Montgomery Co. school officials outline process for handling reports of sexual harassment

Montgomery County Council members questioned county school officials on how complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault are handled by the Maryland school system during a meeting Monday.

Members of the Montgomery County Council‘s Education and Culture Committee heard from Gregory Edmundson, director of student welfare and compliance, who said that most of the complaints that appeared on Instagram accounts were anonymous.

In June, the school system vowed to investigate after students, both past and present, detailed incidents ranging from lewd comments to sexual assault on Instagram accounts.

Edmundson said that as far as his office could determine, most complaints came from high school students.

Edmundson told council members that the incidents “are describing conduct that’s happening outside of anything that might have happened in the school” and that “we are finding the significant majority of them have been reported [and] investigated as appropriate and as necessary.”

Many of the accounts that appear on social media timelines describe incidents of comments made, or cases of unwanted physical contact in school hallways, cafeterias and classrooms. Others detail incidents — some describing alleged sexual assaults or rapes — that occurred at homes, in cars or other places off campus.

Henry Johnson, the school system’s chief of staff, said students are encouraged to fill out a form when reporting an incident of sexual harassment — it’s the same one used to report bullying.

Asked what happens while school officials investigate the case, Johnson said, “We try to make sure there is contact avoidance between the victim and the offender whenever possible. Particularly at school.”

And he said the emphasis is on providing a sense of security.

“The key here is to make sure that the student can remain in his or her building, in his or her classroom, in the safest environment possible,” he said.

Should a student’s family want the student to transfer, Johnson said that is typically granted.

Council member Nancy Navarro asked about what services are offered to students who’ve been victimized. She said she wanted to be sure that all students had access to help.

“Especially if you have a situation where you might have a family who may not speak English very well and who is really overwhelmed by how you navigate the system,” she said.

Council members asked about the use of the word “investigation” and inquired about when the decision is made that an incident is a police matter versus when it’s a matter of school discipline.

“It is very much our duty to investigate and look into these allegations,” said Natalia Ahn, general counsel for the school system.

But she added that she thought “it’s a dangerous thing” to immediately turn over a case to police without taking into account the background of a child.

“I think we do a really great job and play a pivotal role in those investigations,” Ahn said.

Ed Clarke, director of safety and security for the school system, said, “Clearly if there’s an allegation of any rape, sexual assault by force — those go over to local law enforcement for investigation.”

Council member Craig Rice asked about how schools can make sure that the urgency in dealing with allegations of sexual harassment and assault are unified across the system.

He suggested adding specific guidelines for principals would be helpful.

“I would think that it would be better to have specific questioning versus something that’s just left up to folks and their own judgment call,” Rice said.

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