As students returned to in-person learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Montgomery County Public Schools faced many new changes and challenges.
2022 began with the district’s struggles to adapt to COVID-related challenges and ended with two new faces joining the Board of Education. In the interim, the district has grappled with everything from financial scandals, antisemitic acts of hatred and a school shooting that rocked the entire county.
Read on to learn more about the county’s top 15 stories, as ranked by Bethesda Beat.
ESPN is producing a video feature on Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School’s cross-country team, highlighting the unique tension between the team’s acclaimed athletic prowess and its runners’ religious observance.
The team won the Maryland state championship on a November Sunday – the first time the race has been moved from its usual Saturday slot to accommodate the Jewish Sabbath, a direct result of the Rockville team’s advocacy.
“A lot of times people will tell you what to be, that you have to act a certain way,” retired JDS star runner Oliver Ferber said. “It’s okay to stand true to your values and be persistent in what you believe.”
Prompted by widespread community backlash, the Board of Education nixed a previously proposed policy that would have penalized students with school debt during recess. Instead of a hot meal, students with lunch debt over $35 would have received an “alternative meal” of a sandwich, fruit and milk.
After Bethesda Beat reported on a draft of the proposal in May 2021, education advocates and officials within the county and beyond responded with sharp criticism, saying the policy would only increase bullying and inequity. It was tabled for over a year before the school board finalized its decision.
Vincent Gibbs taught English and drama at Robert E- Peary High School for over 20 years before its doors closed in 1984. Now 82, Gibbs is fighting a battle with cancer from his quiet Germantown home.
In December, over 100 of his former students pulled up in a school bus outside his home to sing Christmas carols and pay a surprise tribute to their beloved teacher. They presented him with a signed holiday card and an award reading: “To Vincent Gibbs. You taught us to reach for the stars.”
In September, a D.C. judge sentenced former Walt Whitman crew coach and teacher Kirk Shipley to three years in prison on charges of sexual abuse involving two teen rowers he coached at Whitman. Shipley, 48, pleaded guilty in June to first-degree sex abuse of a secondary education student and possession of a sexual performance by a minor.
During Shipley’s sentencing hearing, a community representative testified that the defendant’s inappropriate conduct extended far beyond his two known victims, calling him a “predator.” She thanked both victims for coming forward and said the guilty verdict meant “this cancer of 20 years has now been removed.”
The new school calendar will include increased focus on professional development for staff while also seeking to balance minimal early release days for students. Improving math and literacy skills emerged as another top community priority, according to feedback received by MCPS.
Superintendent Monifa McKnight presented her recommended calendar to the Board of Education in early December. It passed by a unanimous vote.
Several weeks later, she also presented her recommended operating budget for the next school year. The budget is larger than the previous year’s by 8% and includes $119 in funding for staff salaries and recruitment. The board will receive public feedback on the budget over the course of two January meetings before finalizing it on Feb. 7, 2023.
After years of community advocacy, the school system recently finalized additions to its supplemental elementary school curriculum to include books with LGBTQ+ stories and characters. A wealth of peer-reviewed data supports the importance of deliberate inclusivity on the part of schools in reducing bullying and improving mental health.
MCPS communications director Jessica Baxter said the books underwent rigorous evaluation to meet the district’s curriculum standards. She said each book represents “joyful stories of folks who happen to be part of the LGBTQ+ community.”
This year the county held elections for four seats on its Board of Education. After a lively campaign season, Brenda Wolff and Karla Silvestre were re-elected to the board, while Julie Yang and Grace Rivera-Oven joined as newcomers.
In the general election, Silvestre faced off against Mike Erickson, a 48-year-old Derwood resident who engaged in very little campaigning for the board seat and keeps a notoriously low public profile. Bethesda Beat secured an interview with Erickson in September, his first media interview about the election.
An investigation by the Office of the Inspector General revealed approximately $133,000 worth of unapproved purchases were made by purchase cards issued to MCPS Assistant Director of Transportation Charles Ewald. The report found that Ewald, Director Todd Watkins and other staff “regularly violated P-Card policies.”
