Director Of Popular Silver Lake Preschool Accused Of Misconduct With Kids
P.L.A.Y., a popular Silver Lake preschool, has been embroiled in controversy in recent days after teachers alleged to some parents that the school's director, Gabriel Ross, and its assistant director, Annie Gekozyan, had been physically and verbally inappropriate with their children.
Those allegations have led at least two families and two teachers to either notify or file reports with the LAPD about the alleged incidents, LAist has confirmed.
In an email, P.L.A.Y.'s attorney, Anthony Liberatore, denied the accusations. "At no time has PLAY violated any child's personal rights," he wrote.
The allegations against Ross include screaming and yelling at the preschoolers as well as aggressively putting his hands on them. Gekozyan is alleged to have roughly pinched a child's face. P.L.A.Y.'s parent handbook states, "At no time will [any] child be struck, handled roughly, or verbally shame[d] as a disciplinary measure."
LAist spoke with seven parents whose children were, or are, students at P.L.A.Y. Four of them spoke on the record, while three did not want their names used because of the contentious situation.
According to these parents, the teachers said they had seen Ross grab children's faces and arms; in one instance, he allegedly dragged a crying child by the arm into his office. Parents said the alleged incidents often happened when kids were sent to Ross's office for behavior issues, adding that Ross and Gekozyan, who are married, often scream at each other in front of the children.
Liberatore told LAist that:
"Aggression is not used as a teaching tool, nor is its use an appropriate way to deal with children -- even those children who have issues like biting and hurting other children. At all times, PLAY employs situationally appropriate means to protect all children. Gabriel and Annie do not yell or scream as claimed. Anyone who knows them also knows that the claims... are false and misleading. PLAY has many heartfelt positive reviews on Yelp, Facebook and Google, and is lauded for the quality and commitment that it provides to its children."
The allegations have come to light over the past two weeks. One of the teachers who reported Ross's alleged misconduct to the LAPD spoke to LAist on condition that her name be withheld. The teacher described arriving at school the week of Monday, June 10, to see a two-and-a-half-year-old student with red marks on his face. The teacher, who told LAist the student had been sent to Ross's office for biting another student that morning, brought the marks to the attention of a colleague. The teacher said that when the colleague asked Ross if he was responsible for the red marks, he replied in the affirmative, saying, "Yeah, mm-hmm." According to the teacher, when the colleague told Ross his actions were inappropriate, he appeared agitated and said, "Well, you sent him to the office!" The colleague could not be reached for comment.
The teacher LAist spoke with called LAPD around 1 p.m. that day and officers arrived at the school around 3 p.m. LAPD confirmed to LAist that at least one officer visited the school and took a report.
As the allegations circulated among parent groups and on social media, P.L.A.Y. hired Dr. Tamar Andrews, who told LAist her job is to "improve practices at the school" and serve as a consultant and facilitator of a new parent committee. Andrews told LAist she is not representing the school as a public relations professional or spokesperson, but provided a written statement, telling LAist, "Feel free to use all of it!" The statement reads:
"Verbal abuse is something that is done to intentionally harm someone else such as name calling, belittling, insulting, etc. Physical abuse is an intentional act to cause harm to another person. Anyone that knows Gabriel or any of the teachers and staff at PLAY know that this never occurred. Did they discipline children? Yes. Was it always the way that everyone else would discipline a child? No. Just as we have all seen different parents discipline children in myriad ways, PLAY had a method of discipline that some parents sought out and some parents found too harsh. For generations, parents have been using time-outs. For generations, parents have been stern with children to correct inappropriate behavior. As the field of child development and early childhood education continues to evolve, we are learning more and more about what constitutes best practices and those are changing every day. PLAY is committed to keeping abreast of best practices and to educating all teachers and staff as to how to run a child care business that affords children environments in which to grow and thrive."
If you are the parent of a preschooler or you are an early childhood educator and have concerns about misconduct in your school or community, click here for a list of resources.
Five parents who spoke to LAist said that at least a dozen families have pulled or intend to pull their children out of the school.
Megan Godfrey, who has been sending her daughter to the school for two years, didn't notice anything amiss. But in the past 10 days, she said, three different teachers told her they had seen or were aware of Ross yelling at or physically disciplining her daughter.
"The thoughts going through my head are terrifying," she told LAist.
Godfrey pulled her child from P.L.A.Y. She told LAist that she notified LAPD about what she had learned.
