Washington Hebrew Congregation’s preschool sued for child endangerment

A synagogue-operated preschool is accused of putting kids in danger by ignoring D.C.’s child safety laws in a lawsuit brought by the District’s attorney general.

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced the consumer protection suit against the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s fee-based Edlavitch-Tyser Early Childhood Center — which operates in Ward 3 — on Wednesday.

Racine’s office launched a criminal investigation into the preschool in April 2019, after multiple families sued it for child abuse.

The suit alleges that the child care center violated D.C. law by leaving kids with unqualified and unsupervised staff, operating in violation of its license and misleading parents about the safety of the program.

The Washington Hebrew Congregation said in a statement that it vigorously denies the allegations.

According to the suit, an assistant teacher had been flagged numerous times by staff and parents for his odd behavior around children as young as 2 to 4 years old, but these allegations were dismissed by the center’s director, Deborah Schneider Jensen.

The lawsuit also claims that Jensen went as far as to threaten to dismiss anyone who continued to report the assistant teacher.

The suit alleges that there were times when children were left with only one supervisor, which violates D.C. law requiring that two adults be left to tend to children in child care settings.

Children were often left alone with the assistant teacher, and the suit claims staff could often take kids to private areas, such as the bathroom, a private classroom or into the woods for extended periods of time without question.

In 2018, the Washington Hebrew Congregation revealed allegations that children had been sexually abused while in their program by the assistant teacher.

By ignoring laws aimed at protecting children, the suit says that the Washington Hebrew Congregation “created an environment ripe for abuse.”

The congregation disputes the suit’s claim that it failed to report allegations of sexual abuse, saying, “in fact it was Washington Hebrew that self-reported the allegations on August 15, 2018, the same day we learned of the allegations.”

Washington Hebrew Congregation also said that D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office ended their 18-month investigation in January 2020 without any arrest and further action against the named alleged perpetrator.

Part of the suit seeks restitution for the children and the families of children who suffered abuse while at the center.

“Washington Hebrew Congregation repeatedly ignored District child safety laws and failed to protect children in its care — and as a result, 15 children have reported abuse,” Racine said in a statement. “Our lawsuit against Washington Hebrew seeks restitution for these children and their families. The Office of the Attorney General will not hesitate to hold accountable District child care providers if they do not follow the law.”

The suit also says that the Washington Hebrew Congregation hired unqualified staff who did not meet the requirements put forth by D.C. in order to become child care instructors or assistant teachers.

The Washington Hebrew Congregation advertised that its staff often exceeded the requirements set forth by the city, when in reality, there were members of the staff who did not hold the required levels of education or certification for their positions.

Washington Hebew Congregation said the suit  “purports to quote from the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s website, but actually quotes from another, unaffiliated Jewish organization’s website – The Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center.”

The D.C. Attorney General’s Office also said that the child care center failed to conduct proper background checks on its staff, something that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education had given them multiple warnings about.

Washington Hebrew Congregation said that its staff is “licensed, was re-licensed, after all the facts alleged in the AG’s complaint were already known, and remains in good standing with its regulator, D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), and has fully met every safety requirement requested by OSSE.”

The Washington Hebrew Congregation also allegedly operated a summer camp, which was not something that it was licensed to do in the District. Around 250 children went through this summer program over the course of three years, according to the suit.

Along with restitution for the children and their families, Racine’s office said it is seeking a court order ensuring the institution follows D.C. law in the future, along with civil penalties to deter it from violating the law again.

“We will take all necessary steps to defend our congregation and our school against this misleading and inaccurate lawsuit,” the Washington Hebrew Congregation said.

Editor’s note: WTOP has updated this story to remove the name of the assistant teacher as he was not charged with crimes surrounding this lawsuit.

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Zeke Hartner

Zeke Hartner is a digital writer/editor who has been with WTOP since 2017. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University’s Political Science program and an avid news junkie.

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