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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The state said Tuesday its inquiry into alleged misconduct inside an embattled charter school chain has expanded to two additional Ohio cities, even as hundreds of parents and alumni descended on the state capital to share their positive experiences at the schools.
The Ohio Department of Education was already investigating a Dayton-area Horizon Academy after teachers there shared accounts in July of sex games, test tampering and other potentially criminal misdeeds.
Spokesman John Charlton told The Associated Press on Tuesday that after that meeting the state received additional complaints about schools in Columbus and Cincinnati run by the same operator, Chicago-based Concept Schools. Both the complaints were against Horizon Science academies, he said. One was unsolicited and the other resulted from a department request that any issues at the schools be brought to the state's attention.
Salim Ucan, a Concept Schools vice president in Columbus for a rally of advocates, said the company was unaware until Tuesday that additional complaints had been added to the state's review.
"We will definitely look into them and take it seriously, as we have in the past with all of these other allegations," Ucan said. "Some of them were really easy to dispute, but we still took them seriously."
Officials at a Cleveland school have also been questioned.
Charlton said the complaints have been referred to the appropriate regions for further review.
"What we did with those complaints or allegations was we matched them up with the appropriate office at their Department of Education, where they've contacted teachers and others for more specific information," he said.
Charlton said those referrals would not be described as part of a formal investigation. He said the department cannot always divulge the launch of such a probe, such as in cases involving test-tampering.
News of the expanded review came as an estimated 400 supporters of Horizon and Noble academies were in Columbus to rally at the Statehouse and deliver public testimony at the state school board's monthly meeting.
Blue Ribbon Friends, the coalition of parents, teachers and other supporters of the academies, organized the events. A spokesman said the group believes issues at Concept Schools are being used by charter school opponents, including teachers' unions, to turn back school choice in the state.
Democratic state Reps. Mike Foley and Robert Hagan also testified before the state school board, questioning who was paying Blue Ribbon Friends and whether Tuesday's events involved any public money.
Ucan said the company has always worked with public relations firms, and gave this particular contract to an Ohio company.
"Our parents are here to let their voice be heard, that there may be a few former teachers complaining and bringing up the allegations and accusations, but there are hundreds more — if not thousands more — who could share the opposite of what's been presented and portrayed over the last few months," he said.
Among them was Olivia Reine, whose grandson attends the Horizon Academy in Dayton. Reine said she couldn't be happier with the school, its teachers, administration and curriculum.
"I'm engaged, I'm watching and I like what I see," she said.
The FBI is investigating charter schools in several states, including four Concept Schools locations in Ohio, which critics allege are associated with the influential U.S.-based Muslim cleric and Turkish scholar Fethullah Gulen. Among allegations are sexual misconduct, test tampering and misuse of public funds. Gulen lives a reclusive life in Pennsylvania.
Concept Schools, which operates 17 public charter schools in Dayton, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo, Lorain, Springfield and Youngstown under the names Horizon Academy and Noble Academy, claims it has no affiliation with Gulen and his religious and social movement, often called Hizmet.
Ucan objected to Concept Schools being characterized as "Gulen schools." He said they're public charter schools.
"The only connection to Gulen is that some of the founders of Concept Schools, including myself, at a personal level had been and have been inspired by his ideas, which are not much different than Horace Mann's ideas about education," he said. Gulen teaches that education brings out the good in people so everyone should be educated and that education can serve as an antidote to violence, he said.
Ucan said Gulen's philosophies aren't promoted at any of the schools.
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