Handling of work-study earnings at Rock Terrace questioned -- Gazette.Net


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This story was corrected June 28, 2013. An explanation follows the story.

Last week, parents of students at Rock Terrace School in Rockville, a school for developmentally disabled students, claimed that the school’s administration had misappropriated money students had earned in work-study programs.

Now, parents and students are stepping forward to share their stories, with some saying they are unsure how much money students’ bank accounts should have and if all of the money is there.

Rock Terrace administrators have kept mum so far; calls to the school and to a publicly listed number of the home of Principal Dianne G. Thornton have not been returned.

Montgomery County Public Schools issued this statement last week: “While these are just allegations at this point, we are taking the matter very seriously and are conducting a thorough investigation.”

“Appropriate action will be taken based on the facts of the case, once the investigation is completed,” the statement said.

Ramon Korionoff, spokesman for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, said the office was made aware of the situation at Rock Terrace School last week.

“We are working to obtain all the pertinent information and will go where the evidence and information leads us. As of now, it would be inappropriate to comment further on the matter,” Korionoff said.

A spokesman for Maryland Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot said that because of the tax ramifications, the comptroller’s office would work with state and local authorities to investigate the allegations and would do everything the law allows to watch out for children and their families.

Rock Terrace School serves students from ages 12 to 21 and offers work-study opportunities.

At issue is whether the students actually received money they were entitled to for work they did and whether parents were properly informed about the bank accounts created for their children.

The program, according to a former employee with knowledge of the situation, is set up so that students who work inside the school should be paid. They are not compensated for work outside the school, such as at CVS, Kohl’s and a Hilton hotel. The former employee would speak only on condition of anonymity.

Tamara Clark’s son graduated earlier this year from the school. She said she only recently learned about her son’s earnings, after she was denied federal assistance in the program formerly known as food stamps, when she was laid off from her job earlier this year. Her son’s income affected her eligibility for the food benefits assistance program.

Clark asked that her son’s name not be printed.

Learning her son had earned about $1,000 left her “perplexed,” she said. “Where is this money? It hasn’t come into my household,” she thought. Despite the money he had supposedly earned, she had been paying money for weekly field trips, life-skills programs and other school-related costs.

Her son was in the school-work program, she said. He did jobs in the school, such as mailings. He also volunteered at Kohl’s and Magruder’s.

After she began investigating, she learned a bank account was created for her son in 2008, she said.

Her son had been in programs and working since 2005, she said.

She heard about bank accounts, but “it wasn’t to be used for anything,” she said. She thought the money was to teach her son and other pupils how to navigate tasks such as how to use a bank account or similar life skills.

“I never recalled them saying they were going to open physical bank accounts for my child,” she said from her Silver Spring home Sunday evening.

She checked with the administration, she said, asking for paperwork she might have signed allowing for a bank account to be created.

“I was asking if they could supply paperwork, so I could make sure I wasn’t accusing anybody of anything,” she said.

She said she never saw the W-2 issued to her son in 2011, but saw one he received for last year.

“I think the only reason I got a W-2 in 2012 is because staff changed and someone did their job correctly and wasn’t aware we as parents didn’t know,” she said.

The W-2s from 2012 and 2011 showed he had received an hourly wage, and at one point, had accumulated more than $1,000 in his account. Chunks of money were taken from his account during both of those years, she said, and when she saw the account, $780 was withdrawn.

She emailed Thornton, asking where the money had gone. Eventually, the school reimbursed the money. There was no explanation of why the money was taken out or returned.

The experience left her unsatisfied. She started talking to other parents to see if they had gone through similar experiences.

“I hope to God none of the money was pocketed,” she said. “I hope they put it back into [programming] at the school.”

Territa Moon-Johnson said she thinks she is one of the students who didn’t get money she deserved.

Moon-Johnson, 20, graduated from Rock Terrace this month. The school has three academic levels, including a middle school, a high school and an upper school transition program.

In the upper school program for 18- to 21-year-olds, students receive on-the-job training among other instruction, according to the school’s website. The students also learn functional math skills, including how to fill out a deposit slip, write a check and maintain a check register.

Students in Rock Terrace’s high school can take vocational courses, such as in culinary arts and in office skills and procedures, according to the school’s online high school course offerings.

Under the description for the “Office Skills and Procedures” vocational course, the high school course offerings PDF says, “Students learn to associate work with compensation.”

