School sys­tem took the right steps

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

There is no minc­ing words — this is a ter­ri­ble, hor­rific story to re­port about.

Last month, Charles County State’s At­tor­ney An­thony Cov­ing­ton (D) an­nounced a slew of child sex­ual abuse, child pornog­ra­phy and as­sault charges against a former teach­ing as­sis­tant at Ben­jamin Stod­dert Mid­dle School. Car­los Bell, 30, of Wal­dorf has been ac­cused of abus­ing at least 24 chil­dren in the county, some of the vic­tims were stu­dents un­der his su­per­vi­sion at Stod­dert. The charges stem from an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Bell al­legedly send­ing an in­ap­pro­pri­ate text mes­sage last De­cem­ber to a stu­dent at La Plata High School, where Bell was coach­ing the track team. Po­lice took Bell’s cell phone and com­puter equip­ment as part of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and sent them to the Mary­land State Po­lice Crime Lab for ex­am­i­na­tion. Bell was re­as­signed to the school’s cen­tral of­fice but was then ter­mi­nated in Jan­uary for fail­ing to show up for work. At the time, the school sys­tem sent a no­tice about the in­ci­dent to La Plata par­ents. It wasn’t un­til files and pho­tos of al­leged vic­tims were found on his de­vices months later by crime lab tech­ni­cians that Stod­dert par­ents were made aware of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and that he may have abused Stod­dert stu­dents. Bell ad­mit­ted to in­ves­ti­ga­tors that he is HIV pos­i­tive.

Cov­ing­ton up­dated the pub­lic on July 31 as to the sta­tus of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the nu­mer­ous ad­di­tional charges that were leveled against Bell, and im­plored the pub­lic to as­sist the in­ves­ti­ga­tors in iden­ti­fy­ing some of the vic­tims. That same day, Charles County Pub­lic Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Kim­berly Hill an­nounced that Stod­dert’s prin­ci­pal was re­as­signed and that an in­terim prin­ci­pal was put in place.

By all ac­counts, it looks as though the school sys­tem took all of the right steps in re­port­ing and as­sist­ing with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. That isn’t to mean that there wasn’t a stum­ble along the way.

In re­sponse to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the school sys­tem de­cided to hold par­ent in­for­ma­tion nights at Stod­dert in an ef­fort to reach out to con­cerned adults. It was a good idea. How­ever, the ex­e­cu­tion left a lot to be de­sired, and it was im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous. When par­ents ar­rived at the first in­for­ma­tion night July 28, they were told the for­mat would be break­out ses­sions where par­ents would be asked to tell school em­ploy­ees how they felt about the sit­u­a­tion. The prin­ci­pal read from a pre­pared state­ment about how the meet­ing would un­fold. The su­per­in­ten­dent and most mem­bers of the board of ed­u­ca­tion were not in at­ten­dance. Some par­ents were so livid that they got up and left, hav­ing come to the meet­ing to get an­swers, not to be asked how they felt about the sit­u­a­tion.

The school sys­tem re­al­ized it made a mis­take. Last week, Hill and five of the seven elected mem­bers of the board of ed­u­ca­tion at­tended the next par­ent in­for­ma­tion night and took full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the mis­step and ad­dressed crit­i­cism from those in at­ten­dance. Hill pledged to im­prove how the school sys­tem han­dles reach­ing out to par­ents and out­lined ways the school sys­tem can look to pre­vent in­ci­dents of this na­ture in the fu­ture.

We com­mend the su­per­in­ten­dent for tak­ing the blame for the ini­tial mis­take, but we also be­lieve, from our re­port­ing, that the su­per­in­ten­dent and the school sys­tem has done all they could to as­sist po­lice and the state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice in con­duct­ing their in­ves­ti­ga­tion and took the proper steps in re­mov­ing the sus­pect from be­ing around chil­dren as soon as the ini­tial al­le­ga­tions were re­ported. We hope that as this in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues, the school sys­tem will do all it can to help heal the wounds the fam­ily, fac­ulty and staff at Stod­dert in­curred. The school year is about to be­gin and it cer­tainly isn’t go­ing to feel like busi­ness as usual at Stod­dert for quite some time. Our hearts go out to all of those af­fected by this, par­tic­u­larly the chil­dren.

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