Federal officials have terminated a $6.4 million grant that funds the Head Start program in Prince George’s County, Md., after a review found that teachers used corporal punishment and humiliated children in the early-education program for children from low-income families.
Authorities noted that county school officials did not appropriately address problems discovered within the program, including when staff forced a 3-year-old in wet clothing to mop up his own urine in front of the class — as a teacher texted a photo to the child’s parent. They also found that Head Start staff made two children who played during nap time hold heavy objects over their heads for an extended period. In another case, a 5-year-old left a school unnoticed and walked home alone.
The findings came as part of a notification to school officials that the county’s Head Start grant would be terminated because of a failure to “timely correct one or more deficiencies” for which it had been put on notice. The decision means that the Prince George’s school system, which serves a large number of minority children living in poverty, is no longer eligible to apply for federal funding for the program that serves preschoolers and includes health, nutrition and parent-involvement services.
Prince George’s schools chief Kevin Maxwell said at a news conference Wednesday that the incidents outlined in the report represented “poor judgment” from “a handful of people.” He and Segun Eubanks, chairman of the school board, vowed that the 932 children enrolled in the program will still be able to attend starting on Aug. 29.
“We are deeply troubled by the circumstances that led to this decision,” Maxwell said. “Please let me state in no uncertain terms: These incidents are completely unacceptable.
Prince George’s school leaders are trying to determine how to keep the county’s Head Start program funded, Maxwell and Eubanks said.
The federal Administration for Children and Families released a statement Wednesday saying that the federal government “is committed to continuing Head Start services in Prince George’s County and to minimize any disruption to children and families.”
“We know local communities rely on Head Start programs to deliver high-quality early learning and critical comprehensive services,” officials said. “ACF takes seriously our responsibility to ensure all Head Start grantees foster a healthy and safe environment for the children and families they serve.”
In the federal findings, which school officials say they received Monday, federal officials said that the county had made corrections in response to problems of reporting incidents of child abuse to authorities and ensuring confidentiality of information about children and families.
Federal officials said that a correction had not been made in ensuring employees abide by standards of conduct requiring positive methods of child guidance — with no corporal punishment, abuse or humiliation — and that they found a new deficiency in child supervision.
The federal findings, posted on a Head Start website and first reported by Fox 5, included alarming accounts by young children, including one at the James Ryder Randall Elementary School Head Start Center in Clinton.
In that June incident, a girl said she got in trouble for not listening to teachers. She said an assistant teacher “wanted me to hold boxes in the air. I couldn’t breathe. When (the teacher) came in, she made me hold more books, my arms melted. I cried because my arms hurt so much.”
A second child said the punishment came because the two children were playing instead of sleeping and that she had been told to hold a box in both hands, but her arms began to hurt. “I stood for one minute. (The teacher) put books inside the box and hold it up until five minutes.” The other child cried, she said. “I dropped it twice because it was heavy. The books fell out.”
The teacher told her if she dropped the books again, the time would be reset, the child said.
Federal officials wrote that the county had not ensured that only positive methods of child guidance were used in Head Start. In documents dated Aug. 12, the officials also said the county program did not follow requirements that staff not engage in corporal punishment, emotional or physical abuse, humiliation, or discipline involving isolation, use of food as a punishment or reward, or the denial of basic needs.
Federal officials also noted an incident in December 2015, at H. Winship Wheatley Early Childhood Center. There, a teacher used her cellphone to take pictures of a 3-year-old as he mopped up his urine after having an accident. She texted a photo to the child’s parent with a caption that described the punishment and said, “LOL.”
“He worked that mop tho!” the teacher also wrote in a text.
Federal officials informed Prince George’s school officials in a Feb. 29 notice that they had until April 11 to correct problems reflected in the December incident.
Follow-up reviews were done in April and June, but some corrections were not made, and new ones were noted. Officials discovered the June incident involving the two children punished by holding heavy objects, as well as the incident involving the child who wandered home alone.
In the latter incident, on June 9 at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School Head Start Center, a 5-year-old who went to the nurse’s offices was told to go back to her classroom at about 8:45 a.m. When she did, she found no one there; the students were at the playground. She returned to the nurse’s office, could not open the door and instead walked home.
Staff realized the girl was missing at about 9:15 a.m. and began to search for her, the report said. She ultimately was found by staff at her home at 10 a.m. after the child’s aunt had found her crying outside the apartment.