The Achievement First charter chain is committed to re-examining the value and purpose of its harsh disciplinary policies after a white principal was videotaped shoving a black student, and a behavioral specialist resigned and blasted the oppressive climate at one of the charters.

No-excuses charters claim that their draconian policies produce high test scores but critics have long criticized the inhumanity of their rules, which smack of colonialism.

Turmoil at an Achievement First high school has escalated into a larger reckoning for the charter school network spanning three states.

The spark was two videos released in January. In the first, the former principal of Achievement First Amistad High School in New Haven, who is white, is seen shoving a student. In the second, a former staff member, who is black and who released the first video, described the school as “oppressive.”

The ensuing backlash — including over the fact that the principal was not immediately fired — has pushed the network’s leaders to accelerate planned changes. Now, they say they’re open to reconsidering things big and small, from how students are expected to sit in class to even the network’s leadership.

The two CEOs have recently sent a series of candid emails to the network’s staff, who work across 36 schools in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. Those emails, obtained by Chalkbeat, illustrate how the events at Amistad raised significant questions about the network’s approach to racism, discipline, and leadership.

“The last 3 weeks have been the hardest weeks we’ve ever had leading our network,” CEOs Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry wrote. “What happened at AF Amistad High School is a failure of our leadership.”

Many of those questions connect the controversy to a long-standing debate about so-called “no excuses” charter schools, which emphasize strict discipline, high expectations, and an academic focus. Research has found that these school networks, including Achievement First, substantially increase students’ test scores and, in some cases, help more of them attend college. But critics and some scholars argue that the discipline-heavy approach amounts to a racist, even abusive form of control over mostly students of color, while failing to prepare them to lead independent lives.

In the last two months, more Achievement First teachers and parents have called for change. The network’s leaders say they are committed to improving students’ experiences — and everything is on the table as its principals gather this week.

“We’re going to remain a high-expectations organization. The provocative question is, what does high expectations actually look like?” Toll told Chalkbeat in a lengthy interview. “Is it high expectations or low expectations to insist that kids fold their hands?”

‘This is not a proud moment for AF’

The controversy broke into public view because of Steven Cotton, a behavioral specialist with Achievement First who worked for the network for five years.

Cotton says he saw the security footage in October showing principal Morgan Barth grabbing and shoving a student emerging from a classroom. By January, Cotton had resigned and posted a lengthy Facebook video criticizing Amistad’s treatment of teachers and students, including its merit and demerit discipline system.

“There’s not a place in that building at this point where a kid can be a kid,” he said. “Yes, we’re here for education, but we’re not here to be robots.”

The New Haven Independent published a story featuring the security camera footage and Cotton’s video. In the piece, the brother of another student said that Barth had shoved his sibling at a Bridgeport Achievement First school Barth led in 2013. (Toll told Chalkbeat that, because it was a personnel matter, she could not comment on whether she or the network had known about that allegation.)

Barth resigned that day, hours after the Independent story.