Child welfare authorities and police received more than 300 reports of suspicious conduct by Montgomery County school employees during the most recent school year, down nearly 9 percent from the year before, according to data from a new report.
Most of the allegations did not result in Child Protective Services investigations, but they often triggered school district action. More than 70 percent led to employee warnings, conferences, disciplinary letters and reprimands, the data from the school system show.
There were 309 reports of suspicious employee conduct in the 2016-2017 school year, compared with 338 a year earlier. School officials described the 8.6 percent dip as a sign of growing awareness and understanding of child abuse and neglect among the district’s 23,400 employees.
“People are more familiar with spotting and recognizing child abuse and neglect, so they are not overreporting, but they are vigilant,” said school district spokesman Derek Turner.
The school year that ended in June marked the second since stricter protocols on reporting abuse and neglect rolled out amid a wave of community concern about how the school system handles suspicious employee behavior.
But some in Montgomery said the system of more than 160,000 students still has too many serious cases. John Vigna, 50, a former teacher at Cloverly Elementary School in Silver Spring, was sentenced this month to 48 years in prison for abusing four students and former students during a 15-year period.
The new data, in an August report from Superintendent Jack Smith to the school board, show 29 employee terminations, resignations or retirements related to allegations of abuse or neglect during the past school year — a number that drew concern. A year earlier, there were 26.
“You’re this far into cleaning house, and you’re still getting numbers that high?” asked Jennifer Alvaro, a social worker who specializes in child abuse issues and who served on a district-created advisory group. “That’s pretty significant.”
The report refers to cases that led to criminal charges, including one involving the head of security at Richard Montgomery High School, Mark Yantsos, who is accused of befriending a 17-year-old, giving her gifts at school and arranging to meet her in a hotel room where they had sex. He was indicted in June on a count of sex abuse of a minor and of fourth-degree sex offense.
Turner said each incident of child abuse is a concern but said he believes it “speaks volumes” that Child Protective Services screened out or ruled out most of the employee-related reports. In Montgomery, district staff must call Child Protective Services directly with suspicions of abuse or neglect, and officials say they have urged erring on the side of reporting when in doubt.
Turner underscored district efforts since 2015 to expand employee training, add more safety lessons for students and create an employee conduct code. A new compliance unit was recently launched to manage training requirements and enforce protocols related to abuse and neglect, as well as areas such as bullying and sexual harassment, he said.
Susan Burkinshaw, a mother and activist on child abuse issues, said she still worries about underreporting because the system is so large — with more than 200 schools — and because some recent abuse cases have come to light through parents or others outside schools. She said school culture needs to change more.
“I recognize they are doing a lot,” she said, “but I still don’t think they are doing enough.”
This year’s reports to Child Protective Services included cases against employees involving their own children, according to the district’s analysis.
In addition, five volunteers were reported for alleged abuse or neglect. Two were blocked from volunteering in the future, and two received a conference or warning. District data show more than 36,000 volunteers have taken an online training course for recognizing and reporting abuse and neglect, and nearly 1,400 volunteers completed criminal background checks — required for those who serve as coaches or chaperone students overnight and during late evenings.
Lynne Harris, a teacher who is president of the countywide council of PTAs, said that she has found the new employee training substantive and helpful, and she noted its emphasis on reporting anything even potentially problematic.
But Harris said she hopes district leaders take a close look at the 29 cases involving employees who were dismissed or who retired or resigned. Each, she said, should be examined with two questions: “Is there something we could have done to have prevented this? Is there anything we can learn that will make us a better system and make it safer for our kids?”