Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle 2012
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A former Oakland charter school director known for boosting student test scores through humiliation and harsh discipline has avoided jail time following a six-year federal investigation into allegations of fraud.
Ben Chavis, who ran the American Indian Model Schools, will spend one year on probation and pay a $100 fine in a plea deal with federal investigators, according to court documents.
Chavis had faced the prospect of decades in prison in connection with six felony charges of mail fraud and money laundering filed in 2017 following an IRS and FBI investigation into his financial dealings related to the schools.
Those charges were dropped and Chavis pleaded guilty to one count of submitting false information on federal documents.
“Dr. Chavis’ conduct, while a violation of federal law, did not cause measurable financial losses to the United States or another identifiable victim,” according to the federal sentencing memo. “His agreement to use false information in Board documents was deceptive and likely did lasting harm to the reputation of the American Indian Model Schools, but the government submits that, under the circumstances, it is not conduct meriting a term of imprisonment.”
Chavis, who lives in North Carolina caring for his parents, said none of the original charges stuck and he doesn’t have hard feelings about the long process.
“The neat thing about America, everybody eventually gets their chance in court,” he said, adding he wouldn’t change anything about the past.
“Those kids who went to school under me are engineers, they’re scientists,” he said.
The sentencing on April 22 in U.S. District Court in Oakland capped the six-year investigation and prosecution of Chavis, one of the Bay Area’s most polarizing educational figures in recent memory.
A Lumbee Indian, Chavis took over the struggling American Indian charter school in 2000, instituting rigid rules and meting out harsh discipline.
He was known for his frequent belittling and humiliation of students and harsh language. His use of profanity and racial slurs was well documented.
In one case, Chavis cut the hair of a student accused of stealing. Another who called a classmate a derogatory name was required to wear a note that said, “I’m an (expletive).”
At the end of the front hall, a sign quoted French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant: “There’s never any talent without a little stain of madness.”
Students had hours of homework every night and attended required summer school.
“I tell the students, if you don’t do your work, people are going to call you a lazy Mexican. You’re black, they expect you to be an idiot,” Chavis told The Chronicle in 2005. “I use it to motivate the kids.”
Under Chavis, test scores surged, pushing the charter school to the top of state rankings. He opened two more campuses.
He was widely lauded and criticized for his methods. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called Chavis’ results an “education miracle.” Critics considered his tactics physically and verbally abusive.
Society “has created a system to make minorities stupid. It’s not called prison; it’s called middle school,” Chavis said in 2005. “If you follow our model, you’ll be a winner. By the time these kids are in ninth grade, I don’t have to call them idiots anymore.”
While the first school initially opened to serve American Indian students, the schools later began serving a predominantly Asian student body.
In 2011, an audit by the Oakland Unified School District, which oversees the charter schools, found Chavis directed $3.8 million in school funds to businesses he and his wife owned. He resigned in 2012.
The Oakland school board’s efforts to close the schools that year failed and the three charters continue to operate.
The federal charges followed a state investigation that found fiscal improprieties showing Chavis reportedly applied for and received more than $1 million in federal grant funding from 2006 to 2012 that he said would be used for the charter schools. The money was instead used for lease payments on properties Chavis owned, according to a grand jury indictment.
Chavis maintained his innocence after federal authorities in 2013 raided his home as well as American Indian charter school offices, filling vans with boxes of documents and other records. He continued to profess his innocence following his arrest in 2017.
Oakland district officials declined to comment on the sentencing.
Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: jilltucker
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Controversial-charter-school-director-avoids-jail-13811164.php.