve kids who have gotten into trouble, have emotional or behavioral issues, or have fallen far behind academically. In 2015, Camelot reported more than $77 million in revenue, more than a third from contracts with the school districts of Philadelphia, Houston, and Chicago. The company also maintains a large presence in some heavily Hispanic old factory towns of Pennsylvania.
About half a million students in the United States attend alternative schools, which are publicly funded but often managed by private, for-profit companies such as Camelot. Camelot’s story illustrates the risk that for-profit schools, which are favored by the Trump administration and new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, may put earnings ahead of student welfare. It also exposes the dismal educational options available to some students that traditional high schools don’t want to serve, because they are disruptive, severely disabled, years behind in school, or have criminal backgrounds.
In a 17-page response to written questions, Camelot and its chief executive, Todd Bock, denied any claims of systemic abuse across its programs and said it provides effective and supportive services to thousands of the country’s most challenging and needy students. The company cited a student survey that found 23 percent of its students were homeless or had been homeless; 78 percent did not have a father living in their household; and 45 percent said violence in the school they attended before Camelot impeded their success. The company also maintained that it has a long record of academic success, and that it does not place profits over its students’ well-being. It cited a 2010 study by the Mathematica Policy Research organization which found that students at a couple of Camelot-run programs in Philadelphia accumulated more credits and were more likely to graduate than their counterparts in competing programs. While student and staff confidentiality prevented the company from going into details, it said, “immediate action is taken in the very rare instance” of allegations of physical abuse. In regard to student safety, the company said the incidents in Pennsylvania, Pensacola and New Orleans “were handled with the utmost diligence and care.”
Camelot also questioned why some teachers and former teachers — who are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse — would wait months, or years, to express their concerns. “With the exception of an isolated incident in Reading, PA in which we immediately investigated and terminated multiple employees, Camelot has had no founded child abuse cases or lawsuits involving our students over the last decade,” the statement read. “Your narrative is formulated using fewer than 10 incidents from the almost 5,940,000 daily interactions over a period of 10 years.” (A daily interaction is one student going to a Camelot school for one day.) Indeed, very little is known about the vast majority of the daily interactions across Camelot’s schools, partly because they face almost no scrutiny, at every level. School-district officials, desperate to farm out the students most likely to depress their test scores and graduation rates, have repeatedly failed to investigate allegations of mistreatment at Camelot schools.
Moreover, state officials in Pennsylvania have designed the accountability system in a way that obscures the academic results of the state’s alternative programs. Test scores of thousands of alternative students are never tagged to a school, instead counting only toward the district’s performance, making it virtually impossible to gauge and compare the quality of individual schools. In 2013, the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center filed a statewide complaint alleging that the Pennsylvania Department of Education fails to adequately monitor its alternative schools, which the center says too often have subpar, insufficient academic programs. The complaint is pending.
Add it all up, skeptics say, and the Camelot experience starts to resemble the nation’s incarceration system: racially biased, isolated, punitive, unnecessarily violent and designed, above all else, to maintain obedience and control.
That’s how Camelot’s Phoenix Academy felt to Jose Muriel. There, he argued with a staff member, who held him against a door and then pushed him to the ground, bruising his arm, the Spanish-speaking Muriel said through an interpreter. Camelot denied that he was restrained or mistreated. After the incident, Muriel said, he saw a therapist, and skipped school for weeks, before finally graduating.
“That place was like a prison,” he said.
After Ismael Seals’ assault on Corey Mack, a cover-up began almost immediately. In a detailed write-up of the incident, Seals described Mack as the instigator. But the surveillance footage of the hallway contradicted key details in Seals’ account, according to court documents.
Seals wrote in his report that he led Mack from the room using a technique he described as a “one arm upper escort.” According to court documents, the video showed him pulling Mack from the classroom by his shirt before pushing him against a wall. Seals also wrote that Mack became aggressive and threatening, swinging his hands wildly at one point. The video showed that the student remained silent, with his hands at his sides — except for when Seals picked him up and threw him headfirst against a wall. Finally, Seals reported that his glasses were knocked off by Mack during the tussle while the video showed Seals’ glasses falling off as he threw Mack toward the wall, according to court documents.
