by Will Evans, California Watch
Scrutiny of a West Oakland church school accused of abuse by parents and students is growing, with BART officials now questioning the school's right to solicit for donations in stations and state officials investigating whether federal funds should have gone to school leaders.
The latest actions follow an ongoing investigation by California Watch and CBS 5 into St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church and private school, where students as young as 9 say they were required to ask for money for hours after school and federal funding appears to be based on inflated enrollment numbers. The Oakland school board also has launched an investigation after a rancorous school board meeting earlier this month, where parents alleged mistreatment of students at the school.
"We should not be in the position of allowing children to be exploited in any kind of way," said BART Director Lynette Sweet. "An abundance of caution tells us we should stop (the soliciting)."
Church leader Robert Lacy Jr. objected to the continued scrutiny of the school his father, the pastor Robert Lacy, founded in 1978.
"Now it sounds like it’s getting into harassing individuals that aren’t bothering anyone," he said in an interview. "It sounds like you’re trying to defame the character of the school and the church and everything that has to do with St. Andrew."
BART has routinely granted permits allowing St. Andrew to solicit donations, and staff previously defended that action to its board citing free speech rights. But Sweet and Director Robert Raburn now are asking BART's lawyers to determine what leeway the agency has to restrict the soliciting activities of St. Andrew.
"By all accounts, this is not a group that we want to promote on public property," Raburn wrote in an email to California Watch.
Raburn said he became concerned last year when he saw unsupervised St. Andrew students asking for money at the Fruitvale BART after dark. Sweet also grew alarmed, she said, after seeing the soliciting continue day after day.
But BART staff responded to the board in a December memo that "the speech activities are protected on the grounds that the Church is a religious organization engaged in charitable solicitation."
St. Andrew students have been raising money for years, but it's unclear where the money is going. The pastor drives a Cadillac Escalade while the school building needs repairs.
California Watch recently uncovered allegations of abuse at the hands of Robert Lacy Jr., who teaches at the school and sometimes takes students to solicit at BART stations. Former students said he hit and threw things at children in his classes. Lacy Jr. has said he doesn't have "any history" of hitting children.
Sweet said the staff decision to keep monthly permits flowing to St. Andrew was "the wrong thing to do."
"It didn’t appear that they were raising money for a legitimate cause," she said. "It also appeared that they were out there too long – they were being abused."
BART spokeswoman Luna Salaver said that as a public agency, BART has to issue the permits "on a level playing field." She said BART police monitored the situation and did not observe any violations.
"BART takes children’s safety very seriously," Salaver said.
BART issued this month's permit to Andrew Lacy, another son of the pastor. The permit allows fundraising every day from 5 to 7 p.m. at seven BART stations in Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro.
Andrew Lacy has a history of illegal activity. He pleaded guilty to felony welfare fraud in 2004, according to court records. And, according to police records newly obtained by California Watch, he was also arrested in 2002 on charges of injuring his girlfriend with a club. He was convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence charge in that case, which was later dismissed after he satisfied the conditions of his probation, according to court records.
BART does not conduct a criminal background check before issuing permits, Salaver said.
In a separate custody court case this year, the father of Andrew Lacy's stepdaughter – then a student at St. Andrew – accused Lacy of threatening to slap the girl if she didn't solicit at BART stations. The girl’s mother denied the allegations in court filings, but the judge gave primary custody to the father, specifying that the girl not engage in soliciting.
Andrew Lacy did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, state officials plan to investigate whether the Oakland Unified School District mismanaged federal funds as it distributed money to St. Andrew teachers. California Watch found that the school's reported enrollment numbers, used to determine its level of federal funding, far exceeded the number of students who actually attend.
Oakland Unified distributes Title I money based on the number of low-income students and Title II money based on total enrollment. The district uses enrollment figures reported to the state to allocate Title II funds.
St. Andrew reported to the state it had 195 students this year, including 61 low-income students, while former students said fewer than 30 attended. An Oakland fire inspector observed 15 to 20 students and determined that the classrooms could fit no more than 58.
As part of a federal program to improve teaching and help struggling students at both public and private schools, Oakland Unified allocated at least $50,000 to benefit St. Andrew this school year and paid out $173,500 over the previous four years. Most of the money went to Lacy Jr. and Carrie Banks, a St. Andrew teacher who married the pastor in 1999.
Oakland Unified spokesman Troy Flint said the state is responsible for making sure the numbers are accurate.
"It just makes common sense," Flint said.
But state Education Department spokesman Paul Hefner said the state does not check the enrollment figures.
Local school districts, he said, “need to take steps to verify those numbers.”
Hefner said the state is moving up a planned routine review of the district's distribution of Title I and II funds from January to September because of the controversy. The review, he said, will also look into whether the money should have gone to Lacy Jr. and Banks, since the law requires it be used for consultants who are "independent" of the school.
The district could be on the hook for refunding any misspent money.
In total, the district allocated $1.2 million to benefit Oakland private school students and teachers during the 2011-12 school year, according to district records.
Will Evans is an investigative journalist for California Watch.