Montgomery officials have scheduled a public session to examine the county school system’s child abuse policies and procedures amid heightened concerns about how the district addresses alleged incidents of sexual abuse on school grounds.
The action follows an uproar about two arrests for inappropriate touching of students that went undisclosed for weeks at Damascus and Germantown middle schools.
“All of us were extremely shocked, disappointed, by the lack of follow-through at a few of our schools,” said Montgomery County Council member Craig Rice, chairman of the council’s education committee, which is bringing together police, school officials, prosecutors, teachers and parents for a public meeting scheduled for Feb. 2.
Rice said he wants to analyze “step by step” the handling of such cases. “There’s no doubt mistakes were made,” he said. “Especially when it’s this serious, it requires us to put policies in place that protect our kids and make sure our community is informed.”
Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr and Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill have been asked to participate, and both plan to do so.
“It’s an issue that’s weighing on everyone, how we do better,” O’Neill said.
Starr said earlier this month that he is committed to making improvements in how the district handles cases and cited efforts including a work group’s examination of current policies, new training for employees, a database to track allegations and a review of procedures for principals.
“A vast majority of the time, we get it right,” Starr said at a Dec. 4 news conference. “However, recent incidents have caused me to believe that there is more that we can do to improve our processes and procedures.”
In early November, parents at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus reacted angrily when they learned from news reports that a contract worker, John E. Epps Jr., had been arrested for allegedly inappropriately touching a 12-year-old student in a school hallway.
Baker Principal Louise Worthington later sent a letter home about the arrest.
Shortly afterward, another principal, Khadija Barkley of Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown, informed her school’s parents of a Sept. 30 incident in which a 12-year-old girl was allegedly inappropriately touched by a substitute teacher, Jose Pineda, 50. Pineda was arrested in October on charges of sexual abuse of a minor and a third-degree sex offense.
After the Pineda case became public Nov. 7, students from other Montgomery schools, including a former student in her 20s, came forward to police alleging inappropriate touching.
The school system sent letters home to families at 20 schools at which Pineda worked dating to fall 2013, and to more than 50 schools at which Epps worked.
Additional charges were filed against Pineda in connection with three alleged victims, and he was indicted last week on 10 criminal counts. Pineda’s attorney has declined to comment on the case. An attorney forEpps said that his client is innocent.
The principals at both Baker and Clemente apologized for the delayed notification to their school communities, saying they had been focused on the victims involved.
Many parents have asked why the school system does not have a firm policy requiring notification of the school community when allegations of abuse arise, a question that council member Rice underscored.
“There has to be a set policy when it comes to these things,” Rice said.
Dana Tofig, a school system spokesman, cited a district regulation about reporting serious incidents to parents, students and staff: It does not mandate they be informed in every instance. Tofig said that in rare cases, notification might not be appropriate.
“In most cases, we communicate with parents very quickly,” he said.
As school leaders have released details about the two middle school cases, parents have voiced concerns about other aspects of the district’s decision-making:
●The Baker teacher who observed the alleged touching in a school hallway at about 11:15 a.m. on Oct. 6 did not report his concern immediately; unsure of what he saw, he went back to teaching his class, school officials said. After the school day ended, at about 3 p.m., he reported it to security and reviewed a video recording, they said.
School officials called the victim’s parents at about 3:30 p.m. that day, and the school system notified police the following morning, school officials said this week.
●In the Clemente case, the victim reported the incident and was later sent back to class with the substitute teacher she accused of inappropriately touching her, school officials said. The principal has called this a misstep. School officials say the accused teacher was removed shortly afterward and has not worked in Montgomery since.
●School staff and others asked the Clemente victim to recount the alleged incident a number of times, which the principal said should not have happened.
Jennifer Alvaro, a Montgomery parent and advocate on sexual abuse issues who is part of a district-appointed work group, said the two cases reflect multiple flaws in how school officials handle allegations of abuse.
She said the school system should bring in an outside expert to examine problems and “formulate a comprehensive plan, not to cobble together some changes.”