Teresa Bivens, the teacher who gave Mack permission to sharpen his pencil, initially told police that Mack had been disruptive and caused the fight. She also wrote an internal school report implicating him. But four days after her initial police interview, Bivens confessed to authorities that she had lied at the urging of unnamed “higher-ups” who wanted to cover up the incident. Bivens also reported that she had conspired with Seals and a “supervisor” about how to write the reports to put the blame on Mack, not Seals. At the time, Camelot administrators denied pressuring Bivens to lie, and prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to charge more senior employees of Camelot. Camelot provided a different version of events in its response for this article, claiming the company “immediately investigated” and reported the incident to authorities before firing Seals and Bivens.
Bivens pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making a false statement to authorities and was sentenced to two years of probation. Seals pleaded guilty to assault, conspiracy and making a false statement; he served 17 days in prison. His is the only case we found in which a Camelot staff member has been convicted of beating a student.
In a tearful interview, Seals told us that he deeply regretted what had happened. He said he had been drawn to working with troubled students largely because of his own tough background: He spent some of his boyhood in foster care and group homes. Seals recalled fondly the staff-student bonding events that Camelot sponsored, including a Thanksgiving dinner and a basketball game. Part of his job at Camelot was to “de-escalate” potential conflicts, he said. “It worked to some extent.”
He declined to comment on the assault — on the advice of a lawyer, he said — but offered an apology: “I realize I made a mistake and got to be accountable for it,” he said. “I really miss those kids.”
A moment later, he added, “Man, I messed up.”
Before there was Camelot, there was the Brown Schools, a for-profit company that ran treatment centers for young people with severe emotional and behavioral needs. In some cases, parents signed their children up for Brown facilities; in other cases, school or juvenile-justice personnel referred them to the programs. Over 15 years, five children and teenagers died in Brown’s care. One was a 9-year-old boy who died of a heart attack after being held face down by employees. Another time, a 17-year-old choked on his own vomit after three Brown staffers allegedly pinned him to the ground. Ironically, the 17-year-old victim’s father, attorney Charles Moody, had represented Brown in an earlier restraint-related death at one of its facilities. “They certainly did not train and/or hire particularly qualified people,” Moody said in an interview.
John Harcourt served as chief executive officer of Brown Schools from 1995 to 1999. In 2002, after his non-compete agreement expired, he acquired the alternative school company that became Camelot. In a 2009 letter to a Philadelphia city councilman, a Camelot official wrote that, while allegations regarding Brown Schools’ treatment of children “may have basis in fact,” they related to the period after Harcourt left Brown. Harcourt remained chief executive of Camelot Schools until 2011.
Camelot would employ other former leaders of Brown, which effectively shut down in 2005. Todd Bock, now the president and chief executive officer of Camelot, was director for public education at Brown Schools. We identified eight other Camelot employees, including two vice presidents and the leader of business development, who previously worked at Brown.
Camelot said it isn’t an outgrowth of Brown. “While it is a fact that … current Camelot employees worked for the Brown Schools, one organization has nothing to do with the other,” it said in its statement.
Still, the association with Brown has at times dogged Camelot’s pursuit of new contracts.
Current Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney asked for a reconsideration of Camelot’s contracts there when he served as a city councilman eight years ago, citing Brown Schools. Responding to Kenney, the Philadelphia School District compiled a five-page memo, based largely on paperwork submitted by Camelot itself. “While the allegations about Brown Schools and its affiliates may have basis in fact,” it concluded, “Camelot Schools is not a corporate or legal successor of Brown Schools.”
Camelot took in nearly $10 million this year from its Philadelphia schools. Through a spokesperson, Kenney declined to comment, referring all questions on the company’s performance to the school district.
In Millville, New Jersey, the school board voted last year to hire Camelot. Kim Carty, a school-board member who opposed the hiring, expressed concern at the time about the company’s connection to Brown.
Financial considerations helped sway the board. Camelot promised to run the Millville alternative school for $8,000 per pupil, compared to the $15,000 per pupil the school district spent to run it on its own. “As a mom and taxpayer, I question how a for-profit company can promise such a large cost savings while also making a profit for their investors,” Carty said in an interview. “I worry that we are failing the kids who need us most by making their education someone’s profit.”
