Montgomery County Public Schools’ plans to change its policy and practices on handling child abuse and neglect drew questions and support from county officials Monday.
The issue of child abuse in the school system was a focus in November when two principals said they should have told parents earlier about incidents at their schools. An allegation at Roberto Clemente Middle School in Germantown and another at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus involved district employees accused of inappropriately touching a student.
Afterward, Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said the district could improve its processes and procedures on handling child abuse.
Montgomery County Councilman Craig L. Rice said Monday that he found “a lot of question marks that were out there in terms of how to best go about handling these types of situations.”
“I would urge that we take our time and get it right,” he said during a County Council Education Committee meeting.
The meeting, he said, would focus on the future, not past events.
Andrew Zuckerman, the county school district’s chief of staff, shared a series of changes the school district is carrying out. They cover district policy and regulation, staff training, background checks, parent education and communication with school communities when allegations of child abuse arise.
The district formed a work group focused on child abuse and neglect, which Zuckerman said informed recommendations for the changes.
He said new school liaisons will know the district’s policy and regulation on abuse “inside and out” and help guide principals. The liaison would help coordinate responses to incidents, such as helping a student get counseling, and have strong relationships with county agencies, he said.
Rice said council members need to “weigh in” again on a proposed new policy.
The district aims to complete a new policy, with help from an outside expert, by the end of the school year, Zuckerman said.
Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, who voiced support for the work group’s efforts, said he anticipates more consistent responses to child abuse in the district, including who is notified when school staff suspect abuse.
He said after the meeting that new training will help teach school staff how to handle such situations.
“It’s just common sense that principals need to and school employees need to be able to determine from a victim what they’re dealing with, but you don’t want them complicating or interfering with a criminal investigation,” he said.
Assistant State’s Attorney Debbie Feinstein said the answer to one question hasn’t been finalized: What will happen to those who don’t properly report suspected abuse? That information will be in the updated policy, she said.
“I think that’s a significant piece that wasn’t there before,” said Feinstein, a work group member.
Workgroup member Jennifer Alvaro — whose past and current work includes education, prevention and treatment related to child abuse — said in an interview Monday that county officials should have taken time during the meeting to look at past incidents and invited a parent voice to participate, such as herself.
Alvaro said she’s glad the county is “finally moving forward,” but the same people who made past decisions and “created the problem” are making the changes.