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PPS rejected a plan that would’ve allowed a student to learn from home. He was killed at school.

Oliver Citywide Academy Pittsburgh Public Schools North Side student teacher education Pennsylvania
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Oliver Academy on the North Side enrolls around 100 students in grades 3-12.

As shocking as it was, there is still much that isn't known about the January shooting of 15-year-old Pittsburgh Public School student Marquis Campbell.

Authorities don't know the identities of the two gunmen who shot him while he waited in a district van as classes let out for the day at Pittsburgh Oliver Citywide Academy. Police haven’t released information about a motive for the homicide or whether Marquis knew himself to be in danger.

But for some Pittsburgh Public Schools staff, one of the most haunting questions is whether a change in school district policy might have kept him away from school on the day he was shot.

Marquis had been a student at Oliver, on the North Side, for nearly five years. He came to Oliver because staff there use special services and training to help students like him: those who have been diagnosed with both a learning disability and emotional and behavioral challenges.

But Marquis’ mom worried for Marquis’ safety at Oliver, according to staff members at the school, and she even sent him to remote schools for a time in 2021 when Pittsburgh Public Schools held in-person classes. The district had taught students remotely for an entire year before.

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“Marquis' mom wanted him to be remote this year for safety reasons,” Oliver Principal Anthony Esoldo wrote in an email to then-interim Superintendent Wayne Walters five days after Marquis had been shot. “She begged us for a remote option…”

Staff at Oliver say they had proposed a program that would have allowed students like Marquis to learn remotely. The school had seen success with some students during the pandemic, and the school’s leadership and some staff members wanted to continue to provide that option for them in the 2021-2022 school year.

But former Superintendent Anthony Hamlet didn’t approve the remote learning plan at Oliver. Months after Marquis’ death, it hasn’t been taken up by the new superintendent, Walters.

In the same email, Esoldo asked Walters to reconsider the proposal. He included several district administrators, the head of school police and three school board members on the email to Walters.

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Wayne Walters.

WESA reached out to Campbell’s mother through several intermediaries. One of those intermediaries responded on the mother’s behalf and said she still isn’t emotionally ready to talk publicly about Marquis.

WESA spoke to five staff members at Oliver who asked that their identities be concealed because they feared the district might take punitive action against them for speaking up. The staff accounts were corroborated by emails, text messages, additional documents and interviews with district leaders.

The district declined to make anyone available for an interview, including Walters and Esoldo. But Ebony Pugh, the district director of public relations, did provide responses to questions by email. Former Superintendent Anthony Hamlet did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

If Marquis had been able to learn from home that day in January rather than in person at Oliver, it’s not certain that he would still be alive today.

“This could've happened to him at home or in the community, don't get me wrong,” one staff member said. “We can't protect everyone all the time. We could've just made school a little safer.”

Searching for success at school

Marquis often had a smile on his face, Oliver staff members said. He knew how to make his friends laugh. He was one of the students who cared the most about his style and appearance. And above all, he wanted to please his mother.

Marquis was diagnosed with several learning disabilities, as well as behavioral and emotional challenges. He hit an Oliver teacher with whom he was in conflict in the back of the head. He hit another student during a disagreement on the playground. But the behaviors in which he occasionally engaged at Oliver were not uncommon among middle-school students, some staff said.

Oliver enrolls around 100 students in grades 3-12, most of whom struggled in traditional schools because of learning disabilities and behavioral challenges. There are high rates of mental health diagnoses such as PTSD among its students, around half of whom are Black boys. When the students have a strong emotional reaction, it’s not uncommon for some students to resort to physical violence.

The staff at Oliver take a trauma-informed, therapeutic approach to addressing the root cause of behaviors. So instead of just punishing students, they try to work with the students to find out what triggered their behavior and come up with a plan to prevent it from happening again.

Classes often contain only six to eight students so teachers can give individual students attention. There’s an additional “behavior coach” in every class to help students. A school psychologist is on hand. A community organization provides social services outside of school. Even the district’s central office special education administrators have their offices in the building.

While he didn’t get in serious trouble, Marquis could be difficult, some staff said. He would ask to be left alone when in conflict with staff — a response one staff member believed was a self-defense response that he’d learned in previous schools that didn’t address his specific needs.

But some staff said Marquis showed improvement during his five years at Oliver.

“He [was] one of those kids you can get a lot done with and had great insight. And could change his behaviors…” one staff member said. “He was able to reflect and get it and think about his end goal and make progress. He was learning how to interact with people in order to be successful.”

Marquis Campbell
Courtesy photo
Pittsburgh Public Schools
Marquis Campbell

He loved nothing more than to make his mother proud, said another staff member — and his teachers often sent her daily texts with updates. His mom loved the additional attention Oliver provided to Marquis and the progress he’d shown in five years, she told staff in text messages also shared with WESA.