In a letter to District Superintendent David Gentile after the school board hired Camelot, Bock wrote that his company felt “gratified to be able to save the school district a substantial amount of money compared to what you currently spend on alternative education.” But he devoted most of the letter to expressing his “enormous disappointment” that “the fictitious Camelot-Brown relationship is back in the Google search,” referring to a local news report that mentioned the alleged Brown tie. He asked the superintendent to share with board members his “extreme disappointment in the scurrilous attack on our reputation.”
Camelot and Brown certainly have one thing in common: They have both profited from the urgency felt by parents and public schools to find a place for troubled youth. But they filled different niches: While Brown specialized in residential treatment centers for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities, Camelot Education offers nonresidential programs and enrolls a broader range of students. A focus on serving kids whom school districts don’t want is a shrewd business strategy in an era when test scores, graduation rates and other data-based outcomes matter greatly — and are frequently tied to funding — giving school districts incentive to shed the hardest-to-educate students from their rolls.
Public school districts typically contract with Camelot to run one of three types of programs: “transitional schools” for kids with behavior issues; “therapeutic programs” for those with special behavioral and emotional needs; and “accelerated programs” for students who have fallen far behind. Some of their sites, particularly accelerated programs like Phoenix Academy in Lancaster, combine students from all three categories as well as other populations — pretty much any type of student the district doesn’t believe it can adequately serve, or doesn’t want to. In August, a federal judge ruled that the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, school district, which was funneling some newly arrived refugees to Phoenix, had to allow them to attend the main district high school. The school district maintains that its support for refugee students is appropriate.
Most Camelot students share two characteristics. They are nearly all poor. And they are overwhelmingly peopleof color. In Lancaster, for instance, Phoenix Academy last year enrolled a significantly higher share of Hispanic students, and those with special needs, than the district as a whole. The school district says the population at Phoenix this year more closely resembles the district’s overall demographics. In Pensacola, Florida, black students comprise about two-thirds of the Camelot school’s enrollment, compared to a third of overall school-district enrollment. Of the close to 900 students who attended Camelot schools in Chicago last school year, zero were white.
Some students are reassigned to Camelot because they committed serious disciplinary infractions at prior schools, such as possessing drugs or fighting. In other cases, the reasons are more nebulous. In interviews, several families described feeling pressured by school-district officials to attend Camelot-run schools simply because their children were far behind academically, couldn’t speak English fluently, or had special needs the district didn’t want to meet. One mother said a district official in Reading simply told her, “We can’t deal with him anymore.”
The private-equity firm Riverside has owned Camelot since 2011. A promotional videothat Riverside created for Camelot praises the company’s benefits to taxpayers and students. It notes that Camelot spends an average of $12,000 per child in its alternative school programs, compared to $20,000 spent by a traditional school district. Without the company’s distinctive approach, the video contends, students risked “becoming a statistic.”
In the Camelot curriculum, structure and discipline reign above all else. “The staff, their job is to make sure we don’t fall out of order,” said Jamire Warner, a 22-year-old who attended two Camelot schools in Philadelphia. “That’s what they call protocol. Being there is like being detained.” Warner, who said he was sent to Camelot after beating up a classmate, found the structure overwhelming, but the academics less so. “The education was pretty basic,” he said, noting that a typical class might involve filling out a single worksheet. “They dumbed it down at Camelot.”
At most Camelot schools, staff members search students arriving each day. Students can bring virtually no personal belongings with them apart from their clothes; that prohibition can make it difficult for girls to bring enough sanitary napkins and tampons. In the hallways, most students are required to walk with their hands behind their backs. At the Lancaster school district’s request, Camelot allowed students to walk with their hands in front of them at Phoenix Academy, since the school was not created for students with discipline problems.
Behavioral specialists are supposed to not only enforce the rules but also act as counselors to students, and calm them down as needed. Former students remember some of them as aggressive and bullying; others were trusted mentors and role models. Carolyn Murphy, who taught math at Phoenix between 2013 and 2015 recalls “behavioral specialists that [the students] really developed relationships with … It was a very well run environment. Violence was not really something I ever experienced there.”
