Parents and advocates say they are increasingly concerned about how the Montgomery County school system handles incidents of inappropriate contact with students, following two recent alleged sexual offenses at county schools that went undisclosed for weeks.
The latest case involved a substitute teacher, Jose Pineda, 50, at Roberto Clemente Middle School who is accused of inappropriately touching a 12-year-old girl. Pineda was arrested Oct. 14, on a charge of child abuse, and the Germantown school’s parents learned about it on Nov. 7.
Montgomery County police said Friday that between five and 10 other students have come forward following recent school system notifications about Pineda’s arrest. Police said that the investigation is ongoing and that they could not provide details about any of the students’ accounts.
The case at Clemente Middle comes amid an uproar at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus, Md., where parents were angered that almost a month passed before they were notified that a contractor, John E. Epps Jr., was arrested for allegedly touching a 12-year-old girl inappropriately in a school hallway.
Parents said they wonder how often such cases are reported to school families and how vigorously they are pursued. In each case, school authorities called police and suspects were arrested. But some have questioned why school officials did not reach out more quickly to parents at other schools where the two men had previously worked, both as a warning and to seek additional information.
District officials have now sent letters to parents at 20 schools where the substitute teacher worked and 59 schools where the contractor worked. The letters ask that those with knowledge about possible inappropriate interactions report them to police or school officials.
“Parents are wondering if the problem is larger than Baker and Clemente,” said Susan Burkinshaw, co-chair of the health and safety committee of the countywide PTA, who noted that she has fielded e-mails and calls. “My fear is that this is a much broader issue than two guys in two schools who happened to get caught in the same time period.”
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said in a statement Tuesday that his staff is developing regulations that would require criminal background checks for employees of contractors working in schools. In the past, the district has followed state requirements that mandate a check of the sex offender registry, officials said.
Starr also has said he asked that principals review the district’s expectations for how they should communicate with families after allegations of improprieties.
Starr’s Tuesday statement came the same day that Baker parents gathered with school officials to press for more information about how the school handled the case. Epps allegedly touched the buttocks of a 12-year-old student, something that was captured on a security camera and that a teacher observed, court records say.
Epps’s attorney said his client is innocent.
Baker Principal Louise Worthington has said that she did not initially inform parents because she wanted to protect the privacy of the girl. This week, Worthington was apologetic: “I’m sorry. That was wrong. . . . That definitely was a mistake.”
Many parents expressed lingering dismay after the meeting. Some were glad to hear apologies, but many said they were not sure much would change.
“They didn’t spell out exactly how they were going to do things differently,” said parent Amy Bilello.
Jennifer Alvaro, a Montgomery parent and advocate on sexual abuse issues, said the lack of timely information at the two schools is a significant problem. “It’s outrageous parents had to wait that long to find out,” she said. “If parents don’t know something happened, they don’t know to talk to their kids about it.”
At Clemente Middle, Pineda is accused of squeezing a student’s buttocks during science class and rubbing his hand against her leg and buttocks, according to court documents. The student told friends and a vice principal shortly afterward, the records say. Police charged Pineda with sexual abuse of a minor and a third-degree sex offense.
Pineda denied the allegations, according to the documents. His attorney, Paul Wiesenfeld, declined to comment.
School officials said Friday that Pineda had worked as a bus operator from 2000 to 2003, as a substitute teacher from 2003 to 2006, and then again as a substitute starting in 2013.
Clemente’s principal, Khadija Barkley, wrote to parents Nov. 7 to inform them of the arrest and apologize for not communicating earlier. Barkley said police were contacted quickly and the teacher was removed. “As the principal, the safety and security of all students and staff is my responsibility and I am confident we acted swiftly to ensure this incident was investigated and our students supported,” she wrote.
Some parents wondered what kind of support students received if there was no schoolwide notification to families. “My question is how,” Germantown parent Terrance Ragland said. “That’s a parent’s job, to support their children.”
The slow notification, he said, “appears to be part of a culture” that needs changing. “We need to adopt child-first policies.”
Revonne Johnson, president of the PTSA at Clemente, said she has not heard directly from parents at her school but expects community members will discuss the issue at a meeting the principal has planned for Tuesday.