After a school volunteer was indicted this year on 270 counts of child pornography involving at least 23 victims, the Prince George’s County Board of Education on Tuesday adopted new policies aimed at safeguarding children against sexual abuse in county schools.
The policies address various issues involving employee training, reporting of abuse and inappropriate conduct in a Maryland school system that has reeled amid allegations of children performing sexual acts at the direction of 22-year-old school volunteer Deonte Carraway, who was helping in the school’s library and once worked as a paid classroom aide.
The policies, approved 10 to 0 at a Tuesday meeting, were passed as emergency measures that bypass the usual process of extended consideration during multiple board sessions. School officials said the move paves the way for clarifications to the school system’s rules and requirements, which officials are now drafting with an eye toward closing gaps that could have put students at risk.
“It is one of the many steps we need to take to strengthen our system,” said the board president, Segun Eubanks. “I do believe that when we implement these policies and related procedures our students will be safer.”
The new policies follow the release of a task force report in late May that pointed to a need for sweeping improvements, though did not directly reference the Carraway case. The Prince George’s schools chief executive, Kevin Maxwell, said at the time that he did not see its findings as evidence of a systemic problem.
But at Tuesday’s meeting, the board worked at length on measures that would mean major changes on many fronts. The school system’s procedure on volunteers was last updated in 1998.
With the board’s action, the school system for the first time has an overarching policy on preventing sexual abuse, one that pushes for better handling of volunteers, background checks, school visitors, social media and abuse reporting. There also will be a mandate for annual staff training and reviews of curriculum content.
The board also adopted a new policy on reporting abuse and another on inappropriate relationships between students and employees, volunteers and contractors.
The district’s revised volunteer policy got particular attention. That policy — significantly expanded from an earlier version — calls for procedures that will include background checks, training and “clear parameters for a volunteer’s access to and interaction with students at school.”
The policy on improper relationships says that volunteers “shall not date, have sexual relations or have an inappropriate relationship with any student” and directs school officials to create “a clear prohibition” on conduct that falls within that realm, including any communication of a sexual nature, giving students access to an employee’s social networks, or being alone with a student in a closed room or in a personal car.
Several board members said they want to do everything possible to keep students safe while also welcoming the contributions of parents and community members.
“We want to make it a system that is as open to the community as possible but not at the expense of our children,” said School Board Member Curtis Valentine.
The new policies come as Prince George’s has scrambled to respond to Carraway’s arrest in February and his alleged trail of abuse. Police have said some sexual acts that Carraway directed and recorded took place at Judge Sylvania W. Woods Elementary School in Glenarden, Md., with students during school hours.
As angry parents demanded to know why a school volunteer had so much time alone with children, Maxwell appointed a task force to scrutinize district practices and make recommendations .
The task force released a 50-page report in May that recommended improvements, many of which are reflected in the policies the board adopted.
Experts say that school policies alone do not keep students safe and that even the best ones are only effective if they are followed and enforced.
But the policies and procedures in Prince George’s fell short, according to several experts, who described them as minimal, vague and dated.
Jennifer Alvaro, a longtime clinician in the field of child sexual abuse, said the new Prince George’s policies “are night and day from what they had before.”
Alvaro said the real test will be in implementation. “A linchpin will be what kind of prevention and education will they be doing,” she said.
School officials said most, if not all, of the procedures related to the new policies will be in place before the school year begins. Maxwell said they would be communicated widely.
“It will be very transparent, very open, very public,” he said.
Maxwell also said he hopes to have someone in place by the opening of the new school year to lead a new office of monitoring and accountability that would oversee district efforts.
In February, Maxwell said the principal of Judge Woods Elementary was placed on paid leave. Later, a teacher was similarly removed from the school.
School officials said an investigation of employee actions at the school started in late June, after a go-ahead from law enforcement officials. County prosecutors also have said they are investigating whether school staff failed to report concerns about Carraway.
Lynh Bui contributed to this report.