A Montgomery County Public Schools work group is aiming to improve the district’s regulations and processes around child abuse, including staff training, parent and student awareness, and communication when incidents occur.
The group’s goal is “to take a holistic view of this and come back with a more built-out and robust program” around the issue of child abuse, said Andrew Zuckerman, the school system’s chief of staff who is leading the group.
One work group member, however — whose past and current work includes education, prevention and treatment related to child abuse — said she thinks the group is not moving quickly enough or adequately addressing certain issues.
Other group members hail from the school system, county police, the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office and the county Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Services program, which includes Child Protective Services.
The group started this past spring, and soon will meet a few short-term goals, according to Zuckerman. One is to increase parent awareness by adding the topic of child abuse in the school system’s Parent Academy this winter.
In another part of its mission, the group will help the school system develop a new “training module” for staff, said Dana Tofig, a school system spokesman. That training will cover identification of possible child abuse incidents inside and outside school and staff members’ obligations on reporting suspected incidents.
Under state law, school staff must call state or county Child Protective Services if they suspect child abuse, according to Tofig. The school system also expects its staff to call police.
The hope is that many school staff will take the training by the end of the school year, Tofig said, and remaining staff will take it “in the coming months.”
Zuckerman said the work group is looking at immediate and longer-term changes to training.
An information packet recently given to principals includes several documents with inconsistent directions about who staff should contact when child abuse is suspected or alleged.
A couple of documents indicate that staff should contact Child Protective Services and, if sex abuse is suspected, county police. Another document says to contact both Child Protective Services and police “when allegations of inappropriate conduct occur.” A couple of documents indicate only Child Protective Services as a necessary contact, and two others says Child Welfare Services or county police should be contacted.
Asked about the packet, Zuckerman said the materials given to principals and teachers over the years need to be examined and “streamlined into a single process.” He said school system staff understand to contact both Child Protective Services and police.
In addition to its short-term targets, the group is expected to release its recommendations in the spring of 2015.
Zuckerman said the group is examining how to improve communication within schools and when staff communicate with their communities.
Two principals have recently apologized for not telling their respective school communities earlier about incidents involving people accused of inappropriately touching students. One incident happened at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown and another at Baker Middle School in Damascus.
Zuckerman said group members also are looking at a possible employee code of conduct and talking about the database the system started last school year to track reported allegations of inappropriate staff behavior with students.
Sheila Dennis, a group member, is an assessment administrator in the county’s Child Welfare Services program. The school system is doing “a good thing,” she said, by looking at the “total picture” and trying to be “more sensitive” to students’ and parents’ needs.
She said the group is trying to clarify the school system’s policy to help staff better understand when to call the authorities about observed or suspected child abuse and that they don’t need permission to do so.
Dennis said school staff are “very aware of the fact that they need to make that call.” The county health department receives calls “all the time” from school staff making a report.
Group member Jennifer Alvaro — who teaches child abuse prevention programs — called the work group “a complete farce” and said she sees multiple problems in the system’s approach to child abuse.
One mistake the group has made, she said, is not discussing past or recent specific incidents, including those at Clemente and Baker middle schools.
“If you’re going to revamp the entire school system approach to preventing the sexual abuse of its students, how can you do that without looking at specific incidents?” she said.
Alvaro said the district is unnecessarily delaying certain actions that could help address the issue. The school system needs to immediately post more clearly visible information on child abuse on its website and develop an employee code of conduct for a consistent definition of inappropriate behavior, she said.
The packet recently given to principals indicates that the system is providing contradictory directions, Alvaro said. She said she doesn’t understand why some staff don’t know when to report an incident, which some in the work group raised.
The school district has shown it is “unwilling or uncapable” of making necessary changes, she said, and needs to hire an outside agency to investigate and set up policies and procedures for the district regarding child abuse.
“Their absolute refusal to be transparent about policies and procedures, their refusal to post an employee code of conduct, their refusal to be open with parents about the magnitude and extent of the problem is keeping children in danger,” she said.