Camelot creates a stratified social hierarchy that affords students at the top special privileges, such as eating lunch with the principal, walking down the hall without keeping their hands behind their backs, and leaving campus for field trips. “We have a unique ability to create a positive school environment, and we do that by manipulating the peer group,” Bock said in the promotional video created by Riverside. “We’re going to take that negative leader and turn them into a positive leader.”
At Phoenix Academy, the favored students can become “firebirds,” allowing them to don black uniform shirts rather than the green shirts worn by their classmates. Consistently exemplary behavior on the part of a firebird can lead to an “executive” designation — along with a gray shirt. When two reporters visited Phoenix last month, about two-thirds of the students were wearing green shirts, and most of the rest black shirts; only two students wore gray shirts.
The privileges have different names at different Camelot schools; at Camelot Academy in Pensacola, the more highly-regarded students are known as ‘Tigers’ and can wear “tiger shirts” and hang out in the “tiger shark room,” according to a former student, Ladaryl Purifoy.
As a well-ranked student, “you would get to go to the bathroom, and get water if you were thirsty,” Warner said. He earned executive status, but then lost it for an offense that he can’t recall.
Teenagers were often rewarded with “tiger” or “executive” designations for reasons unrelated to academic performance. One former Camelot student said he gained “executive” status partly because of his willingness to serve as a student tour guide when visitors came to the school, particularly school-board members and journalists. The student, who did not want to be identified because he might re-enroll at the school, said its executive director would tell him what to say, what not to say, and also asked him to instruct teachers to put “academic things” on their walls before the visitors arrived. “I would have to say that the failure ratio is really low, when it’s really not,” he said. “I would say that students are supported to the best of their abilities, when really they’re not.”
When the executive director no longer needed him as a tour leader, she removed the student’s title. “Now that I lost my executive rating, no teachers will help me,” he said. “When I’m helping your school, you love me. But when I need you, where are you?”
While all of the students interviewed for this piece said they bonded with at least one Camelot staff member, most of them also said that other behavioral specialists and team leaders behaved like bullies, in word and deed. “They would say very offensive things like, ‘You guys aren’t going to be nothing in life,’” said Jose Muriel, the Phoenix Academy graduate. “They would curse at you directly and in general.”
Muriel and other former students and teachers said that the verbal baiting sometimes had a discriminatory element. One former teacher recalled that white staff members called black students “boy,” for instance. One student said some staff would tell the Hispanic teenagers that they planned to vote for Trump to rid the country of Spanish speakers.
A current Camelot student, 18, lamented that one behavioral specialist routinely referred to him as a “retard.” The student, who has attended the same Camelot school since the sixth grade, asked not to be identified by name since he fears retaliation. A more sympathetic staff member advised the teen to “pay them no mind.”
“He tells me, ‘They say that to make you mad so you will drop out and won’t be nothing,” the student said. When staff members bully him now, the student buries his head in his arms on his desk and tries as hard as he can to tune them out.
Asked about staff bullying students, Camelot said it has “no such evidence.” Camelot has a student government organization, and every student is taught a grievance process “to register complaints with campus leadership,” it said.
Some Camelot students appreciated the school’s tough-love approach. Serge Jules, a 23-year-old former student at Camelot Excel Academy South in Philadelphia, has positive memories of the two years he spent there. “Teachers cared about students and their personal issues,” he said. Staff physically restrained the students at times, and sometimes engaged in physical fights with the kids. But they “were just doing their jobs,” he added, noting that “it was the students’ fault.”
Ja’mirca Delacruz attended Excel Academy at the same time as Jules; she shares much of his affection for Camelot. “Teachers care more than in regular schools,” she said. “They helped me out.” She also witnessed students being physically restrained, which she described as similar to getting arrested: Staff members grabbed students’ arms and pinned them behind their backs. But Delacruz thought that for the most part the physical restraints were done the “right way.”
Camelot held detailed orientation sessions for parents and students, she said. “The main thing for me is, give the kids a complete heads up of what will happen to them if they get out of control,” she said. “… If you can’t handle it, you don’t belong there, and it becomes hell.”
