Teachers in Trouble, Parents Ignored-- Part II

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007; 10:10 AM

This is the second in my series of columns about parents who are denied important information and find themselves frozen out of important decisions about their children's teachers. A less-detailed account appeared in The Post on May 7.


For a long time, Dawn Mosisa had trouble forgiving herself for the way she shrugged off her daughter's story about the teacher who hit one of her second grade classmates in the spring of 2003. Her daughter said the man ordered the class to count to 10 in French while he hit the boy 10 times with a ruler.

The girl was not in the habit of making up such stories, the mother said, but like most parents, Mosisa did not want to think that any educator would be so cruel, so she chose not to believe it. When the teacher left the school the next year, Mosisa grew more concerned. But she said she could not get anyone at Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville to explain to her or her child exactly what had occurred and how they should respond.

Abuse of a student at school is a parent's nightmare. Not only do such incidents harm the victims and their parents, but they also trouble the children who may have witnessed the event and their parents. Such cases usually remain undisclosed because parents do not want their children embarrassed or disturbed by public knowledge of what happened. But Mosisa, 44, a student financial services official for a public university, has given an unusually detailed account that sheds light on a rarely examined side of public education.

The instinct of school administrators to keep parents ignorant of allegedly unpleasant or controversial behavior by teachers is backed by state regulations, union rules and fear of lawsuits. The administrators who refuse to answer parental questions say there is nothing they can do. But the anger felt by parents like Mosisa is often not eased by the recognition that the administrators would like to tell them more, but are not allowed to.

Exactly what Mosisa's daughter witnessed at Maryvale Elementary remains unclear because the school's and the teacher's versions of events are unavailable. That is precisely why parents at Maryvale, and at other schools that suffer such episodes, are so upset with the way the system ignores their pleas for information. There appear to be no significant efforts to rewrite the regulations to allow them to know what happened to their children. Many parents say they think such efforts would be doomed by prevailing legal practices, so they instead try to forget about what happened and move on.

Eric Davis, principal of Maryvale Elementary at the time, said the second-grade teacher alleged to have hit the student is no longer working in the school system. Davis said complaints about the teacher are part of an evaluation that would be made available to any school thinking of hiring him. But Davis said the rules keep him from giving Mosisa, her daughter or two other families who say their children reported disturbing incidents involving the teacher any detailed information about what his investigation revealed.

State Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), head of the Judiciary Committee, said he doubts that the Montgomery County school system is interpreting the law correctly. He said he thought school officials should have been able to tell Mosisa and other parents what happened to their children and ease fears that apparently produced, at least in the case of Mosisa's daughter, what the mother considered a heart-rending episode a year later.

Howie Schaffer, spokesman for the nonprofit Public Education Network, which promotes support for public schools, said, "School boards often use inaccurate interpretations of privacy laws and confidentiality agreements to conduct important school business out of the public eye."

At my request, Montgomery County schools spokesman Brian Edwards sent me legal language that the school district's attorney identified as buttressing the county's refusal to tell Mosisa what she wanted to know.

The Maryland state public information act says "a custodian shall deny inspection of a personnel record of any individual, including an application, performance rating, or scholastic achievement information" and "a custodian shall permit inspection by the person in interest or an elected or appointed official who supervises the work of the individual." Another state statute says "the administration [a reference to the state Social Services Administration] shall provide by regulation . . . procedures for protecting the confidentiality of reports and records made in accordance with this subtitle; conditions under which information may be released . . . "

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