IN THE wake of news that federal officials will cut off funding for Prince George’s County’s Head Start program, schools chief Kevin Maxwell blamed “poor judgment” from “a handful of people.” But the money is not being terminated because a few teachers acted atrociously (which they surely did), but rather because school officials failed to properly address the problems. The events — coming against the backdrop of a still-lingering sexual abuse scandal — call into question the leaders charged with turning around the long-troubled school system.
An Aug. 12 letter from the Administration for Children and Families notified school board Chairman Segun Eubanks that the system will lose its $6.4 million Head Start grant because of its failure to correct serious deficiencies identified earlier in the year. A scathing report details a 3-year-old being forced to mop up his own urine in front of the class as a teacher texted a photo and mocking comment to the child’s parent and as two other teachers stood by; two other children made to hold heavy objects over their heads because they played during nap time; and a 5-year-old who wandered away unnoticed from school and walked home alone. Also noted was the troubling refusal of school officials to provide requested material.
What is so concerning about the incidents is that they occurred over a period of time and after the school system had been put on notice and given ample opportunity and guidance to make corrections. Some occurred as school officials were seeking to assure parents about student safety after an elementary school volunteer had been charged with video-recording sex acts with children during school hours. How and why the problems were allowed to continue are questions that need to be answered.
Federal officials generally try to avoid cutting off funding for a program that provides such vital services to students living in poverty. That they announced they will do so in Prince George’s suggests they see systemic problems. That should cause soul-searching by county and school officials. Instead of minimizing these disturbing incidents as aberrations, as some administrators are doing, or trying to escape responsibility, as some school board members are doing, they should be asking what more needs to be done to reform the system’s culture.
County and school officials said they will figure out a way to avoid any interruption in services to the more than 900 students enrolled in Head Start who are set to start school next week. Let’s hope they also figure out a way to ensure that parents can feel comfortable entrusting their children to the program.