2021 | Schools

UPDATED: MCPS employee on leave after watching police berate, handcuff 5-year-old

District conducting internal investigation

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This story was updated at 3:40 p.m. on April 9, 2021, to include more information from Montgomery County Council Member Will Jawando.

An East Silver Spring Elementary School administrator who watched as police berated and handcuffed a 5-year-old boy last year has been put on leave.

During an appearance on the WAMU radio show “The Politics Hour” on Friday, Montgomery County Council Member Will Jawando said the “administrator who stood by and watched” has been put on leave while the district conducts an internal investigation.

He did not name the administrator. But a lawsuit about the incident says Assistant Principal Justine Pfeiffer was present throughout.

Jawando confirmed in a phone interview on Friday afternoon that the assistant principal of the school was placed on leave. He said he received the information from MCPS.

“I was curious. I wanted to know what was going on, just like I wanted to know what was going on with the discipline of the officers. That’s information people need to know. It’s part of the transparency and accountability with what’s happening. … I think people need to know that some action has been taken.”

In a message to the school community this week, Principal Michael Burd wrote that “our assistant principal, Mrs. Pfeiffer, is going out on leave.”

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala wrote in a text message on Thursday that she is “unable to provide any information” about whether Pfeiffer or other MCPS staff members have been put on leave or received other discipline.

Burd’s message said Pfeiffer’s departure “leaves us with some big shoes to fill while she is out.”

The message said Richard Weerts “is going to step in as acting assistant principal for the time being.”

It does not say why Pfeiffer went on leave. Pfeiffer is still listed as the assistant principal on the East Silver Spring Elementary School website, but is not listed in the districtwide staff directory.

In the last fiscal year, Pfeiffer received a salary of $114,126, according to a list of all employees’ salaries obtained by Bethesda Beat in November.

On Jan. 14, 2020, a 5-year-old boy walked away from East Silver Spring Elementary School, and staff members called the police to help bring him back to campus.

The officers involved — Kevin Christmon and Dionne Holliday — found the boy less than a quarter-mile from East Silver Spring Elementary School, and grabbed him by the arm and escorted him into a police car, according to body camera footage released in March of this year.

Within two minutes, the boy started crying, and one officer told him to “cut it out,” then later asked, “Does your mama spank you? … She’s going to spank you today.”

The officers said the boy’s behavior is “why people need to beat their kids.” They repeatedly picked him up and forcefully put him in a chair. At one point, Holliday got within inches of the crying boy’s face and screamed five times.

When the boy’s mother arrived, the officers talked to her about how to “beat” her child without getting in trouble. One officer briefly placed a handcuff around the boy’s wrist and put both hands behind his back in an attempt to scare him into seeing what could happen to him.

Following the release of the video, county officials released a flurry of statements condemning the officers’ behavior, and the inaction of MCPS staff members to intervene.
Some have called for the officers to be fired.

After an internal investigation, both remain employed. The department has said that the officers faced discipline, but has declined to say what it was.

During a hearing with the County Council about the incident this week, Police Chief Marcus Jones said both officers remain in positions in which they could respond to similar situations.

The boy’s family is suing the county and the school district, seeking more than $1 million in damages. Bethesda Beat first reported on the video and officers’ actions after the lawsuit was filed in January.

Staff writer Briana Adhikusuma contributed to this story.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com