There’s nothing in the written policies of Camelot schools that mentions slamming, but there is something called “handle with care.” This protocol calls for staff members to use a series of de-escalation strategies on disruptive students, starting with nonverbal cues, such as eye contact, and moving on to verbal redirection. If the students fail to respond to the less intrusive efforts, the staff member is supposed to pin children’s hands behind their backs, lead them over to a wall, and ease them into a seated posture. Camelot parents typically sign consent forms allowing school staff to physically restrain their children as a last resort.
“You’re only supposed to go to that last step if the student is posing a danger, and you never go directly to that,” said Jandy Rivera, who taught at Phoenix Academy between 2011 and 2013. But that’s not what happened in practice. “On various occasions they would just bang the kid, bang the kid, bang the kid,” Rivera said, jerking her body back and forth. “The men had this militaristic mentality that you could shove kids around and talk to them however you wanted.” Once, a Camelot school administrator baited a physically slight student into a fight in Rivera’s classroom, she said. The incident ended with the administrator yanking the student from his desk, shoving him up against a door and throwing him into a wall.
Rivera testified about the violence last summer as part of the federal court case related to the assignment of international refugee students to Phoenix Academy. She also expressed her concerns more than once to her Camelot supervisor, she said. Camelot said Rivera “never talked with her supervisor or registered a complaint about any situation involving incidents to which she testified” in the lawsuit.
The incidents at Camelot tended to follow a similar pattern, according to multiple accounts from students and staff members. Nonacademic staff members (usually the behavioral specialists and team leaders but sometimes higher-level employees) were permitted by administrators and school leaders to manhandle students as a form of intimidation — whether the teenagers had acted out or not. They preyed most often on students who had the least recourse to complain: social pariahs whose parents were disengaged or unable to advocate effectively, because they didn’t speak English, for instance.
School leaders condoned the abuse and in some cases even encouraged it, according to Jandy Rivera and others. Staff routinely picked on the Hispanic students and the quiet students. “The people they would help would be the cool kids who were always trying to pick a fight,” said former Phoenix student Luis Colon.
The cases weren’t always clear-cut, however. And unlike the incident in Reading, they weren’t often captured on video, witnessed by multiple people, or even reported to authorities.
Colon emigrated from Puerto Rico with his mother when he was 9, following the death of his father. They went first to Buffalo, where his grandmother lived, and then to Lancaster, a small city bustling with Hispanic immigrants, where sidewalk signs advertise cheap flan.
Before attending Phoenix, Colon spent two years at Buerhle School, another Camelot program in Lancaster that serves students with disciplinary issues. “I wasn’t always quiet,” he said. “I’m not going to lie to you. … Sometimes I got into altercations just like everybody.”
A native Spanish speaker, Colon also struggled academically in public schools. Phoenix, however, offered an accelerated high school program in which he could earn his credits in 2 1/2 years. “It seemed like a great opportunity,” he said.
Colon quickly discovered that despite its many structures and routines, the school lacked appropriate academic support such as enough English-language tutoring. “If I asked for help, they would say, ‘Ask one of your classmates to help you,’” Colon said.
Colon never finished high school at Phoenix. But the reason, he said, had nothing to do with the instruction.
One day, after he had been at Phoenix for a couple of years, Colon alleges that a Camelot team leader, Adam Cobb, goaded him into a fight when they were alone in a classroom. Cobb denied Colon’s assertions in an email statement and a phone conversation.
According to Colon, Cobb screamed, “Come on, hit me, tough guy, now that we’re alone,” his face so close in that Colon said he could feel the spit. Cobb, who stands 6 foot 5 and wears size 18 shoes, then pushed him into a desk. Colon tried, futilely, to fight back. Cobb quickly got his arms around Colon and lifted, jamming him so hard into the ceiling that Colon’s head dislodged a tile. When Colon finally broke free, he ran away, escaping through one of the school’s back doors. His shirt came off in the tussle, so he left it behind and tried to run home bare-chested. Cobb caught up to him, however, and, according to Colon, pleaded with the teenager not to tell anyone about the incident. “He asked me to leave it alone, which I never should have,” Colon said.
