As Montgomery County prepares to vote Monday on a new child abuse and neglect policy, advocates are urging that more work be done on the proposed changes, while school district leaders view them as a significant improvement that will help guide how the system handles sexual misconduct allegations.
The divide comes at the end of a school year that saw several high-profile cases of alleged sexual offenses on school grounds. The new policy, intended to guide practices for recognizing, reporting and preventing abuse, is part of a broader effort to revamp the district’s approach to the issue.
Montgomery schools leaders cite as important the policy’s emphasis on reporting suspected abuse even if there is doubt about what happened. They also say the policy provides clarity that staff members should not investigate incidents on their own but should instead call Child Protective Services.
Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill described the changes as a “giant step forward” and said they reflect a new level of collaboration between the school system and CPS, police and prosecutors. The policy would replace one that was last updated in 1986 and reviewed in 2007.
O’Neill said she expects the policy and a set of related protocols to pave the way for the training of employees in time for the coming school year. “I believe we have an obligation to make changes,” she said. “We have a responsibility, and that’s what we’re doing.”
But several advocates involved in the process contend that the 154,000-student system is rushing to get something on the books after delaying for years.
They have called for a more thorough approach and say that the school board should not consider the policy without examining related documents, including an employee code of conduct and an agreement with law enforcement and social service agencies.
“I don’t think they’ve tightened all the loopholes,” said Susan Burkinshaw, a longtime PTA leader and member of a district-created child abuse advisory group. “They should have all these other things nailed down before they approve it, so it’s not pie in the sky.”
Burkinshaw said school leaders are “trying to do something without making sure it’s comprehensive and the right thing.”
She and several other advocates have urged that an outside investigator be brought in to examine cases of alleged abuse, identify what went wrong and propose changes based on the findings.
“There needs to be independent oversight,” said Ellen Mugmon, a longtime advocate on child abuse issues who has served on state councils and advisory boards. “Without truly understanding what went wrong in the past, then the school system will make the same mistakes again.”
The policy, which cites the importance of holding school employees to high standards and supporting alleged victims, calls for the creation of a code of conduct for employees, more background checks, and added staff training and new screening processes for employees, contractors and volunteers.
School officials say they have hired an outside counsel to assist in a review of school personnel files for any issues of inappropriate conduct that require further action.
O’Neill said she believes the policy revisions are thorough, noting that the school district sought legal advice, as well as suggestions from police, prosecutors, CPS, an outside consultant and others. “I feel comfortable in moving forward,” she said.
The continuing debate follows a period when school leaders have come under fire.
Families at two middle schools reacted angrily last fall to weeks of delay in notifying parents after a contract employee and a substitute teacher were arrested in separate cases of alleged inappropriate contact with 12-year-old students.
This spring, a teacher’s aide at a third middle school was charged with sexual abuse. In May, Lawrence Joynes, a former music teacher arrested in 2013, pleaded guilty to charges of sexual abuse involving 15 girls, in one of the most alarming recent cases of child abuse in the Washington region involving a teacher.
The school board’s vice president, Michael A. Durso (5th District), said that he believes the district is on the right track in making changes but that it’s not the policy itself that will make the difference. “It’s how it’s going to be implemented,” he said.
Durso said the broader process has a ways to go. “I certainly don’t want to negate what’s been done — because I think it’s involved a lot of people and a lot of work — but I don’t think we’re anywhere near the completion.”