Long before some of the most shocking sexual abuse allegations in years rocked Prince George’s County, school officials faced questions about whether they were doing enough to protect students.
The school district was roiled by a public scandal in 2007 when a Board of Education member took a student to a conference in San Francisco. School officials had the teen flown home and ordered an investigation that uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct involving another student.
A string of sex offenses committed against students between 2004 to 2010 at a county high school — Charles H. Flowers — drew much less attention. Five educators were charged in six years in those cases, and all but one were convicted.
Even more quietly, the district battled a long-running lawsuit, prompted by a Flowers case, that claimed the district failed to properly detect and investigate allegations of teacher abuse against students.
After years of legal wrangling, the district settled that case in December on undisclosed terms just two months before one of the largest abuse cases yet hit the 129,000-student district.
In early February, county police arrested Glenarden resident Deonte Carraway, 22, an elementary school volunteer accused of making child pornography at a school and other sites. Police say Carraway directed children as young as 9 to commit sex acts and then video-recorded them. They said there had been at least 17 victims since last school year.
Once again, an incident flared publicly, with parents asking how adults active in the schools are supervised and trained and why anyone would have such private time with students.
“Who didn’t notice that this man was away with these kids for a long period of time? And, if they knew, why didn’t they say anything?” said Lakisha Murphy, who has a son and daughter at Judge Sylvania W. Woods Elementary School, where Carraway volunteered. “If you put kids in the care of the school, they should be okay.”
This time, the district’s policies and safeguards are under intense scrutiny.
Its procedures for volunteers working in schools were last updated in 1998, long before the explosion of smartphones and social media, which both figure into the Carraway case, a review by The Washington Post showed.
It also has no apparent conduct code for employees and volunteers that spells out unacceptable behavior toward students, and there is no policy that describes a systemwide approach to preventing or recognizing abuse in school settings.
“We keep having these incidents flare up,” said Jacques Chevalier, a county activist who recalls public meetings over the board member’s actions. “How many reports do you have to have come through your desk to stop the abuse of the children?”
Jennifer Alvaro, a longtime clinician in the field of child sexual abuse who advocates for better safeguards in neighboring Montgomery County, said the policies and procedures she examined in Prince George’s “seem to me like someone did the bare minimum a very long time ago.”
In 2012, the Maryland State Board of Education called on each of its school systems to establish a policy addressing teacher and staff conduct with students after a case involving a Montgomery teacher that the state board said it hoped would “shine a light” on abusive behavior toward children.
Kevin M. Maxwell, chief executive officer of Prince George’s schools, did not comment on the school district’s response to that state ruling, noting in a March interview that the opinion preceded his arrival as schools chief. Maxwell also would not comment on court cases the district faced, on advice from attorneys, school officials said.
Last summer, the Prince George’s state’s attorney’s office offered to train educators on how to identify and report child predators, county officials said. After Carraway’s arrest on Feb. 5, the school system accepted.
Strong policies are important, said Janet Rosenzweig, vice president of Prevent Child Abuse America, but even those are effective only if they are followed and enforced. “It’s got to come from the leadership of the district, and there has to be buy-in and support from parents, faculty, staff and students,” she said.
Five weeks after the Carraway case broke, Maxwell said it was still too early to say what went wrong. “It’s premature to talk about what we did or didn’t do while there is an open investigation,” he said in an interview.
But he described the system’s policies and procedures as adequate. “I believe they are sufficient to protect children,” he said. “But I want to be absolutely sure of that.”
Maxwell focused at length on the task force he announced after Carraway’s arrest to do an independent review and make recommendations by May 2.
“There’s no question that what happened . . . should not have happened,” Maxwell said. “We’re doing absolutely everything in our power to review our policies, examine our systems, to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Maxwell said the district is retraining all employees and has already made improvements at the 700-student school in Glenarden where Carraway worked. The principal was put on paid leave, Maxwell said, and the district more recently removed a teacher.
Woods has an interim principal, a new counselor and a school resource officer, school officials said, and some procedures have changed — requiring that students not go to the restroom alone, for example.
Still, some parents said in interviews and at a public meeting that they are considering taking their children out of the school, unsure whether the changes are enough.
The mother of one victim police interviewed said Carraway has “done a lot of damage.” The Washington Post is not naming her in order to protect her son’s identity.
“I’m still in shock,” she said.
Carraway arrived at Sylvania Woods as a paid classroom aide in 2014. He lost his job last year amid budget cuts but stayed on as a volunteer.
The district, investigators and prosecutors have yet to explain how Carraway — assigned to shelve library books two days a week — was allegedly able to spend so much unmonitored time with children.
Police say that Carraway directed children to perform sex acts on him and one another, exchanging the images through an anonymous messaging app known as Kik. Some of the alleged abuse occurred at school. But police said he also victimized children at a public pool, a local municipal center, a church and private homes.
Carraway’s attorney declined requests for comment.
“I know I’m older and I knew it was wrong because kids don’t know better,” Carraway said in a written confession to police, according to details in federal court filings.
Timothy Maloney, an attorney for families in the Carraway case and previously for one of the victims at Flowers, said Carraway was allowed to pull children out of classrooms or the library and was encouraged to supervise those who were “troubled.” Complaints about Carraway — ranging from overly friendly relationships with children to explicit sexual behavior — date to at least January 2015, Maloney said.