By Cobb’s account, none of that happened. “I understand how to utilize ‘handle with care’ and I practice it precisely at the rare occasions that a student is a threat to themselves or others,” he wrote. “I have never shoved a student through a desk, or raised anyone up into the ceiling tiles and run out of the building.”
In an interview, Cobb said there were “a handful” of instances when he had to physically escort Colon out of a classroom — which he did by placing two hands on one arm (one hand between the elbow and shoulder, and the second between the elbow and the wrist). He described it as a “simple escort” and said he would then counsel Colon verbally. Cobb said part of his role was to make “a big deal out of something small so something big didn’t occur” and that he looks at the students under his supervision “as if they are my own.”
Colon said he didn’t report the incident to authorities because he feared school officials and the police would take Cobb’s side, and that he, not Cobb, would get in trouble.
Colon eventually told his mother. She complained to a Camelot official, according to her son and a person familiar with the situation. The school took no action, Colon said. He suspects that school officials found it convenient to brush her off because she only spoke Spanish. “A lot of the parents didn’t speak English, which is part of the reason they got away with it,” Colon said.
Cobb said he never met Colon’s mother, or heard any mention of her complaints. “I’ve seen his mother zero times,” he said.
Three other people who have worked at or attended the school say they witnessed Cobb being inappropriately physically aggressive with students on other occasions. Two more people said he verbally crossed the line. Cobb defended his job performance and said at least one of those people worked on a different floor and wasn’t in a position to know.
Camelot said it has no record of a student or parent complaining about Cobb. It described him as “an outstanding staff member who has gone above and beyond in caring for the needs of the children in his care.” Cobb was eventually promoted to director of operations at another Camelot-run school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Rachel Raytik, who worked as a teacher and academic coordinator at Phoenix Academy between 2010 and 2014, described it as a “tough, tough, volatile environment. Some students do need to be restrained.” While Cobb meant well, she said, he had a temper and would escalate situations rather than calm students down.
Told of Raytik’s comments, Cobb said, “A temper has never been my issue.”
Ultimately it was Camelot’s responsibility to provide more support to staff or remove them if necessary, Raytik said. To add resources or hire more qualified people would cost money that Camelot didn’t want to spend. “They run themselves like a company, not a school,” she said.
Altercations between Camelot staff and students rarely end up in court. More often the cases disappear — whether because of the student’s or family’s reluctance to pursue them; a lack of witnesses; the accusers’ checkered backgrounds; superficial investigations by the police; school districts’ hesitancy to get involved; or some combination of all five.
Three different students accused Jamal Tillery of assault in 2011 while he worked as director of operations at Camelot Academy in Pensacola, Florida, according to police records. Tillery denies the claims in all three cases, and none went far in the legal system. Getting to the bottom of the 6-year-old incidents isn’t simple. The Pensacola police reports contain several redactions, and parts of them are confusing. In all three cases, officers appear to have taken Tillery’s word over the students’ — at least at first.
In the first incident, a 13-year-old student, who weighed 90 pounds at the time, claimed that Tillery grabbed him, threw him to the ground, and spit in his face. The 13-year-old fled to a Walmart store, where an employee helped him contact police. A police officer dropped the investigation because he said he could see no visible injuries on the boy’s body and because Tillery denied the 13-year-old’s account. The officer reported interviewing no one else apart from Tillery and the teenager in his 23-minute investigation.
Nine days after allegedly assaulting the 13-year-old, Tillery had a physical altercation with a student. When 16-year-old Ladaryl Purifoy refused to sit down, Tillery spit in his face and threw him across several chairs, according to Purifoy’s family. Purifoy’s mother called police from the hospital the evening of the incident, reporting that her son had been beaten up at Camelot. But police officers did not document her concerns until nine months later, when Younbloski Purifoy called a second time to complain. Even then, police only spent 10 minutes investigating her allegations, according to their report, which noted that staff members blamed Purifoy for instigating the fight with Tillery.
Eight months after the incident with Ladaryl Purifoy, 17-year-old Jeremiah Jones argued with Tillery after refusing to hand over his cellphone. Jones said Tillery and another staff member pulled him into the Tiger Shark room and punched him repeatedly on the face and body. At one point, the second staff member held the student’s arms behind his back while Tillery allegedly punched and kicked the teenager in the face, striking him with a trashcan.
