Texas Hearing Airs Sexual Abuse Claims Against KIPP Charter School Co-Founder Mike Feinberg

Michael Feinberg, right, watches as his lawyers defend him at a hearing in Austin to determine whether he should surrender his teaching license to the Texas Education Agency. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

This article previously appeared at Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education, and The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

The high-profile co-founder of a nationally acclaimed charter school network faced a de facto trial last week in Austin over a sexual abuse allegation that cost him his job in 2018.

The case wasn’t a criminal one. Instead, it was an administrative hearing to determine if Michael Feinberg, the longtime face of KIPP and a well-known figure in Houston, can keep his Texas educator certificate.

KIPP officials ousted Feinberg, who helped build the nation’s largest network of nonprofit charter schools, in 2018 over the sexual abuse allegation. He has repeatedly denied the charges and has retained support among some longtime allies in the charter school movement. He’s since started a new organization called Texas School Venture Fund and worked as a consultant at the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports charters and vouchers.

The allegation of abuse first surfaced in 2017, when a student at a KIPP high school said Feinberg had “raped” her cousin. The assistant principal told Feinberg, whose lawyers said he instructed her to start an investigation, tell the superintendent and notify Child Protective Services.

“‘You know the protocol,’” Feinberg’s lawyers said he told her. “Does a guilty man do that? Does a guilty man tell them to call the authorities to investigate him?”

KIPP launched two investigations, but neither conclusively confirmed the alleged abuse.

He was fired in 2018. KIPP officials said publicly that there was “credible evidence” to back their decision — though Feinberg had categorically denied wrongdoing and noted that the incidents “allegedly occurred many years ago.”

A letter of termination sent to him said the evidence showed that “at a minimum, you put yourself in situations in which your conduct could be misconstrued.”

It was a stunning fall — and, to Feinberg’s lawyer Chris Tritico, “flat wrong.”

The full results of the organization’s investigations have not been released publicly. No criminal charges have been brought against Feinberg. He is suing KIPP for defamation.

The Texas Education Agency brought the case to revoke Feinberg’s state teaching certification last spring, a move that could limit his ability to work in schools.

During two days of proceedings, administrative law judges Beth Bierman and Robert Pemberton heard testimony in the closest thing yet to a trial over the allegations. It will be several months before the judges make a finding of fact and issue a recommendation on whether Feinberg should have his certificate revoked or receive a lesser punishment. The State Board for Educator Certification, housed in the education agency, will make the final decision.

The state administrative code requires a teaching certificate to be revoked if an educator engaged in or “solicited any sexual contact or romantic relationship with a student or minor.”

Together, the two days of testimony offered the most graphic and detailed account of an accusation that Feinberg sexually abused a young girl in Houston in the late 1990s under the pretext of a medical examination.

It was also the first time Feinberg was able to challenge the former student’s claims in a public setting. His lawyers called more than a dozen witnesses, including several former KIPP employees and students, to refute details of her account. His wife, a former KIPP teacher, was among those who spoke.

“This is the only chance he’s gotten to fight this thing,” Tritico said in an interview. “This is the first time and only time he’s gotten to stand up and say, ‘I didn’t do this.’ … He needs a ruling here to vindicate himself. Even if it’s symbolic — it’s everything to him.”

Feinberg — who again denied the allegations in his testimony — said he was not told the details of the accusation until after he was fired. He also said he hadn’t had a lawyer represent him during either investigation because “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I wanted to fully cooperate … and be fully transparent to help the truth come out.”

“I am pleased finally to be getting due process and for a chance for all the evidence to be heard in this matter,” Feinberg said in a statement after the hearing. “I actively sought a public hearing before Texas Education Agency, and I see it as a critical step in my ongoing effort to clear my good name and repair my professional reputation in the aftermath of this unfair and unjust termination from KIPP, an organization I helped create and one which I had devoted my entire career to making an unparalleled success.”

In a petition calling for the hearing, a TEA lawyer said Feinberg allegedly performed a “yearly check up” on the former student, then a fifth-grader attending KIPP in Houston in the late 1990s. While the two were in his office, the petition alleges, he placed his hand inside her shirt and rubbed up and down between her breasts and belly button. He had her “touch her toes while he ran his finger from her neck to her waist,” it says.

