‘There’s a huge failure here’: Montgomery Co. Council on handling of principal’s misconduct complaints

Montgomery County Council members are calling on the county’s schools superintendent and Board of Education president to release more information on how allegations of misconduct are handled.

Specifically, the council members said they want a report on allegations of bullying and sexual harassment by a school principal to be released to the public.

In an unusual session, all 11 members of the county’s council turned out for the Education and Culture Committee meeting on Thursday with Superintendent Monifa McKnight and president Karla Silvestre.

New investigation

The meeting came as the county’s Inspector General, Megan Limarzi, launched twin investigations into the recent handling of allegations of sexual harassment and bullying by Joel Beidleman.

Beidleman was promoted to principal of Paint Branch High School in June, despite being the target of 18 complaints over a period of seven years.

Limarzi made it clear she could not comment on her investigation, noting that, typically, her office doesn’t announce that an investigation is being done until it’s completed.

“This is a very unique situation,” she said, noting that her investigation follows the one carried out by a law firm hired by MCPS to investigate the circumstances surrounding Beidleman’s promotion in June and his subsequent placement on administrative leave when the allegations were made public.

Calls for accountability and transparency

At Thursday’s hearing, Council President Evan Glass asked the school officials, “How many people have to come forward and say ‘me too’ until something is done?”

Council member Gabe Albornoz called the allegations “awful” and said “trust has really been eroded on many different levels.”

McKnight and Silvestre both pledged to work on regaining trust in the community.

“Our students and staff deserve to learn and work in an environment free of harassment and intimidation. We’ve got to make this right,” Silvestre said.

McKnight told the council members that she “was not aware that there was an internal investigation against Dr. Joel Beidleman at the time of his promotion.” She said the school system would work toward improved screening.

Council member Will Jawando said “obviously there’s a huge failure here” and called on school officials to release the report by Jackson Lewis, the law firm retained by the school system to look into the allegations surrounding Beidleman.

Council member Marilyn Balcombe also urged for the release of the report and expressed frustration.

“We have no details about this incident, and we’re not privy to the facts, yet we’re called upon to blindly fund budget requests year after year without transparency,” she said.

Referring to the need for more information, Balcombe said, “I don’t assume that this is the only incident, I hope that it is, but we really need to know if this is just one or two incidences or the tip of the iceberg.”

Council member Dawn Luedtke told McKnight and Silvestre that Balcombe’s line of questioning, including those on accountability “really resonates with me — three of my children went to school at Fahrquar under this principal,” she said referring to Beidleman.

A number of the council members repeated the call for the release of the full report by Jackson Lewis. Council member Kristin Mink said even if the report was released in a heavily redacted format, “I still think that something is better than nothing.”

Vanishing emails

Glass quoted from emails detailing allegations of harassment by Beidleman, and said in the Jackson Lewis report, “It states that after searching MCPS’ email servers, it did not find these emails I referenced.”

The council members were told that emails are automatically deleted after one year. That alarmed Mink who said, “I’d like to just request that that be stopped immediately.”

McKnight said, “We will absolutely be in conversation about that.”

Silvestre said, “Yes, we can consider it.” She added, that the emails are archived, but “what I’m not prepared to tell you today is how that system works.”

McKnight also said she was not aware of what happens to the deleted and archived emails.

Glass responded, “Thank you for that additional information, but according to the independent report, those emails weren’t found, so there’s work to be done for sure.”

Community response

Janis Sartucci, with the Parents Coalition of Montgomery County, said she has concerns about how the school board retained Jackson Lewis.

During Thursday’s meeting, Silvestre was asked if the school board had formally hired Jackson Lewis to do an investigation — or if the firm had been hired to prepare a defense connected to the allegations and the school system’s handling of those complaints.

“Officers met with Dr. McKnight and the interest of the time was to move quickly because we wanted to get ahead of this as soon as possible,” Silvestre said.

Sartucci told WTOP that unless the entire school board moved to hire Jackson Lewis, that’s a problem.

“Maryland law is clear: that individual board members cannot act on behalf of the board of education,” she said. “That’s a violation of state law.”

WTOP reached out to the school system for comment.

Sartucci also expressed concern about the deletion of MCPS emails and the fact that McKnight and Silvestre couldn’t say what happens to them once they are deleted or transferred to electronic archives.

“Nobody seems to know which end is up and what is going on.”

Office of the Inspector General

During Thursday’s meeting, several council members expressed confidence in the Inspector General’s Office and Limarzi’s professionalism.

Sartucci echoed that sentiment, calling Limarzi “kick*ss.”

“She’s extremely professional,” Sartucci said. “She does her homework, she stays within the parameters of her job, she does what she’s supposed to do and she produces results.”

School officials say they’ve posted information on how to report concerns to the Office of the Inspector General on the school system’s website.

Limarzi said members of the public can call her office to report anything for the investigation.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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