In separate interviews, Jones’ mother, Stephanie Henderson, and his great-aunt, Annie Brown, said the teenager came home that day with bruises all over his face. The school had sent Jones home on the bus as usual, without notifying them that anything had happened, they said. The mother and aunt went the next day to Camelot Academy, where, they recalled, the director informed them that Tillery had been suspended, and would be removed from his position. That same day, Jones, his mother, and his great-aunt approached the police. The police heard them out, but the women, like Younbloski Purifoy, said their concerns weren’t taken seriously. If it had “been any other school and a parent complained of abuse by a staff member they would have done something,” said Brown.
Both women say they never talked with police or Camelot officials again, despite several attempts to reconnect with the school director on the phone and in person. Two weeks after the alleged beating of Jones, authorities arrested and charged Tillery and his colleague with battery. But for unknown reasons, they didn’t move forward with the case. In a statement about the case against Tillery’s colleague, the Office of the State Attorney cited “insufficient evidence to prove this case beyond reasonable doubt.” Asked for more information, a spokeswoman for the office responded that the files were destroyed a year after the case was closed — a procedure she described as routine.
Jones left Camelot Academy immediately after the alleged incident. His mother enrolled him in a GED program where, she said, he struggled to work independently and eventually quit. Several months after clashing with Tillery, Jones was arrested for aggravated assault and armed robbery. He was convicted, and is currently in prison in Bonifay, Florida, his mother said.
In an email, Tillery said he had never seen the police reports for the incidents involving the 13-year-old or Ladaryl Purifoy. He added that “any allegations regarding me assaulting or abusing either of these students are false and untrue.” In the case of Jeremiah Jones, Tillery said that “Camelot completed an internal investigation and found it to be unfounded.” More importantly, he added, the police “reviewed my case and dismissed the allegations.” He said Jones had actually assaulted him.
While student privacy prevented the company from discussing the specifics of the incidents involving Tillery, he “was cleared of any and all charges,” Camelot said.
Pensacola’s school district stayed out of the Tillery cases. It let Camelot investigate and address them, said Vickie Mathis, the director of alternative education for the district. “They are Camelot employees,” she said. “We expected Camelot to do the investigation and come to a finding and take action if there was a finding of wrongdoing.” Mathis recalled — mistakenly — that Camelot reported Tillery had been fired.
In two other cities, Reading, Pennsylvania and New Orleans, school officials cut ties with Camelot as abuse allegations emerged. In New Orleans, six students, a youth advocate, two judges, and a former Camelot staffer all described episodes of “slamming” at a Camelot-run school to The Times-Picayune in 2009. Camelot’s statement said these claims were “unfair.” Paul Vallas, the superintendent of the Recovery School District, which oversaw the school, dropped Camelot and brought management in-house. But Vallas, who had previously worked with Camelot as chief executive of the Philadelphia schools, said his decision had nothing to do with the abuse reports and everything to do with finances: He thought the school district could run the school more cheaply than Camelot could. “They’ve done a pretty good job, all things considered,” Vallas said, when asked at the time about the company’s record in New Orleans.
In August 2014, days after charges were brought against Seals and Bivens in connection with the assault on Corey Mack, Reading school officials issued a statement saying they were “appalled” by the behavior of the two staff members at Paramount Academy and were reviewing the district’s relationship with Camelot. Just a week later, they entered into a termination agreement with Camelot. The contract stipulated that both parties would “release a mutually agreeable joint statement to the press” that would cast neither party in “a negative light.” Camelot said in its statement that the district’s discontinuing of the contract had nothing to do with the beating of Corey Mack. And district officials declined to comment for this article.
In most middle- and upper-income communities, parents provide an informal yet crucial form of accountability for schools — protesting, and even suing over, mistreatment of their children. But this safety net is largely missing in the Camelot schools, where parents lack the knowledge, confidence, resources or language skills to complain. Those who have come forward say that few people in positions of power, including school officials, lawyers and police officers, take them seriously — if they listen at all.