According to staff, Marquis’ mom had tried to avoid sending him back to Oliver in person in the 2021-2022 school year out of concern for his safety.

Staff members said that someone shot at Marquis’ older brother, who also attended Oliver, at a spot Downtown where he transferred public buses on his way to school. A neighbor had also recently been killed by gunfire.

If a mother at a different school had feared for her child’s safety, that parent could have applied to the district to have her child moved to a different school. But Marquis had few, if any, options available because it was determined that traditional schools weren’t working for him.

Still, members of Marquis’ individualized education team could’ve tried to address his mother’s concerns, according to Ann Hinkson-Herrmann, a special education administrator with the district until March 2021 who was involved with Oliver’s special education program. Each student with an individualized education plan meets with at least one staff member, an administrator and the student’s parents to identify ways to help meet the student’s individual needs.

One staff member who was familiar with Marquis’ IEP process said his mother raised her safety concerns to members of the IEP team three times — once in July 2021, once in November and once in January 2022. Each time a member of the IEP team reached out to district special education staff for permission to educate Marquis remotely, and each time, they say, they were told it was not an option.

Pugh said in an email that she couldn’t answer a question about how the district responded to Marquis’ mother’s safety worries. “The District currently offers an online option for students in grades 4-12 through the Pittsburgh Online Academy,” she said.

Oliver Academy
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Oliver Academy

But Marquis’s mom enrolled him in at least two schools outside of Pittsburgh Public Schools for a short period in the 2021-2022 school year, including PA Cyber Charter School. The cyber school, like the Pittsburgh Online Academy, offers a fully remote option, but it’s a largely self-guided curriculum without live instruction for students. Those schools didn’t have the resources or experience to support students like Marquis in the way that Oliver’s staff is trained to provide, according to Oliver staff and a former Pittsburgh Public Schools special education administrator. It’s unclear if Marquis’ mother considered sending him to PPS’ online academy.

Marquis’ mom told staff she was worried he would fail at an online school, staff said.

And so Marquis’ mom decided to send him back to Oliver in person.

On the day Marquis returned, he got into a verbal altercation with another student, according to staff. Although his first day back was a little rocky, Marquis finished out the day at Oliver and boarded his school van.

When shots were fired outside, the rest of the students in the school were put on lockdown.

One staff member said, after locking down their classroom and trying to calm down two students with PTSD who were upset, their first thought was: Did something happen to Marquis?

“This is going to be awful if that’s the case,” the staff member remembers thinking. “Because this is exactly what his mom was afraid of.”

High Flex/High Needs

Several Oliver staff said Marquis was an extreme example of a student with a unique need that wasn’t being addressed by the district. Months earlier, some staff members had drafted a plan to support students’ academic growth, but it could also be used to address safety concerns like those of Marquis’ mom.

During the pandemic, educators at Oliver noticed that some of their students — especially those with serious behavioral and emotional challenges who were easily triggered by other students around them — were flourishing during remote instruction. They were completing work that they had rarely turned in before. They were able to focus in a way that they hadn’t yet. And they were even able to engage more productively with other students during video instruction.

“COVID and the experience just opened our eyes to this,” one staff member said. “Our kids can actually talk to each other and socially build some skills that we would never, ever see in person.”

These staffers didn’t believe that these students could get the same kind of benefit from remote instruction offered by traditional cyber schools because those schools wouldn’t offer the same training or have enough experience to deal with the severe challenges faced by students at Oliver. So a handful of Oliver staff created a pilot proposal: It would enable the school to continue providing a hybrid learning option for around 15 to 20% of its students. The hope was that, if the pilot proved successful, the program could be adopted as a permanent option at the school.

School board member Gene Walker is skeptical the High-Flex/High-Needs plan's premise: “Our job as educators is to work with our students. And the best way to do that is face-to-face. So you don't necessarily deal with the behavior of a student by sending him or her home and not being able to kind of work through those things with them.”

Oliver’s staff presented their remote learning plan, which they called “High Flex/High Needs,” to senior district leaders, including former Superintendent Hamlet, during the spring of the 2020-2021 school year. They presented it a second time to senior leadership in August 2021.

WESA obtained material about the remote plan presented to district leadership in August. In the presentation, Oliver staff cited statistics that showed more math work was completed than in previous years, and reading scores had gone up, for a subgroup of the school’s students. The school surveyed 60% of Oliver’s parents and found that 17% of them wanted their students to learn from home — a similar percentage to what the school leadership was proposing. Another third of parents wanted the flexibility for their kids to learn from home in special circumstances, such as illness, family crisis or “community safety issues.”

