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Racist nicknames, throwing chairs and belittling parents: CPS ousts principal for ‘indefensibly unprofessional and unsafe’ behavior

A CPS report found numerous complaints that Franklin Fine Arts Principal Kurt Jones mistreated parents, teachers and staff, leading to “feelings of harassment, discrimination and humiliation” for some staff members of color. Jones says that was never his intent.

Former Franklin Elementary Fine Arts Principal Kurt Jones. He resigned on Friday after presented with the results of a district investigation.
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Racist nicknames for staff members, chair throwing, questionable handling of a special education program, harsh treatment of parents and an alternate experience for Black families combined to create a toxic environment at a top-rated elementary school under the leadership of a principal who resigned late last week, according to new details uncovered by a Chicago Public Schools investigation.

The district probe was prompted by a school cafeteria worker’s March concussion at the hands of the principal, Kurt Jones, who threw a water bottle that hit her in the face. But the investigation revealed the incident to be just one of countless uncomfortable, unprofessional and sometimes dangerous actions by Jones, according to interviews with three dozen parents and current and former staff members, summaries of which were provided to the Chicago Sun-Times in an investigative report.

Jones stepped down from his role as the principal of Franklin Elementary Fine Arts Center when presented with the findings of a CPS investigation that grew in scope as new complaints poured in after a Sun-Times report in early April detailed the lunchroom manager’s injuries. Though the district completed its investigation May 1 and investigators filed their report May 10, Jones was on the job all along, resigning last Friday, the day after the school year ended.

Asked why Jones was still at work three months after the lunchroom worker's injury and a month after the CPS report was finalized, spokeswoman Emily Bolton said there are several steps after an investigation is over before discipline is handed out.

"In this case, the district conducted an initial discipline conference, followed by a discipline committee review and a legal review panel to carefully consider all of the facts presented in the investigative report and develop a discipline recommendation," she wrote in an emailed statement. "After those steps took place, it was determined that a change in school leadership was necessary to promote a healthy school climate for all students and staff."

CPS would have fired Jones from the job that paid him more than $152,000 if he hadn't resigned, Bolton said.

District investigators said they substantiated eight distinct disciplinary charges, each comprised of numerous allegations, and wrote in an investigative report that Jones conducted himself in a “categorically unprofessional” manner, taking part in “indefensibly unprofessional and unsafe” behavior and caused some staff members of color “various feelings of harassment, discrimination and humiliation.” Three other conduct charges were referred to different CPS departments for further investigation.

None of the allegations in the report are criminal in nature. The Chicago Police Department is conducting its own investigation of the cafeteria worker’s injuries, which all parties acknowledge was caused by Jones’ throwing of a water bottle. That probe is ongoing.

In three conversations between Jones and CPS investigators, the former principal offered a defense of his actions: He denied any racist intent behind his comments, ascribed some of his behavior to playful attempts to build relationships with his staff, and held that his interactions with parents that were perceived as condescending or patronizing were the result of his aim to fulfill his responsibilities as an administrator and educator. Jones did, however, acknowledge several incidents were true as alleged, while trying to explain his harmless intent.

Jones, 46, was previously principal at Libby Elementary on the South Side from 2007 to 2016. Reached by text this week, Jones, who has been consulting an attorney, said, “My life has been dedicated to the education of students in the City of Chicago. There are often many sides to a story. Soon, I will be sharing my side of the story.”

A person jogs past the Franklin Fine Arts Center in the Near North Side on June 23, 2020.
A person jogs past the Franklin Fine Arts Center in the Near North Side on June 23, 2020.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Racist nicknames for staff and threats to call DCFS

Jones regularly called Black and Latino teachers and staff racist nicknames, according to several school employees who either told investigators they were the target of the epithets or heard them used by Jones.

That included calling Black staff members “Aunt Jemima,” witnesses alleged, a phrase based on racist origins from a minstrel show performer. Other nicknames reportedly used included “chicken wing,” “watermelon,” “Bonquita,” “burrito boy” and “KFC,” according to witness accounts detailed in the district report.

Jones, speaking to investigators, denied ever using the phrase “Aunt Jemima.” He told the district other nicknames were playfully made up by school support staff who spent time together at work, the report said. The employees all gave themselves nicknames based on their ethnicity, such as “taco enchilada,” Jones told investigators. The nickname “chicken wing,” meanwhile, was an inside joke between Jones and a Black colleague because they ordered food from Harold’s Chicken together, he said, adding that none of the terms he used were ever meant in a derogatory or racial manner.

In an interview with investigators, a parent representative on Franklin’s elected Local School Council said the LSC had previously received an allegation that Jones is “racially biased.” The LSC member said he spoke with Jones about the complaint at the time, and the principal was “open and receptive” to the conversation. But the parent said he did notice Jones “code-switching” when talking to parents of different races.

Another parent said Jones used an alternate “tone or slang” with Black mothers, including using “girl” or “sister” instead of their proper names, the CPS report said.

Franklin is a magnet school in Old Town, accepting students from anywhere in the city through a lottery system. Nearly half of the school’s 360 students are Black, while more than a quarter are white and the rest mostly Latino and Asian.

A Black mother who spoke with the district said she felt singled out by Jones because of her race, according to investigators. She told CPS that Jones “harasses” parents about being late to drop off their children in the morning, speaking in an “off-putting, condescending and offensive” manner.

A different Black mother said Jones has threatened to report her to DCFS for being 15 minutes late to pick up her child after school, and has claimed he filed a police report against her, according to CPS. In one incident, she alleged the principal had security escort her out of the building because she walked in with a cellphone in her hand instead of tucked away, the investigative report said.

Another mother told investigators Jones threatened to report her to DCFS if her child missed too many days of school.

