2021 | Schools

School board will allow public at meetings beginning Tuesday

Plus: MCCPTA releases statement about MCPS’ handling of Damascus rape case

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School board will allow public at meetings beginning Tuesday

When the Montgomery County Board of Education meets on Tuesday, the public will be allowed to attend in person for the first time in about 18 months.

The meeting will begin at noon and will be held at the school district’s central office on Hungerford Drive in Rockville.

The agenda includes a lengthy discussion about reopening schools, a discussion about the school resource officer program and the selection of a firm to lead the search for the district’s next superintendent.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, the school board has met virtually or, in recent months, in person with no public audience in an effort to limit the potential spread of the virus. Community members have been limited to submitting prerecorded public testimony that is played during meetings.

On Tuesday, people who signed up in advance will be allowed to testify live and in person. Prerecorded testimony will also be accepted. People can also attend the meeting without testifying.

Tuesday’s meeting will be the final one before the school year begins on Aug. 30. MCPS has committed to a full return to in-person classes after the majority of students took classes from home for more than a year.

In a guide released last week, MCPS said it would only revert back to virtual classes if ordered to do so by state officials.

The school board is expected to discuss the fall reopening. It will also discuss the future of police relationships with schools.

In May, the school board confirmed there will be no police stationed in schools this year, but planning was still underway on an alternate program to “provide adequate local law enforcement coverage,” as required by state law.

In the months following the start of MCPS’ review of the program, county officials also took up the issue.

In the budget for the current fiscal year, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich removed funding for SROs. Instead, he proposed a “community” model, in which police officers could respond to crises at schools from their beats in the surrounding community.

In late April, Elrich was joined by representatives from the school district, the health department, the police department and the County Council to announce a new initiative aimed at “rethinking and reshaping public safety in our schools” and providing mental health support to students.

Elrich said at the time that the committee will work to identify the needs of students and staff members and develop memorandums of understanding with MCPS, the Department of Health and police department, to “codify” and define employees’ roles and responsibilities.

The school board is also expected to award a contract to a firm to lead its search for the next superintendent, following Jack Smith’s retirement this spring.

Monifa McKnight is serving as interim superintendent through June. She recently told Bethesda Beat she plans to apply for the permanent position.

The school board held two full-day closed session meetings on Aug. 2 and 3 to interview the firms that submitted proposals, according to two school board members. Another one-hour closed session was held on Aug. 12 to discuss the firms, according to school board documents. Six firms submitted proposals, the school board members said.

MCCPTA criticizes MCPS’ handling of Damascus rape case

In a statement this week, the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations criticized the school district for allowing a lawyer to use what it called a “technical” defense that “makes light of the trauma suffered by the victims” of sexual assault in the Damascus High School football team locker room in 2018.

On Halloween afternoon in 2018, four junior varsity football players, all 15 years old at the time, allegedly raped several teammates in an assault that included a broomstick. At least two of the teens later pleaded guilty to rape charges. The cases were tried in juvenile court and were closed to the public.

In the months following the conclusion of the boys’ criminal trials, the families of the victim filed a lawsuit against the school system, alleging it was negligent in not preventing the attacks. The case was later moved to federal court. The amended complaint alleged the students’ Title IX rights — which, in part, is intended to protect students against sexual harassment — were violated.

During a hearing last month, an attorney for the school district argued that the attacks could not constitute a sexual assault because it was a “male-on-male incident,” according to a report from The Washington Post.

“There is no indication that this was motivated by sexual desire,” the attorney told U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte, according to the Post report. “They weren’t yelling sexual slurs about maybe homosexuality or things like that.”

Messitte rejected the argument.

In a statement this week, the MCCPTA wrote that it “is appalled at the severe lack of leadership that led to a legal strategy based on technicalities that make light of the trauma suffered by the victims and their families.”

“No child-focused system should be spending time and resources battling definitions when it comes to the abuse of young people,” the statement said. “Time and resources should focus solely on repairing harm, making whole, holding to account, and establishing protocols and practices that ensure the protection of all children from all forms of abuse.”

MCCPTA demanded MCPS implement leadership and educational programs in all middle and high schools.