Esoldo, Oliver’s principal and one of the proponents of the pilot plan, sought approval of the plan from Hinkson-Herrmann after it was initially formulated. Esoldo and Hinkson-Herrmann discussed specific students who were doing well during remote instruction.

“I wouldn't say all students and wouldn't say long-term, but certainly there were students we didn't anticipate were going to be as successful as they were,” Hinkson-Herrmann said. “We were pleasantly surprised.”

Hinkson-Herrmann said she worked with Esoldo to present the plan to Minika Jenkins, the district’s chief academic officer at the time. Hinkson-Herrmann said she left the district in March 2021 before the district had made its decision. Jenkins no longer works for the district and declined a request for comment, instead referring questions to the current administration.

When Hinkson-Herrmann left the district, the plan showed potential, she said, although issues remained that needed to be worked through with other staff in the district, particularly around legal compliance. The district needed to ensure that students who received hybrid instruction would also receive all of their legally mandated instruction hours and other services, such as counseling. When she left the district, those conversations hadn’t taken place, she said, and she typically would’ve been included if they had occurred.

“There was merit to the plan, and it would've required deeper conversations before it was accepted or rejected,” Hinkson-Herrmann said. In an emailed response to questions, Pugh said she was unable to confirm if there had been any further discussion or development of the plan.

After a small group of staff presented the plan in August, Jenkins called the presentation “very thorough” and thanked the staff “for putting students first and developing a plan to support their needs.”

But the Oliver plan for hybrid learning was presented at a time when schools across the country were abandoning the hybrid model, according to survey results released Aug. 4 by the National Center for Education Statistics. Only 10% of schools offered a hybrid learning option last school year, compared to more than 40% during the 2020-2021 school year.

The district rejected the plan in August 2021 soon after the last presentation.

“During Dr. Hamlet’s tenure, the Superintendent’s Cabinet deliberated and did not approve moving forward with the proposal at the time. The details of that discussion are unavailable,” Pugh wrote in an email.

Courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Schools
Former Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet.

Hamlet left his position less than two months later, in October, after a state investigation found that he violated ethics rules by accepting improper reimbursements.

David Lee, a professor at Penn State University who studies special education, said it’s in the nature of special education that some students need a unique learning environment. Lee said researchers have focused on the learning loss of average students during the pandemic, but those studies could be obscuring the success of some subgroups.

“When you look at students as an individual, it's not a surprise to me that there are some students that are going to do better in a variety of different settings,” he said.

WESA shared data Oliver included in its proposal to the district with Arleen Wheat, a special education professor at Point Park University, with more than 40 years of experience, including in administration positions where she made programmatic decisions. Wheat said the Oliver “High Flex” proposal sounded well-thought-out.

“If they have data that indicates that there are students who actually perform better academically with a different type of schedule or structured schedule, then certainly it's something that's worth trying,” she said.

Another chance for the plan

Esoldo said in his email to Walters after Marquis died that Hamlet’s administration had told him the "Answer wasn't no, it was just not now” for the remote-learning plan.

Esoldo asked Walters to take another look at it because, after Marquis’ death, a delay no longer seemed warranted.

“This is unacceptable, and we respectfully ask you to reconsider,” Esoldo wrote in his Jan. 24 email to Walters, which he also sent to district administrators and school board members. The majority of Esoldo’s 980-word email laid out the case for why he thought Walters should allow Oliver to adopt a “High Flex/High Needs” pilot program.

A printout of the email was delivered anonymously to WESA. Its authenticity, as well as several other related emails, has been verified through numerous interviews.

Two hours after Esoldo sent the email, Walters responded but did not address the merits of Esoldo’s proposal.

“In the future, please send e-mails that are addressed to me, only to me. I find it problematic and assume other intentions when someone is sending an e-mail to me, and others are carbon copied,” Walters wrote in his response to Esoldo. Walters’ said he would talk with Esoldo about the “information shared in your e-mail” at a later time.

Wayne Walters, the superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, sent this email to Anthony Esoldo, the principal at Oliver Academy, two hours after Esoldo asked him to consider allowing the school's "High Flex, High Needs" pilot plan proposal.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Wayne Walters, the superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, sent this email to Anthony Esoldo, the principal at Oliver Academy, two hours after Esoldo asked him to consider allowing the school's "High Flex/High Needs" pilot plan proposal.

Oliver staff interviewed for this article say to their knowledge Walters never came to the school to discuss the plan with staff, and they say the program that Esoldo proposed to Walters has never been fully implemented.

Pugh said in an emailed statement that Esoldo told his supervisor, Assistant Superintendent Kevin Bivins, that he was no longer pursuing the proposal. Bivins referred an emailed request for information about this conversation to the district leadership, and Esoldo didn’t respond.