“These incidents at Sylvania Woods were not confined to the bathrooms,” Maloney said. “They occurred in the auditorium, in closets, in hallways and other areas of the building that appeared to be under no supervision.”
Attempts to reach the school’s principal who was put on leave, Michelle Williams, by phone, email and at a private address connected to her were unsuccessful.
Although news of Carraway’s arrest shocked many, some Woods parents say there had been troubling signs. At a community meeting with Maxwell and other school officials after the arrest, one parent said that Carraway came to school in pajamas. Another contended parents lodged at least three complaints with school officials about Carraway’s interactions with students.
Angela Alsobrooks, the county’s state’s attorney, said lessons from the Carraway case are important to prevent a cycle of abuse, as today’s victim may become tomorrow’s perpetrator. “In these cases,” she said, “it’s important to intervene as quickly as possible.”
Strong policies are one tool for protecting against sexual abuse in school settings, according to several experts who said any comprehensive approach would include screening, training, supervision and education.
Guidelines should be clear about what is inappropriate: certain kinds of touching, for example, or closed-door time alone or contact off campus.
David Finkelhor, a professor at University of New Hampshire and director of its Crimes Against Children Research Center, reviewed four key Prince George’s policies and procedures at the request of The Post and said they do not appear to adequately address how staff behavior with students is monitored.
“The standard at this point is that you need to include those kinds of elements in procedures for a youth-serving organization,” he said.
Three other experts on child abuse said that, collectively, the county’s policies and procedures appear vague and limited.
“If this is all they have in place, it’s minimal,” said MaryJo McGrath, owner of a company that works in sexual abuse prevention and response in K-12 schools nationally. “It’s not calculated to provide protection against abuse of children by the adults in the school system.”
More than five weeks after The Post requested specifics, school officials have not provided detailed information about the training employees receive on spotting potential abuse at schools.
Two key documents in Prince George’s have been updated in recent years. One is a five-page procedure on how to report suspected child abuse and neglect, last revised in 2010 and very similar to a 1988 version The Post obtained. The other is a procedure for criminal history checks, updated in 2013, that includes employees, volunteers, contractors and coaches.
Carraway passed his background check, school officials said.
While noting weaknesses in the county’s policies, Alvaro argues that Maryland’s laws need to be tougher, too. Nearly all states and the District impose penalties on educators and other “mandatory reporters” who knowingly fail to report suspicions of abuse or neglect, according to a federal summary of state laws. Maryland does not.
For some in Prince George’s, the Carraway case echoes other warnings.
In 2007, Board of Education member Nathaniel B. Thomas took a high school student to San Francisco for a conference, stunning district officials and prompting them to order an investigation.
The resulting report said that parents had complained about Thomas when he was a teacher at what is now Forestville High School but that the complaints were not logged. “Undoubtedly part of the reason” for that, the investigative report states, is that Thomas resigned shortly afterward.
“The board should carefully review the system’s policy of documenting credible complaints of inappropriate classroom behavior by teachers,” the report said.
Verjeana M. Jacobs, a longtime board member who served as chairman from 2007 to 2013, said she recalls the school system emphasizing that recommendation at the time but was unsure whether it was incorporated into any new policy or procedure.
No criminal case arose from the San Francisco trip, but the investigation revealed other allegations against Thomas involving another student and resulting in a third-degree sex offense charge. The charge eventually was dropped because of discovery errors.
At the time, Thomas denied wrongdoing and denied being the subject of parent complaints as a teacher. Recent efforts to reach him were unsuccessful. His attorney said he could not comment.
More quietly in the same period, Flowers High School saw an accumulation of sex offense allegations, with four teachers convicted.
The parent of one Flowers victim alleged in a recent interview that the teacher who pleaded guilty in her daughter’s case knew that her 15-year-old was on medication and took advantage of her vulnerability.
“The whole thing made me think the school was a playground for those men,” said the mother, who is not being named to protect her daughter’s identity as a sex abuse victim.
Helena Nobles-Jones, principal during those years at Flowers and now retired, said she held yearly training sessions for employees on reporting child abuse and neglect and notified her supervisor and school security of incidents.
She said she had warned male teachers against making sexual advances. “I wanted to remind them that this is something you will not get away with,” she recalled, saying she also cautioned that students were “looking for sugar daddies.”
“These girls are old enough to draw the line,” she said. “They should know better.”
A county official with direct knowledge of the Flowers investigations and other sex abuse cases involving Prince George’s educators said that in many instances, a culture of victim-blaming and a desire to protect teachers from false claims allowed inappropriate conduct to continue or go unreported.
One of the Flowers cases spurred the federal civil rights lawsuit — settled in December — alleging that failures by education officials in the prior cases allowed further abuse.
Jacobs, the Board of Education member, said she did not recall being briefed on the Flowers cases or told by county school officials of the 2012 state Board of Education opinion.
Now, in the wake of the Carraway case, she said, the district must take aggressive action.
“To the extent that this case is so pervasive, it’s clear in my mind there needs to be changes in policy and procedure,” she said, “not only words on a page, but accountability measures to make sure that it’s happening.