Learning Monica Goldson, General Counsel Shauna Battle, Board of Education Chairman Segun Eubanks, Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Carolyn Boston and Board Member Curtis Valentine were among the speakers who sat on the dais.
“It’s the responsibility of adults to keep children safe,” said Council Chairman Derrick L. Davis (D), reading a statement on behalf of his colleagues. “The litany of issues that have recently come to light involving the administration of the county schools and student safety has been truly shocking, horrifying and frankly, absolutely unacceptable. The students, parents and education stakeholders of our county deserve better. All of us on this council, and the residents we serve, demand immediate correction action to fix the institutional problems that have become apparent.”
Last month, the Administration for Children and Families informed the education board that federal grant funding for its Head Start program would be terminated after a review — conducted by the administration on Feb. 22 — determined the county not only failed to timely correct deficiencies, but also to ensure that staff, consultants and volunteers abided by the program’s standards of conduct and that only positive methods of child guidance are used.
Reports of child abuse and neglect date back to Dec. 17 of last year when a teacher at the H. Winship Wheatley Early Childhood Center in Capitol Heights forced a 3-yearold child to mop up his own urine in front of other students during nap time. The teacher — who did not put the child in clean clothes — then used her cell phone to take pictures and sent one of them to the child’s parent with several text messages, indicating she felt the punishment was appropriate for the child after wetting his pants. The administration, according to the its review, ultimately concluded that the punishment and texts were meant to humiliate the child and are a form of emotional abuse.
A separate investigation — stemming from a June 15 incident at the James Ryder Randall Elementary School Head Start Center in Clinton — found that a teacher and assistant teacher forced two children to hold objects, folder boxes with books in them, over their heads because they misbehaved during nap time. The assistant teacher later confirmed that the children were initially asked to hold empty boxes for jumping on each other’s cots; however, the Head Start teacher added heavier items and more time to their punishment if the children moved or dropped the boxes, according to the review.
Another incident, which also happened in June, involved a 5-year-old child who wandered away from school grounds after she was left unsupervised for nearly an hour at the Langley Park McCormick Elementary School Head Start Center. Head Start staff eventually located the child at her home, which required her to cross at least one street to get there, the review noted.
“We have retrained all Head Start staff on reporting suspected abuse and providing positive discipline techniques prior to the opening of our Head Start program [on Aug. 29],” Maxwell said. “Shortly after receiving notice, we met with the Administration for Children and Families to discuss our options and establish priorities for any subsequent transition.”
During a private executive session Aug. 25, the board of education voted to voluntarily relinquish federal funding for Head Start, allowing the program to continue in the interim with no loss of funding. The administration then announced the following day that the Community Development Institute Head Start would serve as an interim grantee, according to a school system press release.
Maxwell said the board’s decision allowed the school system to begin a formal negotiation with the administration regarding the short- and longterm future of Head Start in the county.
“We have also examined our own practices to identify what corrective actions are needed to ensure that every Head Start student is cared for appropriately,” Maxwell said. “Our action plan contains multiple strategies that will be used throughout the school year to ensure reporting and training on positive student discipline continues not only for our Head Start students, but for all students served in our Early Childhood program.”
Based on the findings from the administration’s external report, Maxwell said he has terminated three employees and requested that the board of education terminate three additional employees.
“I know many of you are deeply concerned by media reports about ongoing safety issues in our schools,” he continued. “I want to assure you that I share that concern and I assure you we are working aggressively to address the root causes and dismiss individuals who disregard our students’ welfare, well-being and dignity. … We have retrained all employees on the requirements to report all cases of suspected child abuse and neglect to Child Protective Services which have resulted in an increase of new cases. … Moreover, I’m meeting with my colleagues in the Department of Social Services and the police department to identify some additional measures to help my team and I stay abreast of the number of cases being referred, how the cases are proceeding and to expedite the investigations.”
When it comes to ongoing safety issues, media reports claim that police are investigating new allegations of sexual abuse at James Ryder Randall after a school bus aide was accused of molesting several pre-kindergarten students with special needs. The incident, which was reported to Child Protective Services May 24 and to police June 20, resulted in the bus aide being placed on administrative leave along with his supervisor.
“We will continue to defer our investigations to law enforcement and Child Protective Services,” Maxwell said. “For cases that possibly affect the entire school, we are hosting parent meetings to address their concerns. For cases involving particular students, we are reaching out to parents directly to give them a clear point of contact for any questions or concerns.”
Maxwell said he has personally reached out to several parents in the past few weeks. He wants all parents to rest assured that his administration will continue to focus on improving reporting structures and systems so that any case related to student safety is responded to without delay, he said.
“Since this crisis began, we’ve been communicating regularly with the administration and have been getting regular updates — these updates have been part of both the public agenda and executive session briefings,” Eubanks said. “We’ve asked Dr. Maxwell and his administration to provide a full debriefing of the events listed in the Administration for Children and Families report as part of a broader discussion of Head Start in Prince George’s County, past, present and future. … That debriefing is complete, in writing, and will be made public and transparent.”
Last week, Eubanks said the education board invited representatives from the administration to share how they arrived at their decision to terminate federal funding as well as their recommendations for avoiding future occurrences. However, this request is still under consideration by the administration, he said.
According to Eubanks, board members met in an executive session Sept. 15 to discuss more recent reports related to employees being placed on administrative leave, including the new principal at Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary School, Brian Jones was recently cleared of an anonymous allegation school officials received by email. That is the same school where a former teacher’s aide, 22-year-old Deonte Carraway, worked before he was indicted on 270 charges of child abuse and pornography for allegedly filming children performing sex acts on each other.
Eubanks said the details from last week’s executive session cannot be shared due to personnel and legal issues.
“I will say we had a long and productive conversation and developed a plan for how we address more effective communication and collaboration between the board of education and administration. The board’s counsel and the administration’s general counsel are meeting to develop an implementation plan,” said Eubanks.
Maxwell said the increase in new allegations and reported misconduct within the school system may be a result of the reforms put in place by the Student Safety Task Force, which Maxwell established earlier this year in the wake of the sex abuse scandal at Judge Sylvania Woods. Maxwell also implemented a new Office of Monitoring, Accountability and Compliance after the task force released its findings and recommendations regarding current policies, procedures and practices.
“Crises in such a large system is often unavoidable,” Eubanks said. “But how we choose to respond to crises is well within our control. Responding with division and finger-pointing keeps us mired in controversy and builds even greater mistrust among parents and the community.”
“All 20,000 employees in the school system are going to have to hold themselves accountable,” Deputy Superintendent Davis said. “What we have not figured out just yet is how to change behaviors and mindsets of those who choose to do criminal acts within our school system.”
Moving forward, Davis said the safety and welfare of children enrolled in the school system is the county’s highest priority. The council will need to see hard evidence of the measures being taken to ensure these lapses will not happen again and that any systemic issues are comprehensively addressed, according to a press release from the council’s office.
“We hear daily from county residents who are expressing outrage and increased skepticism with regard to the county school operations and the way our students have been treated,” Davis said. “The members of this body share a deep concern, and individually and collectively, we believe more needs to be done to improve the school board’s administrative oversight and the school system’s managerial functions. Simply put, we must take better care of our children and our students.”