Several Oliver staff, however, disputed the district’s statement. The staff members say they continued to make presentations about the proposal to people outside the school, including to union leadership.

Pam Harbin, a member of the PPS school board who was included on the Jan. 24 email from Esoldo, said Walters hasn’t given the board a full explanation of why the plan wasn’t implemented. Harbin said she first asked Walters for a response in January and still hasn’t received one.

“If the proposal was rejected, why?” Harbin said in an email to Walters in January. “If it’s under consideration, what are the challenges and barriers that need to be resolved to move forward?”

Kevin Carter, another board member included on the email, said he left the issue to be handled by Walters. Although Oliver Academy is in Carter’s district, he said when board members get involved in running schools, that’s how “insubordination runs rampant.” If he intervened, he said, it would set a precedent that principals can go around the superintendent’s decision and “they can just go to a couple of their cool homies on the board ... and find an alternative answer.

Gene Walker, the third school board member included on the email from Esoldo, said district administrators told him they believed Marquis’ situation was unique and didn’t merit a school-wide or district-wide response.

Initially, Walker said he thought that the administration should listen to the proposal. But he’s not sure if it’s feasible for only one school in the district to use the hybrid approach, he added.

“In my conversations with Dr. Walters and some other folks, there just wasn't enough data and proof that those types of changes would have both prevented what happened or potentially prevented what could happen in the future,” Walker told WESA. “And so I think it's important that we don't make snap decisions based off of what happens to be a really terrible incident.”

Walker said he worries that sending students to learn from home, as proposed in the Oliver plan, might not help them in the long run because they wouldn’t get the same kind of behavioral support.

“Our job as educators is to work with our students. And the best way to do that is face-to-face,” he said. “So you don't necessarily deal with the behavior of a student by sending him or her home and not being able to kind of work through those things with them.”

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said she was also skeptical of the Oliver proposal — at first. Most of the teachers in the district did not want to teach essentially two classes at once — one on video and one in person.

“Across the country, we know what works. You need kids in front of you …” she said. “Hybrid does not work. We found that. Or for teachers, it's too difficult.”

But she later decided that the program at Oliver could be an exception. After Marquis was shot, she attended a presentation at the school in which staff presented data about how some students were succeeding remotely. After hearing testimonials from staff and students, Esposito-Visgitis said she not only had changed her mind — she found herself tearing up about how dedicated the teachers were to their students.

She said she would support the plan at Oliver because of the specialized needs of students and the expertise of the teachers who work with students needing emotional support.

“It was such a beautiful and heartfelt presentation,” she said. “I thought they had given it a lot of thought. They had a lot of data there, and I thought it was an excellent plan.”

A life lost

The school closed for two weeks after Marquis died on Jan. 19. About a third of the school’s parents struggled with whether to send their students back to school after the shooting. One of Marquis’ friends never returned.

Marquis’ slaying was the first under Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration — which has been trying to respond to headlines about rising violence ever since. Hours after the shooting, Gainey called on the public to help with the investigation of Marquis’ death.

“We cannot have this going on in front of our schools,” Gainey said during a news conference that night. “Our children [are] our greatest asset.”

Pittsburgh Police in July said that they believe there will be an arrest in the case before the end of the year but declined to provide any additional details.

Some Oliver staff said they hope now that Walters has assumed the district’s permanent leadership position, he will have the authority to approve the pilot program proposed at Oliver.

Marquis Campbell
Courtesy photo
Pittsburgh Public Schools
Marquis Campbell

After Marquis was killed, Oliver staff worked with families in the IEP process to adjust some student schedules. This change included a small portion of what staff were hoping for from the “High Flex/High Needs” plan. Those students still aren’t allowed to be remote full-time, and the school can’t offer them live, hybrid instruction. Each student’s individual education plan is approved by the district.

Before Marquis’ death, the staff who spoke for this story could recall only one example of a student being allowed to work from home some of the time. After his death, they said, there were at least a handful of examples.

And one staff member said there were fewer fights and altercations at the school after these changes were implemented. They referred to a couple of students who were in conflict, who, after having their schedules adjusted, “got way more academic work done when they were in a modified schedule than they'd ever gotten in the building, ever.”

One Oliver staff member said one reason pilot programs like the one at Oliver face resistance is because it involves emotional and behavioral disabilities. The staff member said some educators believe physical or intellectual disabilities require dramatic accommodations from schools but view behavioral problems as issues students should be able to tackle on their own.

“If we had a student who was visually impaired or deaf, would we have the same conversation?” the staff member said. “I feel like we're having this conversation about emotional difficulties because they’re not viewed the same as other disabilities. And it should be.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.