More than 200 incidents of sexual harassment of students were reported in Montgomery County’s public schools in the last academic year, a one-year jump of more than 80 percent, according to new data from the Maryland school system.
The numbers show that reports of such misconduct — including inappropriate physical contact, written messages and verbal remarks — rose for a third straight year, to 214 in 2015-16. That was 96 more than the previous year’s total.
School officials said Wednesday they plan to look into the issue and will move to a new process in the next school year that will provide clearer data on serious incidents, including sexual harassment.
“We’re still in the very early phases of what this could mean,” said Derek Turner, spokesman for the school system.
Turner said the increase could be the result of more reporting of incidents, noting that in 2015 officials expanded staff training on reporting child abuse, which may have spurred more teachers and students to report sexual harassment.
The district is committed to combating sexual harassment, he said, and includes lessons on the topic as part of its curriculum. It also is training staff on preventing, recognizing and reporting sexual harassment.
But some advocates in Montgomery say that while a reporting increase would be a positive step, more needs to be done to keep students safe. They view the increase as a sign that serious sex-related incidents may have gone unreported in the past.
“There are still too many incidents, and I don’t think the culture has changed enough,” said Susan Burkinshaw, a parent and community advocate who served on a school district advisory group that examined child abuse issues.
The new numbers, provided in response to a public records request by The Washington Post, come as Montgomery officials have scrambled to respond to a string of sex offense allegations and launched a safety review across the county’s 204 schools.
Two male students at Rockville High School were accused in March of raping a 14-year-old girl in a school bathroom. Prosecutors recently dropped rape charges but filed child pornography-related counts over texts discovered during the investigation.
While that case focused on students, two others since then have involved allegations against school staff.
In April the head of security at Richard Montgomery High School was arrested for inappropriate sexual contact with a 17-year-old student at the school, whom he had showered with gifts and met at a hotel. This week a security assistant at Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School was accused of sex offense and sex abuse counts involving an eighth-grader.
In the wake of recent cases, the new numbers give more detail than the district’s yearly report on “serious incidents” in schools.
The data show that last school year a total of 247 sex-related incidents were reported, including two rapes, 24 sexual assaults, seven incidents of sexual activity and 214 of sexual harassment. Police were contacted in 64 cases.
The numbers do not shed light on details of the allegations, whether incidents occurred on or off campus, or whether alleged offenders are students or adults.
Turner said most are student-on-student allegations, but some involve employees alleged to have acted inappropriately with students.
The rapes — a total of six over five years of data — occurred off school property, he said. A majority of sexual harassment reports came from middle schools, he said, citing a number of instances of inappropriate touching and sharing of inappropriate photos by cellphone.
Superintendent Jack Smith launched the districtwide safety review after the Rockville High case emerged. Last month, the district began examining its high schools — looking at facilities, bathroom configurations, surveillance cameras, staffing and procedures for being out of class. Middle schools are next, then elementary schools.
“Montgomery County has a long history of safe schools,” Smith said in a recent interview. “We want to continue that and be ever-more vigilant.”
Lynne Harris, president of the countywide council of PTAs, said she was surprised by the data and is interested in knowing more about the nature of sexual harassment reports and how many took place on school grounds. “As a parent, I am concerned about what our students are experiencing,” she said. “School is supposed to be a safe place.”
Harris said the increase could result from students being more aware of the need to come forward when someone crosses the line and school staff getting strong messages about the need to err on the side of reporting troubling incidents. She said she also wondered whether reports were up as the political atmosphere left more people “feeling more licensed to treat other people in diminished ways.”
Given the size of the school system - 160,000 students and 23,400 employees - Patricia O’Neill, a school board member, said the increase is concerning but she would expect even higher numbers.
District data show three yearly jumps in reports of sexual harassment incidents - from a low of 52 in 2013, to 92 in 2014, 118 in 2015 and 214 in 2016.
“I think the sexual harassment numbers and the bullying numbers are under-reported,” O’Neill said, voicing concern for students affected. “Each incident is one too many. Zero would be the best number.”
Jennifer Alvaro, an activist on sexual abuse issues who also served on the district’s child abuse advisory group, called for greater transparency and more urgency on the issue.
She said she is troubled by the surge in harassment reports for several reasons, including that the definition is so broad it is impossible to tell what kinds of reported incidents are on the rise. “You can’t correct a problem if you don’t know what the problem is,” she said.