One teacher in Prince George’s County was escorted out of her school this spring after being accused of making an offensive remark in class. Another educator was sent home for allegedly failing to report a tussle that another staff member had with a student one day.
The latest data show they were among 848 employees placed on administrative leave at some point in the 2016-17 school year in Maryland’s second-largest school system amid a major surge in allegations of abuse and neglect.
That total has soared more than 1,000 percent since 2014-15, the year before Prince George’s was roiled by child abuse scandals and began to step up its emphasis on reporting misconduct. As investigations are conducted, many employees are off the job for weeks or months — an issue that has sparked increasing debate.
Prince George’s school officials said this month they have plans to improve the process of placing staff on leave for next school year and clarify the type of behavior employees are required to report. But critics say student learning has already taken a hit, and they worry about losing good teachers who are tired of the turmoil.
The most recent figures show 142 teachers and 91 other employees were off the job as of June 6, a week before classes ended for the summer break.
“It’s a purgatory of a kind I didn’t know existed,” said the teacher accused of the offensive comment, who — like others The Post interviewed — asked that her name be withheld for fear of retribution. She said she has no idea when she will be called back to the classroom. It could be the fall. It could be never.
“I am absolutely scared of losing my career,” she said.
The conduct of district staff has been a focus since the county was hit with a string of scandals, including one that involved an elementary school volunteer, Deonte Carraway, accused in early 2016 of video-recording students as he directed them to perform sex acts.
Prince George’s officials say the goal is to strengthen safeguards and shift a culture of nonreporting. Some new training is in the works, and they hope fewer employees are out next year. But they also say they have embarked on a major change that takes time.
School board Chairman Segun Eubanks said that the 848 employees off the job this year is “a big number” and the district may have “overcorrected” this year as it pushed employees to be vigilant and report troubling incidents.
About half of those on leave this year were teachers, the new data shows.
As the next school year begins, Eubanks said, the idea will not be to slow down reporting but to handle cases more effectively. “We need to find where that right balance is,” he said.
Critics have argued that while safety improvements were needed, they were poorly implemented, with major fallout. They cite a culture of fear, with teachers worried that any misstep or false accusation could mean being removed. Educators and parents say that teacher absences have often left students with substitutes for long periods.
D ata showed that of the 840 employee-related reports that went to Child Protective Services, 90 percent were screened out, meaning they did not warrant an investigation by that agency.
In cases with a final disposition, 67 employees were terminated, or resigned or retired; 51 suspended; and 78 reprimanded. More than 200 were cleared and about 170 received letters of professional counsel.
Several educators spoke about their experiences on condition that they not be named.
●One teacher said she was placed on leave for not following proper procedures when she reported seeing another staff member grab a student by the shirt and shove him. Her leave persisted for most of the school year — and came after eight weeks of leave the previous year for kissing a first-grader on the top of the head after the girl hugged her, she said.
The teacher said the first-grader’s father protested her removal. “The climate they’ve created is just horrendous,” she said, noting that young children expect physical contact. “Are you not going to hug a 4-year-old who is crying?”
●A counselor said he was accused of failing to report a physical exchange between a student and staff member in the cafeteria. But he says he had not witnessed the incident or been at school that day. Placed on leave in January, he said he was cleared at an April hearing, but has still not been called back to work.
“What’s going on is really ridiculous,” he said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” He said he worries about his students, some of whom he’s heard were suspended or expelled. He said he wants to be back at work.
●A retiree working as a substitute teacher said he was placed on leave last fall for tugging on a third-grader’s hoodie as he sought to keep her in line in the hallway. He has been out more than six months. “I cannot fault them for trying to help children who need protection,” he said. “But they’ve gone overboard in the other direction.”
●The teacher accused of making an offensive remark said she did not make the comment and the job limbo has been tough. She gets paid, like others on leave, but waits at home — reviewing her teaching materials, reading journal articles, trying to keep her mind in the game. “I want to be teaching,” she said.
School officials say they have paid almost $10 million as of May 12 to employees on administrative leave for all types of reasons, including abuse and neglect investigations. That compares with $2.6 million last year, and $630,000 in 2014-2015.
But the district says costs are down for substitute employees. They estimated a reduction of $7 million to $13 million compared with previous years, partly because they are using fewer retirees, who are higher paid. They also say principals sometimes compensate for teacher absences by combining classes or using other staff to fill in.
Some worry about retaining and recruiting teachers in the 132,000-student district.
“Unfortunately, I fear it’s going to be borne out in lower retention rates for teachers,” said David Murray, a school board member who co-authored a petition with three of his colleagues calling for revamping procedures that “have done more harm than good.”
Many Prince George’s teachers are looking for jobs in nearby Montgomery, Howard and Charles counties, as well as in D.C. schools, said board member Edward Burroughs III.
“Everywhere I go, large groups of teachers are talking about how they really want to leave the school system,” he said, noting that the county also pays less than some other systems. “There really is a problem. Morale has never been lower.”
School officials say they recruit for 1,000 new teachers a year and don’t expect any changes for 2017-18. Typically 500 former employees seek to be rehired, they said.
Teachers have until July 15 to say whether they plan to return next school year, said Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the county teachers union.
Dudley said that the safety of children is a priority but it’s also been one of the toughest school years in recent memory for educators. For those placed on leave, she said, the process of waiting for a resolution has been fraught with delays, lack of communication and seemingly little understanding of “how traumatic it is.”