A Head Start teacher who forced a 3-year-old to mop up his own urine and sent a mocking photo of the episode to the child’s mother was allowed to stay in a local teaching job for months after she was removed from the federal program.
School officials in Prince George’s County said the teacher, whom they did not publicly identify, was moved to Robert R. Gray Elementary School in February and recommended for termination Sept. 1, after federal findings about staff misconduct in the Head Start program surfaced publicly.
But as Prince George’s continues to look at what went wrong in its program for disadvantaged preschoolers — prompting a federal decision to revoke the school system’s $6.4 million Head Start grant — some point to the teacher’s case as an example of the county’s slowness to act regarding alleged misconduct, which community members had criticized long before the Head Start scandal came to light.
“It is downright shameful that we had an employee that the federal government concluded engaged in child abuse, and they were transferred to another school, and they just sat in front of students, and they were not held accountable,” said school board member Edward Burroughs III.
Prince George’s school officials did not defend the decision to retain the teacher but said local Child Protective Services officials did not return a finding against her. “In hindsight, she should have been immediately recommended for termination,” school officials said in response to questions from The Washington Post.
The details come as state officials prepare to evaluate the program and as Prince George’s school officials say more than 250 employees are on paid administrative leave amid allegations related to inappropriate conduct, abuse or neglect.
Monique Davis, deputy superintendent of schools, said that reporting of potential misconduct has surged as the school system steps up efforts to train employees about recognizing and reporting abuse and neglect. Those efforts began last year, following the arrest of a school volunteer who allegedly directed children to perform sex acts and recorded them on video.
“There’s more awareness from our entire staff of 20,000 individuals about what their obligations are,” she said.
In neighboring Montgomery County, fewer than 10 people are on paid leave for allegations related to child abuse and neglect, school officials said.
Prince George’s schools chief executive Kevin Maxwell has cited the spike in reporting of inappropriate conduct as a sign of progress.
“This increase in reporting, in the long-term of our organization, is exactly what’s going to change that culture,” Maxwell said at a recent meeting with county council members, noting it is important that people understand “it’s not acceptable to conduct yourselves in this way, and it’s not acceptable to not report it when you know something.”
The controversy about Head Start, which led to disciplinary action against six employees, was followed by another allegation of misconduct involving a bus aide, Michael Paul Patopie, 38, who was accused of abusing young children with special needs. According to charging documents, the allegations date to November 2015, but one mother says her family was not notified until June.
“Nobody cared about my child,” said the mother of a 5-year-old who police describe as a victim in the case. “I want to know what they were thinking and why they protected this man instead of my child.”
The mother said her son was a quiet, easygoing child and is now tormented by nightmares and so anxious about the ride to school that family members must escort him both ways. The mother said it breaks her heart when the boy struggles with painful thoughts and asks to be hugged or held. “Several times, he’s told me he’s sad about the monster on the bus,” she said.
The school system, she said, has not called her to express concern or ask after her son, nor has anyone apologized.
When the case came to light in September, Maxwell said he had learned of the allegations in August and placed a bus aide and supervisor on leave. “I can’t act on things I don’t know. . . . I can’t know everything instantaneously,” he said then at a news conference. Later, when charges were filed, Maxwell said he was “horrified by the nature of these crimes, sickened and angry that this individual may have preyed upon our students.”
Some community members say district efforts have fallen short.
“The people at the top are taking no responsibility and are refusing to be accountable for what they did or didn’t do,” said David L. Cahn, vice president of the Prince George’s County Civic Federation. “The only change they are making is more aggressively punishing people. What they need to do is say, ‘We messed up. . . . We did not put it on the front burner.’ ”
And while some parents said they are pleased the school system is increasing its safety measures, they also worry that the number of teachers and staff on leave is so large that it could affect the quality of education in county schools.
At the district’s Robert Goddard Montessori School, Jennifer Kaleba, a mother of two, said her older child’s teacher was on administrative leave in the spring, and her younger child’s teacher is on leave this school year. Four of Goddard’s teachers and one aide are out on leave related to allegations of abuse or neglect, school officials said.
“My hope is that safety and the effort it takes to keep kids safe does not mean education founders in the background,” she said. “We want our children to be safe, and we want our children to be educated.”
But Shirley Kirkland worries about how well employees are being trained. Many staff and educators are nervous about being falsely accused, said the president of the ACE-AFSCME Local 2250, representing almost 6,000 district support staff. “The way the culture and the climate is now, it’s like a state of paranoia,” she said.
Kirkland said employees are afraid to break up fights or accept a hug from a child, fearing that they could be placed on leave.
The Head Start case comes after the arrest of Deonte Carraway, the school volunteer who allegedly created child pornography at a Glenarden elementary school and other sites. Maxwell created a task force that recommended changes to policies and safeguards as a result.
Federal findings for the Head Start program recounted how the mother of the 3-year-old who wet his pants tried to report the incident to school officials and finally called the federal agency directly.
“For weeks, nobody would help,” the mother said in an interview. “I called every number I could call.”
In findings, federal officials described the teacher’s behavior as humiliating to the child and a form of emotional abuse.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, which funds Head Start, said that his agency made it clear to Prince George’s that federal funding could not go toward paying teachers allegedly involved in child mistreatment incidents.