ROCKVILLE – Some involved in a workgroup set up to address problems of sex abuse in public schools say MCPS is moving too slowly to handle the problem.
On Monday, the County Council’s Education Committee received a briefing on a report issued by Montgomery County Public Schools’ Child Abuse and Neglect Work Group.
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Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill and MCPS Chief of Staff Andrew Zuckerman presented the report, which issues several recommendations for developing a systemic approach to responding to suspected abuse of students.
Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, assistant Chief Russ Hamill, Capt. Jim Humphries of the Special Victims Investigation Division and associate State’s Attorney Debbie Feinstein attended the briefing. Superintendent Joshua Starr did not attend.
The report’s 28 recommendations are spread across six key strategic priority areas:
1. Revise the BOE policy and MCPS regulation on recognizing and reporting child abuse and neglect and update them on a regular basis to reflect current practices in the area and ensure efficient collaboration with County partner agencies;
2. Enhance human resource management systems and processes to ensure robust screening of new and existing employees, volunteers, and outside contractors;
3. Design and implement updated training for all employees in accordance with the most current practices for identifying and reporting child abuse and neglect;
4. Develop a comprehensive parent awareness program for how to identify and respond to suspected cases of child abuse or neglect;
5. Ensure the MCPS curriculum contains robust student learning opportunities across all grade levels in abuse prevention and reporting;
6. Communicate regularly to students, parents, and the wider community about issues associated with child abuse and neglect.
Some of those involved with the work group, while glad to see MCPS taking steps to address the problem, have expressed frustration with the slow pace of the efforts and said the recommendations are inadequate.
Jennifer Alvaro, a clinical social worker who has worked in providing treatment to convicted sex offenders, said she was alarmed by media reports of numerous cases of sexual abuse reported in MCPS, which two of her children attend. She could not find any existing regulations for reporting suspected abuse in the MCPS guidelines. Alvaro said her letters and phone calls to Starr and the BOE played an integral role in leading to the formation of the work group, which began meeting regularly last summer.
“At the meetings, I kept saying ‘Where’s the police? Where’s Child Protective Services? This is not an issue that MCPS can or should handle alone, bring in the legal agencies,’” Alvaro said. “They finally invited the police to the December work group meeting. I’m encouraged that they’re finally looking at this issue, but I’m not comfortable with the way it’s unfolding. I think there’s been a lack of transparency. In theory, most of the plan could work, but the devil’s in the details and the report is so vague.”
Alvaro called for an outside independent investigation into reported incidents of sexual abuse in MCPS.
“Who kept (Bethesda-Chevy Chase teacher) Lawrence Joynes in the classroom after it was clear that he was distributing kiddie porn while wearing an MCPS badge?” Alvaro said. “I don’t have reason to believe that MCPS has more offenders than other organizations, but I do believe that this culture they’ve created of secrecy and denial and of trying to handle everything in-house has allowed the abuse to continue. In this age of Penn State, the Catholic Church, and the Boy Scouts, there’s absolutely no excuse for any of this.”
Susan Burkinshaw, co-chair of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations (MCCPTA) health and safety committee served as the MCCPTA representative on the work group.
“I think it was premature to present the report,” Burkinshaw said. “It was not vetted by the work group, and there are no references, no empirical data to support the recommendations. When is a Montgomery County high school student allowed to turn in a paper without references?”
Burkinshaw said there is a lack of clearly defined guidelines in MCPS directing employees to contact CPS about suspected abuse as mandated by law.
“We need to have an employee code of conduct,” Burkinshaw said. “We need to have all these things clearly spelled out. If you look at the Howard County school system, their child abuse policy is pretty robust. The only behavior guidelines we have right now are in the union contract.”
Burkinshaw said she feared MCPS’ lack of clear policies for dealing with suspected abuse may have made them a target for predators.
“Many people have been in the school system so long that they have not had the criminal background check,” she said. “Child sexual abuse is a crime of opportunity. There are websites out there that direct pedophiles to easy prey. Some of them may be recommending us.”
The report and recommendations are available online at http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/council/Resources/Files/agenda/cm/2015/150202/20150202_ED2.pdf