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MCPS superintendent releases memo on student abuse and neglect

One of the largest school systems in the D.C. suburbs is Montgomery County Public Schools. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

WASHINGTON — Montgomery County’s school superintendent Dr. Jack Smith issued a memorandum detailing the number of cases in which an employee, contractor of volunteer was suspected of abuse or neglect of an MCPS student.

The July 20 memo was posted on the school system’s website on Friday. It shows that while 345 suspected cases of abuse or neglect were reported to the county’s office of Child Welfare Services since June 2015, only a handful, five in all, were deemed to show enough “credible evidence”to lead to action. Three of those staffers no longer work for the school system, and two “are on administrative leave pending final action” according to the memorandum.

Responding to a reporter’s questions about the memorandum, Derek Turner, spokesman for the Montgomery County Public Schools said, “We’re being as transparent as possible by posting the memo to the board and information about our child abuse and neglect policy to our website.”

Jennifer Alvaro, a licensed clinical social worker and a certified sex offender treatment provider doesn’t buy that assertion about transparency. A member of the school system’s Child Abuse and Neglect Work Group, founded after the school system was slammed for its handling of accusations of abuse in 2014, says she had to file a Maryland Public Information Act request to get a copy of the memorandum.

Alvaro had been asking school officials when the work group would meet again. In February, she got an email from Deb Berner, Director of the Department of Student Services with MCPS, saying “The Child Abuse and Neglect work group has been an important component of the work we have done and was integral in setting the direction for this year’s efforts. At the end of the second semester we will convene stakeholders to provide and update on the progress and status of the work and hear feedback.” But the work group wasn’t called upon to meet — the last time the members met was in June of 2015 according to the MCPS website and Alvaro.

That’s not to say that the school system hasn’t made progress on dealing with reports of child abuse, sex abuse, or neglect of children by MCPS employees, says Alvaro. “I think they’re doing a lot better than where they were two years ago — it’s a dramatic improvement” over 2014 when the school system came under fire after a principal at a Damascus Middle School failed to notify parents that a contractor working in the school was accused of sexually assaulting a student, grabbing her buttocks as she passed him in a hallway. That failure and the subsequent prosecution of two veteran teachers on numerous counts of sexual abuse shook the confidence of many parents in the system’s willingness to get abusive teachers out of the classroom.

The memo also shows that during FY2016, the school system has sought to revoke or suspend the teaching certificate of seven employees all of whom resigned while under investigation for misconduct — and in one case while under investigation for distribution of child pornography. Alvaro says that’s important, because many school system engage in what she says is referred to by many educators as “passing the trash, by letting someone resign, not firing them.”

Alvaro says Montgomery County schools still have a lot of work to do to make sure that children are protected from abuse or neglect at the hands of teachers, contractors or volunteers. “They don’t have a volunteer code of conduct, they haven’t completed all their trainings” for employees and “they’ve only just started the training process for the kids” Alvaro says.

Turner says the volunteer code of conduct is being drafted, and training for students is progressing. “While the curricula hasn’t been posted to our website, it is being implemented in our schools and is being rolled out at various levels.” Turner says the lessons that teach children how to identify inappropriate behavior are already in place in elementary schools and middle schools, and that lessons will be introduced in high schools in the coming year.

Alvaro says the work group should meet again, because it was pressure from parents — and the media — that led the county school system to update its policies on how abuse and neglect cases should be handled. She’d like to see the curriculum, which she has praised as effective, posted to the county’s website. Alvaro points out that it was a lesson given to elementary school students on ‘body safety’ in February that led one 3rd grade girl to go home and tell her parents her teacher had touched her in an inappropriate manner. That teacher, 49-year-old John Vigna, was placed on administrative leave and eventually charged with sexual abuse.

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