Moon-Johnson said she worked for five years in the school’s kitchen and other places outside of the school, but thought until recently that she was not supposed to be paid.

She said she received a letter from the school in 2008 asking her if she wanted to create a bank account, but decided not to because she “didn’t think it was a big deal” whether she was paid. The idea that she was getting paid was a surprise.

Around late May or early June, a Rock Terrace parent told Moon-Johnson’s mother that she might have an account, she said. Moon-Johnson said she asked a teacher at the school, who confirmed she had one.

“I had an account, but no one told me I had an account,” said Moon-Johnson, of Olney. “They made my account for me without my permission and without my mother’s permission.”

Other students had money in accounts and went on outings to a bank to access them, Moon-Johnson said.

Deborah Albert of Silver Spring said her 21-year-old daughter, Jascina Albert, who also graduated this year, worked for about four years while at Rock Terrace, doing work both inside and outside the school.

Albert said she gave the school permission to open a bank account for Jascina and the school told Albert the account would be used to help teach Jascina skills such as how to do withdrawals and how to make deposits.

She said she thought Jascina would use small stipends she earned from her work. She didn’t think the money would be enough to affect the benefits Jascina was receiving from the Social Security Administration.

But Albert received a letter in November 2012 from the SSA saying that her daughter had worked from 2009 to 2011. She was surprised the amount of money her daughter had received was enough to affect her benefits.

When she approached a teacher, Albert was told that Jascina’s work had been volunteer work, she said.

Albert said she never received bank statements or W-2 forms regarding the work her daughter had performed. She said Sunday that she and her daughter planned to go to the bank soon to try to find out whether or not an account exists.

Nina Liakos said she remembered hearing about a bank account several years ago when she spoke to the school to see if it would be a good fit for her daughter.

“I knew there would be a bank account, and I knew the money didn’t belong to (my daughter),” she said.

She said she was told the money her daughter made would be pooled with other students’ earnings to be used for all of the students as a group.

Liakos asked that her daughter, who graduated in June, not be named.

After another Rock Terrace parent suggested she check if her daughter had an account, Liakos said, she went with her daughter to the bank a few weeks ago and found she had had an account, but it had been closed in September.

“I was only concerned that if she were earning money, that it might jeopardize her eligibility for SSI,” Liakos said, adding that the money had not affected those payments.

About $60 was withdrawn from the account when it was closed, she said. Based on several statements the bank gave her, there was never more than about $80 in the account, she said.

Other parents at the school don’t know whether accounts were made for their children.

Michele Folley said her 21-year-old daughter worked at CVS, Montgomery County Print Shop, and a Hilton hotel, often working 12 hours a week at the various jobs. She never received any compensation, Folley said.

Folley said she and other parents and advocates for the students wonder whether funds are owed to other Rock Terrace students and whether school officials might have misappropriated those funds.

“My question is, where is the money? Where did it all go?” Folley said.

Lyda Astrove, a Rockville-based lawyer and special-education advocate working with Rock Terrace parents, said Rock Terrace students had accounts opened at the Montgomery County Teachers Federal Credit Union. How many is unclear, she said.

“I don’t think we know yet how many possible kids this has affected,” Astrove said. She believes the school system should contact every student who has attended Rock Terrace since 2004.

“I don’t know who was taking kids to the bank,” Astrove said. The accounts go back to at least 2004, she said. The statements she has seen show an account opened that year by a student and Principal Thornton, she said.

“I can’t think of [a reason] why the principal would have opened a bank account with them,” she said.

Parents also say the allegations about misuse of funds echo questions parents have had about Rock Terrace School’s use of funds in the recent past.

An internal audit of the school by Montgomery County Public Schools auditor Roger Pisha from August 2008 to Sept. 30, 2011, found that “financial records had not been properly maintained” since the position of the school’s financial specialist was abolished in July of 2011.

The audit also found that the school had used funds to buy gift cards without naming recipients, and that in fiscal 2010, the school used almost $1,000 to buy a PlayStation, a Nintendo 3DS, and nine iPod shuffles, “with no documentation to indicate the disposition of these items.”

Staff Writer Daniel Leaderman contributed to this report

sjbsmith@gazette.net

lpowers@gazette.net

Due to an editing error, Ramon Korionoff’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

Also, an earlier version incorrectly referred to money that was in Tamara Clark’s son’s account. The $780 was withdrawn from the account, not left in the account.