A FAILURE to notice is at the core of the staggering sex abuse scandal at an elementary school in Prince George’s County, where a former volunteer stands accused of sexually abusing at least 17 children, some of them on school grounds. There were signs aplenty that something was amiss in Deonte Carraway’s dealings with pupils at Judge Sylvania W. Woods Elementary School, yet some teachers and staff seemed blind to them. That was a form of negligence, and the results were scarring and horrific.
Kevin Maxwell, chief executive of the Prince George’s schools, suggested in the scandal’s wake that the allegations of abuse, notwithstanding the scale on which they allegedly occurred at Sylvania Woods, were not an indictment of the system’s policies and procedures. Now a task force to examine those policies and procedures, established by Mr. Maxwell, has called into question his initial view. The failure to notice what was going on at Sylvania Woods, the task force concluded in a report this week, arose from antiquated, inadequate and slipshod safeguards, and improvements are urgently needed.
Broadly speaking, the task force concluded that the Prince George’s school district — with 129,000 students, one of the nation’s 25 biggest systems — was nodding off at the wheel, if not sleeping soundly. Teachers, staff and students did not receive effective instruction or training to recognize and report abuse. Because they didn’t know how to see something, they didn’t think to say something.
In the case of Mr. Carraway, who had worked as a paid teacher’s aide and, after being laid off amid budget cuts, as a volunteer in the school library, there were signs that went unseen, according to court filings. He is alleged to have groomed and directed children as young as 9 to commit sex acts and to have video-recorded them. In some cases, he was alone with children at school, behind closed doors — unacceptable conduct for which there was no explicit prohibition in school-system-wide policies.
Mr. Maxwell has taken steps, putting the principal at Sylvania Woods on paid leave, removing a teacher and installing an interim principal as well as a new counselor and school resource officer. He also has ordered retraining for all 20,000 employees in the system. Those are sensible measures as far as they go, but the task force report makes clear they do not go far enough.
In particular, the task force’s report concluded that the training itself is flawed and inconsistent — employees say it varies from school to school — and that follow-up is lacking to determine who has or hasn’t been adequately trained. Moreover, bus drivers, vendors and contractors, some of whom have extensive regular contact with pupils, are omitted. In other words, the system’s training program is Swiss cheese.
The report leaves the impression that principals, teachers and other adults who work in the system remain cloudy on how to spot the danger signs of abuse and on their duties to prepare themselves and their schools to act to prevent it. There’s a lot of work to be done; Mr. Maxwell has only started it.