Child welfare officials received nearly 340 reports of suspicious incidents involving employees of the Montgomery County school system during the most recent academic year as the school district stepped up its efforts to protect against child abuse.
The vast majority of the reports did not rise to the level of requiring a Child Protective Services investigation, but most spurred official action, including retraining, employee conferences or disciplinary measures, according to a report by the district on the 2015-2016 year.
In 14 cases, employees were suspended without pay, and 26 incidents ended in termination, resignation or retirement, the report showed. The school system asked the state to suspend or revoke the teaching certificates of seven educators who resigned while under investigation.
School officials described the numbers as an indication of greater awareness of potential abuse and a new emphasis on erring on the side of reporting when in doubt. Advocates who have pushed for change said the data is a more realistic marker of employee conduct than in previous years, and they called it a step in the right direction.
“It speaks to people paying attention and being trained,” said Donna Hollingshead, associate superintendent of school administration for the 156,000-student Montgomery system. “They have the capacity to recognize, identify and report any suspicion of child abuse.”
The heightened attention follows a string of abuse cases in recent years that have alarmed parents and raised questions about district practices. In 2014, parents at two middle schools learned of arrests related to alleged offenses against students weeks after they occurred. Earlier, a county music teacher, Lawrence Joynes, was charged with sexually abusing 14 girls at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School; he pleaded guilty in 2015 and was sentenced to 40 years in prison in that case.
Amid rising public concern, former superintendent Joshua P. Starr in early 2015 announced an effort to overhaul district practices for handling abuse allegations. Eighteen months later, many changes are in place, while others are still in the works.
The report released this summer says that school staff and others reported 3,347 incidents overall to Child Protective Services last school year, more than double the number a year before. But 90 percent of the cases of alleged abuse or neglect did not implicate employees; instead, they involved others in the community, including parents, relatives or caregivers, officials said.
Of reports that involved people in county schools, 338 related to district employees, five involved contractors and two involved volunteers. A total of 73 incidents — a little more than 20 percent — required no official action, the report said. The Montgomery school system, Maryland’s largest, has more than 22,000 employees.
Jennifer Alvaro, a longtime child sexual abuse clinician who was part of a district advisory group, said the new figures suggest “a dramatic upswing in people following the law” by reporting suspicious conduct to authorities.
“The new policies, procedures and training they have implemented thus far seem to be working,” Alvaro said. “It’s clear they have done a lot of hard work to begin the process to help protect our kids. That should be noted. It should also be noted that a tremendous amount of work needs to be done.”
Alvaro said some initiatives are not fully implemented — involving volunteers, additional background checks, and parent education — and she raised concern about the 26 cases of employees who were terminated, resigned or retired. “That’s an astounding number of people in one school system in one year who had to leave,” she said.
Schools spokesman Derek Turner said such cases include violations of the employee conduct code, such as if a staff member were reported for pinching a student, which Child Protective Services is not likely to consider child abuse but is a violation of policy and a basis for an investigation.
Alvaro and another advisory group member, Susan Burkinshaw, a longtime PTA leader, called for greater transparency and more parent and advocate involvement. The advisory group has not met in more than a year, they said.
“They rolled out a lot, they made forward progress, but the curriculum has not been rolled out in its entirety for kids,” Burkinshaw said. She noted the recent case of an 11-year-old girl who decided to report that a longtime teacher improperly touched her after she learned about such issues in a body safety class at school; the teacher was indicted in July on sexual abuse and sexual offense charges, according to online court records.
The county report comes amid other efforts to expand safeguards for children within the Montgomery school system.
New training for full-time employees started last school year, and an employee code of conduct also was put in place for the first time. The school system improved its collaboration with police, prosecutors and child welfare workers.
The district also started background checks this year for volunteers who go on overnight outdoor education trips. School officials said in the coming school year they plan to create a volunteer code of conduct, require volunteers to take training on recognizing abuse, and will continue to roll out student lessons about personal body safety.
Dan Morse contributed to this report.