Two years after school officials created a database to track allegations of inappropriate employee conduct toward students, Montgomery County is dismantling the project, which one official said critics came to see as the “infamous database.”
The database — which at one point had more than 200 entries, dozens of which were related to allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct — was intended to be used to track patterns and identify potential problems as they developed. But it also received criticism because not all of the cases were reported to county authorities for possible investigation.
The decision to take down the database comes amid a broader effort to overhaul how Maryland’s largest school system handles incidents of alleged sexual misconduct; last week, school leaders adopted a new child abuse policy.
Josh Civin, the school system’s general counsel, said the database is being scrapped as the school system seeks to emphasize that all cases of suspected abuse be reported to Child Protective Services.
“We want to make it clear we’re erring on the side of reporting so that behavior that creates a suspicion will be shared with CPS,” he said.
In the past, some of the allegations tracked in the database were reported to CPS, and some were not, Civin said. The incidents that went unreported were considered to have fallen short of suspected abuse, he said.
The records included in the database are under review as part of a larger examination of school files, being done with the assistance of an outside lawyer, he said.
“We’re going to look through them and make sure we understand what’s in those records and we keep track of those incidents going forward as well,” Civin said.
School officials could not say how many cases were being tracked in the database as of late last week. In November, school officials told The Washington Post that there were 222 entries in the database — dating to 2004 — 82 of which involved allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct.
The database was launched in summer 2013 following several cases that raised concern, including the arrest of teacher Lawrence Joynes, a 27-year veteran of the school system who was charged in the sexual abuse of 15 girls, most of them in kindergarten to second grade at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School. He pleaded guilty in May.
After the allegations of abuse against Joynes surfaced, parents and teachers questioned why school officials had not better tracked complaints about him, spotting patterns or red flags. Joynes was arrested after a federal probe of a child pornography ring, not as a result of school actions.
The database of inappropriate conduct came as one of several measures taken to improve monitoring for potential inappropriate conduct in schools. School officials said at the time the database would create a more robust centralized tracking method. It was seen as a significant improvement.
But advocates have been critical of the database because not all of the incidents or allegations it contained were reported to authorities.
Ellen Mugmon, a longtime advocate on child abuse issues who has served with state and national organizations, recently submitted comments to the Montgomery County school board that referred to the project as a “secret files” system that was violating abuse reporting laws.
As the database is dismantled, she said, school officials should report to CPS and police any incidents that have not already been reported for investigation. “If there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there, but leave it to the experts to decide,” she said. “This is serious.”
The district’s new policy, approved Monday, stresses reporting suspicions of abuse even when there is doubt about what happened, with CPS investigating the validity of concerns, not school staff. It calls for employee training, screening processes and a conduct code.
But some have asked about the issue of tracking conduct that seems innocent but might raise concerns if it were repeated frequently.
“Maybe if you have 20 incidents, maybe at some point it looks like it isn’t so innocent anymore,” Phil Kauffman, chairman of the school board’s policy management committee, said in a recent committee discussion during which he suggested some view the system as the “infamous database.”
Kauffman said in an interview that some critics developed an impression that the database was a system for tracking employees suspected of child abuse, a view he does not share. He said under the new policy, questionable behaviors will be reported to CPS.
Jennifer Alvaro, a parent and advocate on sex abuse prevention who is a member of a district-
created advisory group on child abuse, said the database always has been problematic because it included incidents that had not been reported to authorities.
But she said the school district needs some type of system to capture conduct that is repeated or follows a pattern because incidents reported to CPS or police will not always rise to the level of being investigated or pursued criminally.
“Those reports and concerns need to be tracked somewhere,” she said.
Civin, the district’s general counsel, said that such incidents will be tracked through confidential investigative files that are maintained electronically and will reside in a unit within the school system’s human resources department.
He also said that regardless of what CPS and police do with allegations, the district will investigate whether employees complied with education law and school system policies.
Alvaro said a big question remains about how the school system will track violations of its new employee conduct code, not yet completed. She said she also wants to know more about the new system of investigative files; she said she never got complete answers about the database.
“I’ve always questioned what was in the database, who was running the database, who knew about it and who had access,” she said.