School officials in Montgomery County have proposed revisions to their district’s policy on child abuse and neglect and are seeking public comment on the changes.
The new policy, intended to guide school practices on recognizing, reporting and preventing abuse, cites the importance of holding school employees to high standards, supporting alleged victims and cooperating with law enforcement and child welfare investigations.
It also calls on district leaders to establish procedures to create a code of conduct for employees, provide training with support from experts and develop screening processes for employees, contractors and volunteers.
The revisions, part of a broader effort to remake the district’s approach to alleged incidents of abuse and neglect, were tentatively approved by the school board in the past week and come amid heightened concerns about how the system manages alleged abuse on school grounds. Public comments can be submitted until June 8.
Earlier this school year, officials came under fire for delays in notifying parents after a contract employee and a substitute teacher were arrested in separate cases of alleged inappropriate contact with middle school students.
Parents also have expressed concern about a number of other school cases. Robert Otis Wilson III, until recently a teacher’s aide in Montgomery, was charged last month with sexually abusing a student at A. Mario Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring.
Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill said in an interview that the policy change and other improvements are expected to be in place at the opening of next school year. “I think this is a step forward,” she said.
Board Vice President Michael A. Durso voiced concerns about the adequacy of the school district’s human-resources operation to support the new efforts. Montgomery is Maryland’s largest school system, with 23,000 employees.
“In order to do this appropriately, is HR equipped at their current levels to be able for us to go forward?” he asked.
Andrew Zuckerman, acting chief operating officer, said the district is examining that issue “to make sure we have got the right resources there.”
Richard Dangel, president of Praesidium, an outside consulting firm hired to advise the district on the issue, told the board its revised policy ranks “right up there” among districts. But he said it is only one aspect of a comprehensive approach.
“There’s not a silver bullet,” Dangel said. “You’re not going to stop this problem with a policy. But you need good policies. You’re not going to stop this problem with criminal background checks. Only 3 or 4 percent of offenders have criminal backgrounds. But you still got to do it. So you chip away at all the potential exposures.”
The new policy says the goal is a “safe, engaging, and supportive environment” for all students through “vigilant efforts” by all in the school community to recognize, report and prevent the abuse and neglect of children and vulnerable adults.
It says the superintendent will give the board an annual report that includes the number of cases reported and information about collaborative efforts between the school district and its county partner agencies. The policy is to be reviewed annually.
The school board is expected to take a final vote on policy revisions and protocols June 29, after the public comment period. Zuckerman described the district efforts as “robust.”
Jennifer Alvaro, a Montgomery parent and advocate on sexual abuse issues who is part of a district-created advisory group, said the school system has a long way to go to ensure its revised policy leads to real change.
She said she has questions about implementation and sustainability, and she highlighted what she said was a glaring lack of concrete details.
“A lot of this policy sounds good,” she said. “But is it? I don’t know. How are they going to implement it? Who manages all of this?”