Jones acknowledged in his interview with investigators that he has told parents he would call DCFS to report them. He gave two instances, one of which was for a student’s repeated absences and tardies, and another because a parent was “badgering” and “berating” their child.

Though Jones told investigators he believed he was following CPS policy by doing so, Bolton said "mandated reporters would call DCFS if they believed a child’s absence or chronic tardiness were due to abuse or neglect, but that was not the case in this instance."

Several teachers, staff members and parents told the district Jones also joked about employees’ ages, calling some teachers “grandma” and “grandpa,” and saying they were “too expensive,” investigators said.

Teachers and staff also reported being called a “dizzy ho” by Jones, a phrase he claimed he only used with close friends and was harmless.

Those allegations, in part, showed Jones’ behavior and comments created a “hostile” work environment for teachers and staff at Franklin, the district investigation found.

Special education concerns

The district received numerous allegations that Jones disrupted special education services at the school, according to the investigative report. Under Jones’ tenure at Franklin, the school went from 14% of students in special education to 9.8% — a shift Jones attributes to the graduation of children in the program — and reduced staff from eight special education classroom assistants when he first arrived to three this year.

The parents of one student said Jones told them their child was “too smart” for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a federally enforced legal document unique to each special education student that lays out exactly what types of services the child needs throughout a school year. When that student started receiving poor grades, Jones told the parents that “sometimes that happens,” the CPS report said.

A Franklin teacher told investigators that Jones put out a directive to reduce IEP minutes at the school, meaning students would receive less special education instruction time.

Franklin parent Ayerim Duenas previously told the Sun-Times that Jones tried to discourage her from sending her special needs child to the school.

Jones said in his interview with investigators that he didn’t want students with IEPs to be stigmatized by requiring an adult to “hover over” them the whole school day. Jones told the district he “cleaned up” all the IEPs and credited the school’s assistant principal for writing and implementing them “correctly.” He added that several parents of special education students are “out for him.”

CPS made no findings on the allegations and referred them for further investigation.

A picture hangs on the fence of the Franklin Fine Arts Center in Old Town on June 23, 2020.
A picture hangs on the fence of the Franklin Fine Arts Center in Old Town on June 23, 2020.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Hair pulling and inappropriate language

Several parents and teachers interviewed by investigators said Jones’ general behavior around families was inappropriate, according to the report.

Multiple people reported seeing Jones pull or play with students’ hair, hug them and rub their necks or back, the report said. A staff member at the school told investigators she saw Jones grab a Black kindergartner by either the shirt collar or back of the neck. And two people said Jones had an eighth grade student carry him through a school hallway because there was broken glass on the floor, according to investigators.

Several parents said they either heard Jones or were told by their kids that Jones, who is gay, routinely refers to himself using a homophobic slur, the report said.

Investigators said they referred some of those complaints to CPS’ Office of Inspector General, which since 2018 has handled all cases that fall under the wide umbrella of alleged sexual misconduct by adults against students. That can include anything from sexual assault to texting, “grooming” for sexual relationships and “creepy” behavior by adults, according to CPS policy.

Jones’ interactions with parents, meanwhile, made many of them feel belittled, according to interviews with more than a dozen parents who spoke to CPS about their concerns.

The former principal frequently yelled at parents in front of their own children and other parents, teachers and students, several parents told the district, including admonishing them for using cellphone cameras at school shows.

Two parents said Jones gave them trouble when trying to deal with their children’s medical issues. One mother said he wouldn’t let her into the school to give her kid an EpiPen, then was difficult to deal with when he eventually let her inside. Another mother said Jones scolded her when she would pick up her child, who has medical issues, for doctor appointments, refusing to let her into the building and telling her to schedule appointments in the evening and on weekends.

Another parent told investigators they shared negative feedback about Jones at an LSC meeting, and he responded with, “You parents are worse than my Kindergartners,” the report said.

Some LSC members interviewed by the district painted a more neutral picture of Jones’ actions, saying they never saw his alleged behavior themselves, and explained that some accusations have been overblown.

One LSC parent representative said Jones is stern and focuses on student safety. Two others said they’re aware of parent complaints about Jones’ unprofessional behavior, but attributed those feelings to the principal’s tone of voice rather than his actions being inappropriate.

Faye Jenkins’ injuries after the March 2020 bottle-throwing incident.
Faye Jenkins, a Franklin lunchroom worker, was hit by a water bottle thrown by Principal Kurt Jones.
Provided

Admits throwing bottle, food, chairs

In the probe of the bottle-throwing incident that led to the lunchroom worker’s concussion, district investigators found Jones’ admission that he threw the bottle to be enough evidence that he violated his duties as a CPS employee.

Even by Jones’ own account, he was playing a “game of dodgeball” with his staff inside the school, which investigators deemed “an unsanctioned and irrelevant activity” that ended with the injury of one of his employees.

That was part of a pattern of conduct by the former principal, including throwing chairs or food on numerous occasions, that was “categorically unprofessional, especially when considering Principal Jones’ hierarchical position within Franklin,” the CPS report said.

Jones admitted to investigators that he was the man shown in a video of a December 2018 incident in which he dropped a metal chair from a second-floor balcony in Franklin’s lunchroom. He said he was trying to startle some of his employees, part of his attempt to create a lighthearted, fun atmosphere and build relationships.

Investigators acknowledged in their report that Jones was issued a verbal warning for that lone incident. But they added that Jones went on to admit he had dropped metal chairs from the balcony five to 10 times in his tenure at Franklin. A teacher told the district she also saw Jones throw a metal chair or garbage can into a classroom, scaring the students and teacher, the report said. Jones said he never threw a chair into a classroom, but couldn’t remember if he tossed a garbage can, according to the report.