In mid-November last year, Watkins and Ewald were placed on administrative leave pending the investigation. School spokesperson Chris Cram confirmed to Bethesda Beat in June 2022 that both staff members’ employment had ended. The scandal prompted MCPS to consider updating its policies to ensure stricter purchase card oversight. Montgomery County Police are conducting their own investigation into the financial improprieties.
Montgomery County officials settled a lawsuit in August involving allegations that local police officers harassed and assaulted a five-year-old Silver Spring student in January 2020. Body-camera footage showed officers screaming at the child, handcuffing him and instructing his mother on how to beat him.
The settlement terms required the county to pay the student’s family $275,000 on behalf of the two officers and the school board. Prompted by the incident, Montgomery County passed a new law requiring on-duty officers to wear body cameras and creating requirements for internal review of footage.
Superintendent Monifa McKnight issued a community apology in January amid high community tension surrounding the school system’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools suffered a number of pandemic-related disruptions, including school closings, bus shortages, lack of data communication and virtual learning complications.
“While the circumstances leading to these disruptions are beyond our control,” she said in the message, “we should have done a better job communicating with you about these challenges and clarifying our response. I apologize for any stress this cause our staff, students, and community members.”
In August, the school system sent an email asking teachers to volunteer as fill-ins for special education vacancies. Staffing shortages have been an ongoing source of tension in recent years across the county. At the time of this article’s publication, MCPS reported 187 vacant full-time teaching positions county-wide, almost half of which fall under special education.
The contract between the school system and teachers’ union is set to expire in June 2023, and tensions have continued to climb as the parties begin negotiating terms for the new contract.
An unarmed student from outside North Bethesda Middle School snuck onto campus in early December and was apprehended by police. It was the second such incident at the school within two months. Outside of this article and a story by Walter Johnson High School’s student publication, neither incident has been reported by the media.
Students and families raised safety concerns, and school officials warned parents to be mindful of social media’s role in such behavior.
“Stupid ideas travel extremely fast on social media,” PTSA President Craig Hillman wrote in an email to parents. “The presence of these uninvited visitors, which is occurring around the county, can unfortunately be somewhat traced back to students’ use of social media.”
In recent months, Montgomery County has seen a concerning spike in hateful acts targeting the Jewish community, including antisemitic flyers, trolley trail graffiti, anonymous emails to school staff and graffiti scrawled across Walt Whitman High School’s entrance board reading “Jews not welcome here.”
Local rabbi Adam Raskin said while perpetrators of these acts clearly intended to strike fear into the hearts of Jews, “What ended up happening was this tremendous galvanization of support, awareness and unity.” The Jewish community and allies have responded with overwhelming solidarity in the wake these incidents, organizing menorah-lightings, staging student walkouts, and demanding increased Holocaust education to combat the hate.
In February of this year, a unanimous school board vote approved McKnight’s appointment as superintendent for a four-year contract. McKnight previously served as interim superintendent when Jack Smith retired mid-contract in June of 2021.
McKnight is the first female superintendent in Maryland’s largest school district. She faced harsh criticism for her handling of the return to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the teachers union giving her a vote of “no confidence” just weeks before her February appointment. After she assumed the full-time position, the teachers union said it remained “guardedly hopeful” about the future.
The criminal case against school shooter Steven Alston Jr. came to an end in December when a Montgomery County judge sentenced Alston to 18 years in prison for attempted first-degree murder. The charges arose from a January incident where Alston, then 17, shot 15-year-old DeAndre Thomas with a ghost gun in a school bathroom at Derwood’s Col. Zadok Magruder High School, leaving the victim with life-threatening injuries and rocking the Magruder community. Alston pleaded guilty to the charges in October.
The shooting triggered ongoing community conversations about the role of police officers in schools and the need for more student mental health services, better emergency communication systems and increased school transparency and date-sharing.
In response to concerns, the school system has since built out wellness centers in 19 MCPS high schools and apologized to the Magruder community for miscommunication on the day of the incident. The family of the victim has filed a civil suit against Alston, which is pending in Montgomery County Circuit Court.