Montgomery County took a first step Tuesday toward overhauling school practices for handling sexual abuse allegations, a move that followed public concern about recent incidents in two middle schools and scrutiny of such cases.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr presented a six-priority set of recommendations to Montgomery’s school board, including proposals to create a code of conduct for district staff, expand background checks, add training and review employee files.
School officials did not offer extensive details but said they would build out the ideas as the effort continues. The recommendations come three weeks ahead of a Feb. 2 county session to examine school practices and procedures in cases of alleged abuse.
“Over the last few years, we have had cases of misconduct on the part of employees toward students that have alarmed me and all of us here in Montgomery County public schools,” Starr told the board. The district had made some changes in procedure and training, he said, “and yet I don’t think we have gone far enough.”
Montgomery parents at two middle schools learned in the fall that the school system did not inform them until weeks after police arrested a contract worker and a substitute teacher for allegedly inappropriately touching students. A wave of parent concern also followed the 2013 arrest of Lawrence W. Joynes, a former Montgomery County music teacher who was accused of sexually abusing 14 girls during his years at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School and raping a middle school student in the 1990s.
Starr said the recommendations reflected “some excellent thinking and input” from a work group and aim to be “a comprehensive and systemic” plan to redesign efforts to protect children.
Starr’s recommendations include revising the board’s child abuse policy; conducting Child Protective Services checks for all employees; and developing screening processes for volunteers who have access to students. The school system would also develop a parent awareness program, improve student learning on personal body safety and work with other county agencies to make decisions about parent notification after alleged abuse incidents.
Board members asked pointed questions, though many said the ideas appeared comprehensive.
School Board Vice President Michael A. Durso recalled that schools officials had assured the community that changes were under way in August 2013.
“It almost sounds like we are starting again, and we have really serious credibility issues with the community on this,” Durso said.“I think we’re being honest when we say we want to clear this up. But are we capable of clearing this up in many cases with the same people who may be well-intentioned and have not made good decisions in the past?”
Durso said he looked back to the school board’s credit card controversy of last year, when the board brought in outside counsel to examine records and suggest changes. “I wonder if we’re at a point where most if not all of this needs to go elsewhere with objective eyes?”
Starr said past measures did not go far enough, and now the district has a stronger collaboration with police, prosecutors and Child Protective Services. “I don’t know that we thought, ‘You know what, we really have to overhaul, and we have got to do it quickly, we have to do it comprehensively.’ And that’s what we’re doing now.”
School Board Member Jill Ortman-Fouse (At Large) asked whether there had been an independent expert analysis of what went wrong before. School officials say they are consulting experts to look at past practices.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said during the session that his office welcomes the collaboration as he emphasized the importance of training district employees. “I think the challenge is not just drafting this document, it’s training and gaining compliance with what you have here,” McCarthy said.
Two parent leaders who were part of a district child abuse work group described the recommendations as a step forward but said they lack critical details about cost, timelines, design and implementation. Both said it was vital to bring in outside experts, and they said they thought the work group’s efforts were rushed.
“I don’t feel the recommendations have been really thought-out and vetted,” said Susan Burkinshaw, a PTA leader on the work group. “Are we making a recommendation to get something on the calendar or because it’s the right thing to do?”
She cited a proposal for school-based child-abuse liaisons as an example. “While they sound great, I’m not sure if they are proven to work, and what school systems are using them? Are we modeling this after something we know to be effective?”
Jennifer Alvaro, a parent and advocate on sexual abuse issues on the work group, said the recommendations come as “broad-brush strokes” without enough specifics. “In theory, it could be a good plan,” Alvaro said.