Named in suit, WHC preschool director goes on leave

Washington Hebrew Congregation. File photo.

The director of the Edlavitch-Tyser Early Childhood Center at Washington Hebrew Congregation is on
administrative leave after a lawsuit alleged that she was negligent and ignored repeated calls to curtail the behavior of a man accused of sexually assaulting eight children at the school.

The synagogue in February had already announced that D.J. Jensen would be departing following the 2018-19 school year. That was months after Metropolitan police opened an investigation into possible sexual abuse at the preschool.

“In light of last week’s media reports and the allegations being made against her directly, we and D.J. together concluded that her continued presence would be a distraction from the core purpose of education the children,” said Amy Rotenberg, a spokesperson for the synagogue. “We’re not taking a position of saying we agree with the allegations, it’s just saying the decision is in the best interest of the school.”

Meanwhile, both the District of Columbia Attorney General’s office and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) — the school’s regulator — announced that they’ve opened investigations into the school, independent of Metropolitan Police’s ongoing criminal investigation. Both offices have some authority over educational licensing.

The lawsuit, filed April 15, alleges that not only was the school breaking the law when it allowed the alleged perpetrator to be alone with children in the school, but that Jensen was negligent in ignoring calls for concern from other faculty at the school.

Two people involved with the synagogue reached by WJW said the feeling among parents and congregants has been tense.

“I’ve heard about a lot of difficult conversations between parents and their children. It seems like nobody knows for sure how much this went on or how many people were affected,” said one synagogue member who asked to remain anonymous because of requests from some at the temple. “People are in shock. I mean, it’s shocking.”

Rotenberg said that at no point has the synagogue ever asked families to not speak with media.
The lawsuit alleges that an assistant teacher at the school sexually abused children between the ages of 2 and 4 while employed there from March 2016 to August 2018, when the police opened an investigation into abuse at the school.

The police investigation is still ongoing and the assistant teacher has not been charged with a crime,
according to a police spokesperson. Last fall, the school confirmed that a staff member was placed on administrative leave following the start of the investigation and subsequently fired.

A former parent at the school, whose child was there until 2017, said that a number of families had already left the school following the opening of the investigation, which was prompted by a child reporting abuse last August. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, she said that others who’d stuck around were growing frustrated about lack of clear communication. The temple hired the Hogan Lovells law firm to conduct an independent investigation last August, the former parent said, but had stopped sharing updates consistently.

Rotenberg said the synagogue has been updating parents monthly on the situation and that the firm completed its report in February and shared it with all preschool families.

“The Hogan report determined consistent with OSSE’s findings that ET-ECC was materially compliant with state regulations,” Rotenberg wrote in a statement. “Hogan also offered recommendations on how we can continue working to achieve best practices in our policies, procedures and practices. Those recommendations have already been almost entirely implemented.”

Rotenberg also said that OSSE had been at the preschool three times since the police investigation began in August, and each time found the school in compliance with child safety regulations, which the lawsuit is contesting.

The eight families who filed the lawsuit are remaining anonymous to protect the identities of their children, according to their lawyer, Michael Dolce.

The parent who spoke to WJW said she’d always thought highly of Jensen, who is accused of hiring the assistant teacher despite his apparent lack of educational experience. But others, she said, became furious after reading the lawsuit.

“People’s opinions certainly changed. It’s hard to read that and not think twice about the people in charge,” the parent said. “It’s really disturbing. It’s any parent’s nightmare, and if they felt like things weren’t being addressed the right way, I can understand why [the plaintiffs in the case] would want to go that route.”

There is no mention of the investigation or the lawsuit on any Washington Hebrew Congregation webpage and Jensen did not respond to requests for comment.

Dolce said the plaintiffs believe there are more than eight victims, and more may come forward in the wake of the lawsuit’s publicity. So far, he said, no one had done so.

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