A week or two later, Feinberg is alleged to have told the student he lost the file and had to redo the exam. He “took her back to his office,” closed the door and had her partially disrobe, the TEA petition claims. He inserted a Q-tip into her vagina for a few seconds and then instructed her to return to class, it says. He was a teacher and the principal of the school at the time.

In testimony at the certification hearing Wednesday, the former student said she “felt confused” after the incidents. She put on her clothes, went back to class and told her mother about it after returning home. Although her mother was upset, the student asked her not to share the information with her father. “I thought my dad was going to blame me for it and hit me,” she testified.

Asked why she didn’t tell the school or police, the student responded, “They wouldn’t believe me because of my race.” She said she wanted to leave the school right away, but her mother didn’t know how to explain it to her father. She left a year later. “I wasn’t comfortable” anymore, she said.

The student’s mother largely confirmed her daughter’s account.

“I was in very bad shape. I started crying with her,” the mother testified through a Spanish translator. “I wanted to say something, but my daughter didn’t let me. We needed to talk to my husband, but we were scared of him because he was very strict and tough with her and with me.”

Feinberg’s lawyers worked to dismantle the student’s testimony. Feinberg sat pensively observing, sometimes taking notes on a yellow legal pad, during much of the testimony. He winked at his wife as he sat down to testify; they clutched hands after he finished speaking and rejoined his lawyers at their table.

“That did not happen … absolutely not,” Feinberg responded to detailed questions about the student’s allegations. Asked if he contended she was lying, he gave a long pause: “I contend that what she is saying are not the facts.” Asked why she would lodge the allegations, he said, “That would just be speculation.”

The former student, addressed as “Student 1” throughout the proceeding, had an older brother who was expelled from KIPP for stealing at around the same time the “medical exam” incidents were alleged to have happened, Feinberg’s lawyers said. The student’s mother confirmed the brother’s expulsion and answered affirmatively when Feinberg’s lawyer asked, “That did not sit very well with you and your family, correct?

“You were angry about the way he was treated and the way he was expelled, right?” Tritico asked. It was unclear if he was expelled before or after the alleged “check up[s].”

Feinberg said the brother, then a sixth-grader, had stolen a Game Boy from another student and lied about it. School officials thought it was unfortunate he would likely have to be expelled but that it could be a “teachable moment” for his peers. “His family was extremely upset at the way we were handling that,” Feinberg testified.

Much of the lawyers’ questioning centered on discrepancies among various accounts the student gave different investigators and agencies after the allegation first surfaced in 2017. On the witness stand, she didn’t contest that her recitation had changed over time, estimating that she’d recounted the events more than a dozen times since then.

There were differing versions of whether the student had met Feinberg at his office or been escorted there by him. It was also unclear if other administrators were sitting at desks in an open space outside Feinberg’s office when she went there for the “check up[s].” And the lawyer suggested that the student at one point said Feinberg instructed nearby employees, “Do not disturb us,” before one of the visits. That comment was missing from her testimony Wednesday.

Former KIPP employees and students enrolled at the Houston school at the same time cast doubts on the details of her account.

An office clerk for KIPP during the late 1990s, Leslie Salazar Ibarra, said she didn’t see Feinberg have any one-on-one meetings with a student behind closed doors during the time at issue.

“I would have questioned him,” she said. It’s “not appropriate, especially in this day and age. An adult can’t be behind closed doors with a child in a school setting.”

She and another former KIPP employee, Irma Valdez, said there was a window in the office door that let administrators see inside.

Several said furnishings that the student said were in the office at the time of the “check up” were not there.

For example, the student said Feinberg had gestured to a degree on the wall, saying he was a doctor, before explaining why he would be performing the physical on her. But witnesses said they did not recall a diploma being there and that Feinberg instructed all teachers to hang their academic credentials in the classroom to motivate students. (A KIPP-initiated investigation said the student had been able to accurately describe Feinberg’s office at the time.)

Feinberg also said he hung his diploma in his classroom that year.

The student described a third encounter with Feinberg during the hearing.