Another parent, who agreed to speak to LAist provided she isn't named, said she also learned from teachers that her three-year-old child had been harshly handled by Ross and Gekozyan. After pulling her child from the school, she told LAist that when she confronted Ross and Gekozyan, they, "denied all the accusations, claiming they were rumors fabricated by exiting employees."
On June 10, parent Katie Cronin withdrew her child from the school after learning about the allegations. She said her three-year-old daughter, who is not one of the four children involved in the alleged incidents, cowers at the mention of Ross's name and calls him, the "bad man."
Other parents say their children love Ross, who the kids call "Bebo."
Some parents said they will keep their kids at P.L.A.Y. and are hopeful that the school can move past this controversy.
"I feel terrible for everyone involved," parent Kysa Johnson told LAist, "mostly for those who feel that their children were mistreated and those children, but also the parents who are trying to figure out what is really happening and how they should respond, and the entire staff and community at PLAY."
PRIME PRESCHOOL REAL ESTATE
Founded in 2008, P.L.A.Y., which stands for "playful learning amongst youth," describes itself as encouraging children to "take pride in their strengths and push through their physical and mental boundaries." From the beginning, Ross, who according to publicly available documents is 42, has overseen the school as its director.
According to county tax assessor's records, he owns the business as well as the property it sits on, near the intersection of Glendale Boulevard and Rowena Avenue in the heart of Silver Lake. Ross and Gekozyan, 29, also live on the grounds in a small house right next to the school.
The preschool serves kids between two and five years old, who often matriculate into acclaimed Ivanhoe Elementary just up the street. Additionally, P.L.A.Y. has an infant center for children ages three months to 24 months.
The new campus, which opened in 2017 after moving from the corner of Hyperion and Lyric avenues, is a cheerful enclave near Silver Lake's trendy boutiques, restaurants and million-dollar homes. According to its website, the school is the largest play space in the neighborhood. Parents typically pay monthly tuition of $1,300 for five days (9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) per week. The flexible hours (P.L.A.Y. is open until 6 p.m.) are a huge bonus for working parents.
On the evening of Wednesday, June 12, Ross held a school-wide informational meeting. Approximately 50 parents showed up and the mood was tense. LAist was not at the meeting but spoke to four parents who attended. The parents said that Ross admitted to holding one child by the chin and speaking forcefully at times but stressed that he has never encountered accusations of this nature -- until now. According to the parents' accounts, attendees discussed whether Ross should resign as director or hire someone to manage day-to-day operations.
Parents said the administration proposed other solutions at last week's meeting, including installing closed-circuit cameras, hiring more staff and starting the parent committee. According to attendees, another proposal was to no longer send children to Ross's office to "calm their bodies," a term used by parents and childcare providers when kids are tantruming, crying or exhibiting other behavioral issues.
Liberatore told LAist that the "references to what transpired at the June 12, informational meeting are incorrect." He did not offer clarification or details.
The following night, Thursday, June 13, former teachers and parents organized their own meeting of 20 to 30 people, which was held at a Silver Lake park. According to parents who attended this informal meeting, five former teachers described the inappropriate behavior they claimed to have witnessed by Ross and Gekozyan. (Current teachers were not in attendance and one parent told LAist they were not invited.)
Some parents told LAist they're planning to leave in July, before the next school year starts. Still others said they are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Parent J.C. Gardiner told LAist he supports whatever decisions families need to make, but he hasn't seen anything worrisome. "Myself and many other parents are very confused by these allegations," he said, "as they are in direct contrast to the experience we have and what we see everyday. Our child is happy and thriving at P.L.A.Y. I always see the teachers actively engaged with the students in a very positive, inclusive environment. I have never witnessed staff yell at or grab any students."
Liberatore told LAist that, "PLAY takes these allegations seriously," and its "commitment to protecting the safety and well-being of every child, along with providing an exemplary developmental and educational experience, is what has allowed PLAY to thrive and excel for in excess of several decades."
He added that, "PLAY is continuing to communicate with its families and affirm its commitment to continue to provide positive educational experiences for all students."
If you are the parent of a preschooler or you are an early childhood educator and have concerns about misconduct in your school or community, here are a few resources.
- CA Department of Social Service Community Care Licensing Division
- Child Welfare Information Gateway
- The Office of Child Care
- Child Care Aware
- California Child Care Resource and Referral Network
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