Prince George’s County Public Schools chief executive Kevin Maxwell speaks in 2016 about a sex abuse case. School officials say fewer employees are on administrative leave this school year for alleged abuse or neglect of students. (Mark Gail/For The Washington Post)

Officials in a Maryland school system that placed hundreds of employees on leave amid allegations of abuse and neglect say they have improved training and procedures this year to strike a better balance between protecting students and keeping staffers on the job.

Forty employees were on administrative leave as of early October in Prince George's County public schools, officials said Thursday, and just five cases have originated this school year.

The school system drew a wave of complaints from parents, educators and elected officials last year as the number of such cases soared, with nearly 850 employees — including more than 400 teachers — placed on leave for alleged misconduct in the 2016-2017 school year.

The surge reflected a jump of more than 1,000 percent from 2014-2015, the year before Prince George's was roiled by child abuse scandals and stepped up its emphasis on reporting of suspicious behavior.

While many lauded efforts to boost safety, they also complained that the district went overboard and did not distinguish between serious and lesser claims. Many teachers were out of classrooms for weeks or months; parents and students did not know when they would return, and some said classroom instruction was compromised.

This year, officials said they believe the school system — Maryland's second-largest, with more than 132,000 students — is showing signs of turning a corner.

"We're trending down and back to what it looked like more than a year ago," said Lewis Robinson, director of employee and labor relations for the school system.

He and others say the district has added three administrative procedures and revised six. New online training was completed by more than 90 percent of staffers. There is also a new employee-incident tracking system.

Principals were trained over the summer in new practices and about which situations warrant placing employees on administrative leave, he said.

"Some of it is about making sure people know what they are looking at," Robinson said. He noted that last year, employees were sent off the job for accidentally bumping into students and in one instance, despite video recordings to the contrary, allegedly slamming a student's hand in a locker and, in another, hitting a student with a hat.

This year, there is a longer process for considering the use of administrative leave. Employees will be steered to alternative placements for a period that could be a week or longer while principals and district administrators consider sending them on leave.

Employees who are awaiting such a determination may be involved in grading, lesson planning or other activities that support the learning process without placing those employees in contact with students, officials said.

The school system is not discouraging the reporting of suspicious incidents to Child Protective Services but will not automatically place employees on administrative leave as a result of suspicious-incident reports, they said.

As the school year started, the number of reports to Child Protective Services involving allegations against staffers has dwindled considerably: There were 31 this year, compared with last year's 152, for the month of September.

For the first month of the Prince George's County school year, which started Sept. 6, five employees — including three teachers — were placed on leave for alleged abuse, neglect or failure to report, district data showed. The district did not immediately have a comparison figure from last year.

"The idea behind it is to be more thoughtful at the initiation point," Robinson said.

The new policies were the focus of a school board presentation Thursday evening.

"We remain committed to improving school and student safety while providing a positive workplace climate for our employees," Kevin M. Maxwell, the district's chief executive, said in a statement.

Employee conduct has been a flash point since February 2016, when Deonte Carraway, then an elementary school volunteer, was accused of video-recording students as he directed them to perform sex acts. Carraway, who previously had been a paid classroom aide, was sentenced last month to 100 years in prison on 23 counts of child sex abuse and pornography involving 23 children.

Following Carraway's arrest in 2016, a student safety task force was appointed, and the school system looked to change what many saw as a culture of underreporting.

Robinson said the school system is not looking to reduce the number of employees on leave to the level that preceded the safety efforts. But the school system wants to come in far below last year's high number. "We underreported in the year before, and we want to get somewhere in the middle," he said.