During a field trip to Washington, D.C., soon after the alleged Q-tip incident, the student testified that she was swimming in the hotel pool in a shirt and shorts. She said Feinberg pulled her aside and offered her dry clothes — a pair of his boxers and a KIPP T-shirt — to wear back to her room. He took her into a men’s bathroom and gave her the items to change into in a bathroom stall. The student didn’t check if Feinberg “was peeking at her while she changed,” the petition says.

The student’s mother testified that she found men’s clothing in her daughter’s luggage when she came back from the trip.

The former KIPP employees who testified on Feinberg’s behalf said it was unlikely the former student would have been left unchaperoned on a field trip and that it would have registered as unusual if a preteen returned to a shared hotel room carrying her wet clothes and wearing a men’s shirt reaching near the floor and boxers she had to hold up.

“That is not something that happens normally, so … a red flag goes up to say, ‘Hey, something’s wrong with this picture. I need to investigate further,’” said Sam Lopez, a longtime KIPP employee who was principal of the Houston school after Feinberg.

After the alleged incidents, the student friended Feinberg on Facebook and made small talk with him when he visited a restaurant she worked at years later.

“I wanted to see if he had the audacity to look at me in the eyes like nothing ever happened,” she explained. She enrolled her daughter at a KIPP school.

The “school should not be defined by the actions of this man,” she said. “I like that school … the way they are concerned about the students. They take their time teaching, and if you don’t understand, they’ll put you aside and tutor you,” she explained.

Additional allegations have been made about Feinberg, though they were not discussed at length at the February hearings.

Two adult alumni working at KIPP Houston around 2004 made claims that Feinberg sexually harassed them, according to legal filings and public notices. One of those women received a financial settlement; Feinberg said he did not want to settle because “I did not do anything wrong.” The other’s allegation could not be corroborated, but KIPP officials called it “credible” in the public post announcing Feinberg’s dismissal and in a termination letter sent to him.

He’s also been accused of repeatedly accessing pornography from his work computer, in violation of a KIPP technology usage policy, according to a filing in his defamation lawsuit. “There’s no evidence that he ever looked at porn on a KIPP computer,” Tritico said.

Feinberg co-founded KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, in the 1990s. He had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and had become an instructor with Teach for America. But he had quickly grown frustrated with the “limitations in teaching at-risk students in Houston’s public schools,” a filing in his defamation lawsuit says. With another Teach for America instructor, Dave Levin, Feinberg came up with the idea for KIPP. The first academy opened in Houston in 1995.

From there, the program has grown into a network of 242 schools serving more than 100,000 students, who are called “Kippsters” — a term Feinberg came up with to “reflect the camaraderie and sense of belonging that is so important to the school’s culture,” according to a filing in his defamation lawsuit.

The program uses a system of extended school days, tight-knit relationships between the school and students’ families, and a clear objective of preparing students for college. “Rides home, shared meals, and home visits are common at KIPP,” the defamation lawsuit filing says. The network has attracted an array of well-known donors and won accolades for the academic results it’s achieved teaching children in high-poverty neighborhoods.

“Mike and KIPP changed the game in terms of what people in public education thought was possible for low-income, minority students,” said Chris Barbic, who was a Teach for America instructor in Houston with Feinberg and is now a partner with The City Fund. “I’d say it was pretty transformational.”

Feinberg taught and was an administrator in Houston but later took on more of a proselytizing role, advancing KIPP and broader education issues.

KIPP opened two investigations into the original sexual abuse allegation. The first, opened in the spring of 2017, was led by a Houston-based law firm. The attorney who conducted that investigation testified Thursday and said her report found that the student’s allegation could not be confirmed nor substantiated. She also said the report found that “the great weight of the circumstantial evidence [preponderates] against the veracity of the allegations.”

A second probe was opened later that year, this time conducted by the Washington, D.C., law firm WilmerHale. (A later court filing by KIPP indicated that it was in response to a social media comment from Feinberg’s accuser on an unrelated news story about KIPP.) This investigation resulted in Feinberg’s termination; he had been an at-will employee.

Feinberg seemed to connect his termination to a merger of KIPP schools in Texas that he’d asked “pointed questions” about, in conflict with the chair of KIPP’s board. A few months after he was fired, he said, the merger went through.

KIPP could not be immediately reached for comment.

This article previously appeared at Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education, and The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

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