Montgomery County Public Schools has released its annual summary of reported incidents of child abuse, and while some believe the report reflects the school system’s vigilance in screening for alleged offenders, others say it doesn’t go far enough.
The report, which was sent Aug. 29 from MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith to the Board of Education, found that there were 3,087 incidents of alleged child abuse or neglect reported by MCPS staff, volunteers or contractors to the county Department of Health and Human Services, Child Protective Services (CPS) or Adult Protective Services during the 2017-2018 school year. This was an increase of 94 incidents from the number reported during the 2016-2017 school year.
“The safety and security of every student is our first priority, and a responsibility that we take very seriously,” Smith wrote in the memo to the board. “Our goal is to prevent any incident of child abuse and neglect in our district. However, when an incident does occur, MCPS is committed to holding the perpetrator accountable.”
According to MCPS’s Office of Employment Engagement and Labor Relations, an MCPS employee was the alleged abuser in 353 of the cases, and in four cases the abuser is alleged to have been a volunteer. The cases were investigated by either CPS or Montgomery County police. The number of cases allegedly involving an employee shows an increase from the prior school year, when there were 309 alleged incidents involving an employee and five involving a volunteer.
Of the alleged incidents involving an employee:
—317 were “screened out,” meaning that there was insufficient evidence that abuse or neglect occurred;
—20 were ruled out, meaning that officials found no evidence the alleged abuse had occurred ;
—10 were indicated, meaning there was credible evidence of abuse or neglect that was not refuted; and
—Six were unsubstantiated, meaning there was not enough evidence to draw a conclusion either way.
There were also four alleged incidents involving a volunteer, which were all screened out.
MCPS also conducted follow-up investigations in these cases. The results of these investigations were:
—98 employees and one volunteer received no disciplinary action;
—143 employees and one volunteer were sent a memo or had a conference for the record;
—66 employees received a disciplinary letter;
—Nine employees were suspended without pay;
—24 employees and two volunteers were fired; and
—13 cases were still pending as of Aug. 10.
The report also stated there were four cases in which the state superintendent of schools sought to suspend or revoke an employee’s teaching certification. In these cases:
—One employee’s certification was revoked while the employee was under investigation;
—Two employees had their certifications suspended, either because they were fired or resigned while under investigation; and
—The certification of one dismissed employee is still pending.
MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said the purpose of the report is to help the public understand how the school system’s additional measures to catch alleged child abusers within its ranks have worked since they were implemented three years ago. Those measures include required background checks of current MCPS employees in addition to new hires, required self-disclosure of arrests by current and new employees and mandatory staff training in how to recognize abuse . In 2013, MCPS also began requiring a CPS background check for current employees; screenings of current high school employees had not been completed at the beginning of this school year. Checks of elementary and middle schools had been completed, according to the report.
Turner said the statistics in this year’s report demonstrate that MCPS employees are coming to understand the importance of reporting alleged cases of child abuse.
“It’s important that we caught 10 people who were acting inappropriately with students. Without those protocols, we wouldn’t have gotten those 10,” he said.
But Bethesda-based clinical social worker and sex offender treatment provider Jennifer Alvaro has been an outspoken critic of the district’s efforts to deal with the problem of staff abusing students. She said she is troubled by the delay in CPS background checks for high school staff.
“Why has it taken six years to do background checks? … That’s crazy, and it’s negligent,” she said.
Alvaro, who has two children and five nieces and nephews in the school system, said the CPS background check system is flawed because the school system only checks with the Maryland branch.
“Let’s say I live in Arlington, and I’m going to teach at [Thomas W.] Pyle [Middle School] in Bethesda. They don’t run a CPS check on me,” she said.
Alvaro added that criminal background checks also don’t catch all offenders. She pointed to examples of former educators who abused children for years but were never previously reprimanded by the school system, such as John Vigna, a teacher at Cloverly Elementary School in Silver Spring who was sentenced last year to 48 years in prison for sexually abusing four children over the course of 15 years.
Alvaro said the new protocols MCPS has put in place have been good, but more vigilance is needed.
“I read this document, and I want to be fair. A lot has been put in place, but I can see massive holes in what they’ve done,” she said.
Gillian Huebner, who chairs the health and safety committee of Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said she was largely pleased with the results in the report and the MCPS policies. But she thinks the system could be more proactive by hiring a point person with child protection credentials.
“I think there are great people in the system, but a lot of the responses [in the report] seem retrospective, and I think getting proactive responses is really key,” she said.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.