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.
Feinberg, who helped build the nation’s largest network of nonprofit charter schools, was ousted by KIPP officials in 2018 over the sexual abuse allegation. He’s repeatedly denied the charges, and has retained support among some long-time allies in the charter school movement.
-based group that supports charters and vouchers.
“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.
A letter of termination sent to him said the evidence showed “at a minimum, you put yourself in a situation in which your conduct could be misconstrued.
The full results of the organization’s investigations have not been released publicly.
During two days of proceedings this week, 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.
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.
Even if it’s symbolic — it’s everything to him.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“I was in very bad shape.
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 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.”
Addressed as “Student 1” throughout the proceeding, the student had an older brother who was expelled from KIPP for stealing around the same time the “medical exam” incidents were alleged to have happened, Feinberg’s lawyers said.
“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 Gameboy 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.
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.
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 ups.” And the lawyer suggested 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.
“I would have questioned him,” she said.
She and another former KIPP employee, Irma Valdez, said there was a window in the office door that let administrators see inside.
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.
During a field trip to Washington, D.
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 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 .
“I wanted to see if he had the audacity to look at me in the eyes like nothing ever happened,” she explained.
Two adult alumni working at KIPP Houston around 2004 made claims 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.
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.
He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and became an instructor with Teach for America. But he quickly grew frustrated with the “limitations in teaching at-risk students in Houston’s public schools,” a filing in his defamation lawsuit says.
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.
“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.
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 the student’s allegation could not be confirmed nor substantiated.
C. law firm WilmerHale.
(A later court filing by KIPP indicated that was in response to a social media comment from Feinberg‘s accuser on an unrelated new 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.