For Younbloski Purifoy, Ladaryl’s mother, seeking justice for her son has become a personal crusade. Since Jamal Tillery allegedly assaulted Ladaryl in 2011, Purifoy has complained to police, lawyers, the NAACP, Pensacola’s mayor, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Florida Commission on Ethics, among other places. So far, all of her efforts have been in vain.
Ladaryl Purifoy’s uncle, Tony Neal, retrieved his injured nephew from Camelot Academy that February afternoon six years ago. The school bus driver had refused to transport the injured teenager, insisting that Purifoy should go straight to the hospital instead. So school officials called Neal to pick him up.
When the uncle arrived, he spoke with Tillery, who told him that staff had had to “restrain” Purifoy to stop him from fighting. Neal says Tillery encouraged them to leave before the police arrived, stating that he didn’t want Purifoy to get in trouble. In hindsight, Neal wishes he had overcome his instinctive fear of police and stayed at the school to advocate for his nephew.
School officials “think that they can get away with this because they think that nobody cares about these kids, that nobody loves them,” Neal said.
Unlike teenagers with academic or emotional problems from wealthy families, students who felt mistreated or unhappy at Camelot had few other options. If they couldn’t stand it, they dropped out, and entered adulthood without high school diplomas and, in some cases, bleak futures. In the unforgiving mathematics of the American economy, no degree usually equals a low-wage job, or unemployment.
Luis Colon tried going back to Camelot for a short time. But he felt anxious, his grades started to slip, and he didn’t want to be there anymore. Colon wasn’t scared that Cobb or other staff would do him real harm, but that he would retaliate and face harsh legal consequences. “I didn’t want the teachers to keep touching me because then I would do something stupid,” he said.
So Colon dropped out. He lives with his mother and is the main breadwinner for her, his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s 8-year-old child. One fall afternoon, he reflected on his hopes for the future while sitting in his mother’s living room, just down the street from Phoenix Academy. Colon said he has a full-time job at a warehouse that processes everything from furniture to clothing and shoes; he operates the lift machine. He hopes to become a mechanic someday. He has also completed an online Bible school program. But he regrets that he didn’t enroll at a more traditional high school. “That should never have happened in a school,” he said. “They are supposed to be like your second parents, watching you.”
In Reading, Pennsylvania, Corey Mack, now 20, dropped out after the beating. He said he simply didn’t feel like attending school, even with Seals gone. When we visited Reading on two separate occasions, Mack was sleeping on his grandmother’s couch. He has a young child with an ex-girlfriend and works occasional odd jobs, including helping friends move, according to his mother.
Since 2014, when Mack left the Camelot school, he has been arrested half a dozen times, with convictions for brawling, harassment, and public drunkenness. He is currently in prison as a result of a physical altercation with his brother, according to their mother.
Mack believes he would have stayed in school and graduated if not for the body slamming that day. “It’s too late now,” he said.
Nearly three years later, his mother, Sharon Pacharis, remains incensed about the incident — and its effect on her son. “They knew kids had behavior issues and they tried to use that as an excuse,” she says. The school’s mentality was: “I guess their parents aren’t going to beat the crap out of them, so we’re going to beat the crap out of them.”
Ladaryl Purifoy stayed home for a few weeks after the altercation with Tillery in Pensacola. He tried to start over at a new school, but he still suffered from pain in his shoulder as a result of the alleged assault, according to his mother. He also had recurring nightmares that people were chasing him, trying to beat him. Purifoy never finished high school — a direct consequence, he said, of the trauma he endured at Camelot. Charges of unarmed burglary and theft are pending against him.
Camelot placed Tillery on leave during its investigation of the allegations against him. He now serves as executive director of Camelot’s Excel Academy of Southwest, in Chicago, far from Pensacola. “Despite the fact that the allegations against him were determined to be unfounded,” a Camelot spokesman said, “the negative experience hurt him personally, and we agreed to have him work in another community.”
The Teacher Project is an education reporting fellowship based at Columbia Journalism School dedicated to covering the issues facing families and teachers. ProPublica reporter Heather Vogell contributed to this article.
IMAGE: chelle2u2008 / Flickr