The unraveling of the Head Start program in Prince George’s County started with a mother trying to report that her 3-year-old son’s teacher had forced him to mop up his urine in front of his class as punishment for wetting his pants. “LOL,” the teacher had texted to the mother, sending a photo. “He worked that mop tho!”
Upset, the mother approached a Head Start staff member in December and was “likely discouraged” from making a report, the federal agency that funds Head Start said. In January, the mother persisted, making an official report to the school system and, she says, writing to the school board. The next month, frustrated, she called federal officials directly.
“For weeks, nobody would help,” she said. “I called every number I could call.”
The incident would trigger a federal review and ultimately lead to the loss of a federal grant Prince George’s had held for 50 years.
It also would come around the same time the county school system was struggling to explain a separate scandal: the arrest of Deonte Carraway, then 22, a school volunteer accused of video-recording children at a Glenarden, Md., elementary school and other sites as they performed sex acts that he allegedly directed.
The case, which authorities say includes at least 23 victims, spurred months of examining school system policies and safeguards.
In the weeks since federal officials seized control of the county’s Head Start program, a second mother has come forward with troubling allegations. School officials have again vowed to do better by the county’s children. And some in the community have called for outside investigators to conduct a review.
“They all stood up there telling us they were working to protect our children, and they didn’t disclose that they were under federal investigation for child abuse in Head Start,” said Tonya Wingfield, an education activist.
Caroline Small, a parent in Berwyn Heights, Md., posted a blog item about the need for stronger leadership and more transparency. “They treat each incident in an isolated way,” Small said. “But we in the community see a pattern, and I don’t see them addressing the pattern.”
In mid-August, federal officials revoked the Maryland school system’s $6.4 million Head Start grant, saying that a central problem cited during their investigation of the first mother’s allegations — ensuring proper treatment of children — was not corrected.
Federal and county officials pledge the early education program — which serves 932 children from low-income families — will go on, with a federally selected nonproft stepping in for now to run it.
On the defense for a second time, less than seven months after the Carraway case, school system chief executive Kevin Maxwell said the problems with Head Start resulted from “poor judgment” by “a handful of people.”
Maxwell announced disciplinary action Thursday against six employees directly involved in incidents cited by federal officials and said such misconduct would not be tolerated. Three of the employees were fired and the other three were recommended for dismissal, according to a person who works for the school system and has knowledge of the situation.
“These individuals will no longer be in front of any child in Prince George’s County Public Schools,” Maxwell said, noting that the district is working to implement task force recommendations aimed at improving reporting practices and transparency.
School board member Edward Burroughs III called the discipline “too little, too late,” saying that if the school system had acted more promptly after being notified of the first problem in February, the later incidents might not have happened and the grant might not have been terminated.
Prince George’s County Council Member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) said an independent review is needed to restore trust. “Clearly, the ball got dropped somewhere, and I think a third-party review would help give the public confidence that the proper individuals are going to be held accountable,” he said.
District officials did not comment on the possibility of an investigation into the handling of Head Start.
They said that after the investigation started in February, they came up with a corrective action plan and thought they were on track. Federal officials say Prince George’s corrected deficiencies in reporting abuse and keeping student and family information confidential. The district conducted trainings, revised its cellphone policy and took other steps, and planned additional training for this school year.
But two additional incidents arose in June, one involving corporal punishment and the other lack of supervision. Federal officials said Prince George’s had not shown it was ensuring that staff would use only positive methods of child guidance and not engage in such actions as corporal punishment, emotional or physical abuse, and humiliation.
In one incident,two children were made to hold heavy boxes over their heads as punishment for misbehaving during nap time, according to federal findings.The teacher added more weight and time to the punishment if the children moved or dropped items.
In the second incident,a child returned to her class from the nurse’s office when everyone was on the playground — and ultimately walked home, unsupervised for 50 minutes.
Federal officials say the revocation of Prince George’s status as a grantee is relatively uncommon. The county was one of five grantees — among 1,700 nationally — to face such sanctions during the past year.
“We don’t do many terminations, and they’re done for a serious reason,” said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, which funds and oversees Head Start. “They’re not something we do lightly.”
The federal agency’s review, he said, involved months of contact, an April site visit, a week-long review in June and technical assistance. “We are not about playing a ‘gotcha’ game,” he said. “Rather, these were serious incidents we investigated and found to be uncorrected. That’s what led to the termination.”
As recent problems have been spotlighted — sparking wide concern — parent Chamanikia Davis described incidents that arenot captured in the federal findings.
Davis, a mother of two from Suitland, Md., said her 4-year-old son left his Head Start program at Overlook Elementary School last September while children were on the playground and got to a busy intersection at Branch Avenue before a teacher intervened.
“I got a call from school saying he almost got into the street,” she said. “They said he would have gotten hit if the teacher didn’t grab him. They definitely should have been watching him more closely.”
Davis said her son, who has developmental delays, was later moved to a Head Start program at H. Winship Wheatley Early Childhood Center, where the first mother’s child was enrolled. There, one December day, she saw a teacher roughly pull a child down a long hallway and into a dark room where the teacher threatened to leave the child for his misbehavior, she said.
“The whole situation was inappropriate,” said Davis, who says she reported the incident that day to a school administrator.
She said she had called the school board after the incident involving her son on the playground and did not hear back for about a month. By then, her son had been transferred to Wheatley, she said, so she let it go.
Prince George’s officials did not comment on the alleged incidents.
Federal officials said such incidents should be reported to the agency. Their findings did not mention the incidents, appearing to indicate they were not reported.
“We always advise grantees to err on the side of caution and report all allegations and incidents to us,” Wolfe said. In cases of alleged neglect and abuse, he added, Child Protective Services should be notified as well.
In the case of the 3-year-old forced to mop up his urine, federal officials found that the teacher had humiliated the child and used a method of discipline that denied his basic needs.
The teacher saw her actions as proper treatment, the report said, to show the child how hard a custodian’s job might be.
“Not only did the teacher’s actions humiliate the child,” the report said, “but it was possible children who witnessed the incident were negatively impacted after observing the improper punishment of their peer.”
Though federal authorities said Prince George’s had corrected deficiencies in reporting of abuse and neglect, their findings stand out for a string of occasions when personnel in Prince George’s refused to provide information to federal investigators.
“The lack of program accountability and quality control related to reporting cases of suspected or known child abuse posed serious potential consequences for children in the classroom,” the findings said.
The mother who placed the February phone call that triggered the federal investigation said she has struggled, feeling bullied and harassed by district employees who feel what happened was “not that bad” and the teacher should not have been removed.
She noted that her son weighed less than 30 pounds at the time, and that he was handed an industrial mop to clean urine on the floor.
When she complained to the teacher, she said she was told: “If he wets again, I’m going to make him mop it again. And what?”
Lynh Bui, Ovetta Wiggins and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.